FEAR OF FOREIGNERS

Agnieszka Zawadka, 24, can be forgiven for clinging to her European dream. For her and thousands of young Poles, May 1 had loomed as a golden arch leading to a hope-filled future. That's the day Poland and nine other countries join the European Union. Earning about 5,000 euro a year as the office manager of an ad agency in Warsaw, and with a master's degree in finance, Zawadka hoped to pursue a banking career in Paris. But France says she has to wait at least two years. "One year ago it seemed quite possible to migrate and seek new challenges," she says. Instead, all she hears these days is the sound of doors slamming shut across Western Europe.

From Lisbon to Stockholm, country after country among the 15 current EU members have erected barriers against citizens of incoming states who want to work in the richer West. The latest is Britain, which announced last week that it would set up a "residency test" to (as one tabloid put it) prevent "benefit scroungers [from] flooding the country." Only Ireland has not imposed any restrictions. Pro-Europeans are appalled. "East Europeans need to see the benefits of being part of the EU," says Heather Grabbe of the Centre for European Reform in London. "To tell them they can't be part of the single market is a slap in the face. It says, 'You're the great unwashed'."

That puts the incoming nations of Central and Eastern Europe in a double bind. Within these eight countries, citizens will be able to work as if in a single labor market. So the relatively more developed economies of, say, Hungary and the Czech Republic may see an influx of migrants from less-well-off Lithuania and Slovakia. At the same time, the EU's border will shift several hundred miles further east. New neighbors will include Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Once a buffer zone between the EU and the former Soviet Union, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary will be gateways to the world's largest economic market. As such, they will have to cope with a rise in illegal immigration on their eastern flank.

No wonder Agnieszka Zawadka feels let down. Expansion was sold partly on the premise that citizens of the New Member States (NMS) would, after accession, have the same rights and opportunities as the EU 15. Cyprus and Malta, the other two incoming members, will get them on May 1--but not Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. Just two weeks ago Peter Balazs, Hungary's commissioner-to-be to the EU, caused a stir when he said in an interview that since the West had closed its doors, countries like Hungary, with an unemployment rate of only 5 percent, might confront an "invasion... by foreigners," meaning fellow NMS job seekers.

Balazs subsequently retracted his remarks, but many share his concern. As current EU members erect barriers, says Nannette Ripmeester, director of a labor-market consultancy in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, newcomers have started saying, "Hey, wait. Not all of us have bad economies and high unemployment. We're also facing immigration problems." In Slovenia, which has a relatively robust economy, a senior official within the Ministry of Labor, Family and Social Affairs says, "We wish to be open, but we will protect our labor market if necessary." The Czech and Slovak governments confirm that they, too, are considering safeguards. "We have to protect Czech workers, especially when unemployment is rising," says Katerina Prejdova, spokesperson for the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

Such fears can get out of hand. The danger, says Grabbe, comes when reasonable concerns--such as those being debated in Britain--become overblown to the point of phobia, as may be happening in the Netherlands. Two separate immigration dramas unfolded there last week. First, the government announced that it would restrict the number of NMS immigrants to 22,000 a year. Next, Parliament passed a law requiring the expulsion of 26,000 foreign asylum seekers. A small, crowded country of 16 million, the Netherlands is one of Europe's most diverse societies. A recent survey (which does not include as many as 200,000 illegal immigrants) found 341,000 Turks, 295,000 Moroccans, 42,000 Iraqis, 39,000 Chinese, 34,000 Afghans, 18,000 Indians and 18,000 Ghanaians, all of whom had sought and received asylum.

These kinds of numbers, and the prospect of more from Central and Eastern Europe, are testing the Netherlands's fabled tolerance. On the one hand, mainstream Dutch politicians have all but pronounced the Dutch experiment in multiculturalism to be a failure. On the other, civil libertarians are alarmed. A former cabinet minister, Jan Pronk, last week criticized Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, saying her expulsion measures amounted to "deportation." Furious, she summoned Pronk for a meeting. She objected to his choice of words, she told him, because "deportation" reminded her of the Nazis' consignment of 100,000 Dutch Jews to the Auschwitz and Sobibor death camps. "But that's exactly what it is!" exclaimed Pronk. Verdonk then threw him out of her office.

Similar arguments are taking place to the East. In the industrial Czech border town of Ostrava, Mayor Ales Zednik worries that "foreigners" who won't be allowed to work in Western Europe--mainly Poles and Slovaks--will take steelworkers' jobs away from Czechs. Zoltan Farkas, business editor of the magazine HVG in Budapest, counters that the market will sort things out. Automaker Peugeot Citroen chose to build a plant in neighboring Slovakia because there simply aren't enough blue-collar workers in Hungary. His country needs migrant workers, he says. An "open and legal labor market" can provide them.

The good news is that May 1 represents a step toward that, despite the scary headlines and overheated rhetoric. Morten Ravn, an economist at the London Business School, believes that eventually Europeans will learn the lesson of the United States, where "migrants come with skills and help the economy grow." Long term, the gains from immigrants' hard work, ideas and technology will outweigh any short-term disadvantages, predicts Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute in London.

Sooner or later, the "big bang" of 2004 will be history. The debate over EU enlargement will move on to Romania, Bulgaria and, most contentiously, Turkey--a Muslim country larger than France and more populous than Britain. For now, though, Hungary's Peter Balazs is philosophical. "People's lives don't change just because of a treaty," he says. May 1 will be a "nice wedding," he adds, "then life goes on as before." Perhaps so. But that will leave Agnieszka Zawadka wondering just what it is she married into.