Since the EU expanded eastwards to take in 10 new countries in 2004, hundreds of thousands of migrants from former communist states have flocked to Britain in search of work.
Almost everyone agrees it has been a success, with hardworking immigrants filling gaps in the British economy. Yet British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government is hinting strongly that it will close the door when Romania and Bulgaria join the union next year, for fear a new wave of migrants will exceed the available jobs.
"There are economic benefits from controlled immigration, but if it's too much too fast it puts strains on public services in some areas,'' said Damian Green, immigration spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party, who has led calls for new restrictions.
"Having had this very large number come in over the past few years, it would be unwise to risk something similar happening again so soon.'' he said.
The Guardian newspaper reported on Thursday that the government planned to introduce work permits for migrants from Romania and Bulgaria, requiring them to demonstrate they had the skills to fill labor-market shortages.
The government would not comment on the report. A Home Office spokeswoman said officials would not decide on rules for Romanians and Bulgarians until the European Commission meets next month to confirm an accession date for the two countries.
The spokeswoman, speaking on the government's customary condition of anonymity, said the decision "will be based on objective factors in the interest of the British economy, including an evaluation of the United Kingdom's labor market, the impact of the previous enlargement in 2004 and the position of other EU member states."
The influx of eastern Europeans has far outstripped government estimates. Before 2004, officials predicted that between 5,000 and 13,000 people from the new EU member states would come to work in Britain each year. Figures released this month showed that 427,000 have registered to work in the last two years, more than half of them from Poland.
The change is visible across Britain. Polish plumbers, construction workers, farm hands and sales clerks are now a strong presence in British towns and cities, as are eastern European grocery stores, newspapers and magazines.
So far, the mass migration has caused few social problems. Employers' group the Confederation of British Industry says 97 percent of the new migrants are in full-time employment, filling gaps in the British labor market, especially in hospitality, catering, agriculture and food processing. The majority are young and single, and many will leave again within a few years.
However, some local authorities say they are beginning to feel pressure from the new immigrants.
The council in Hammersmith, a west London borough that is home to many Poles, says the huge influx is putting pressure on garbage collection, libraries and schools, and this week called for more funding to meet the demand.
The government has no official estimate of how many Romanians and Bulgarians might come to Britain, although a Home Office paper leaked last month put the number at between 60,000 and 140,000 in the first year.
The British debate is being closely followed in Romania -- population 22 million -- and 8 million-strong Bulgaria, which will be the EU's poorest countries when they join. Many commentators argue that restricting the free movement of labor will turn Bulgarians and Romanians into "second-class'' Europeans.
Romanian President Traian Basescu threatened in a recent interview to impose retaliatory labor restrictions on countries that decide to limit access to Romanians.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin said earlier this week that he hoped "reason will prevail" in the debate.
Under EU rules, citizens from all member nations should be allowed to work wherever they like within the bloc. However, only Britain, Sweden and Ireland opened their labor markets immediately after the 2004 EU enlargement. All members must remove the restrictions by 2011.
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