European Union tries to calm fears of Bulgarian, Romanian exodus

BRUSSELS (REUTERS) - The European Union (EU) sought to calm fears in countries like Britain, France and Germany that they face a mass influx of Romanians and Bulgarians following the lifting of restrictions on Wednesday, a change that risks fuelling anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.

From Jan 1, seven years after their countries joined the EU, Bulgarians and Romanians are free to live and work anywhere in the 28-nation bloc without applying for work permits.

The long-planned change has caused alarm in wealthier EU countries, where right-wing politicians and media are telling people to brace for a flood of southern Europeans who will take jobs from locals, strain public services and scrounge off the welfare state.

"Benefits Britain Here We Come! Fears as migrant flood begins," said the tabloid Daily Express in a front-page headline on Wednesday.

With continent-wide elections to the European Parliament due in May, the scare about 'benefit tourism' provides ammunition for right-wing parties like France's National Front, the Dutch Freedom Party and Britain's UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Seeking to calm the debate, EU Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor said there were already more than 3 million Bulgarians and Romanians living in other EU states, and ending all restrictions was unlikely to lead to any major increase.

"I firmly believe that restricting the free movement of European workers is not the answer to high unemployment or a solution to the crisis," he said, referring to the EU's lingering economic malaise in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown.