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Dutch minister's call for EU migration reform reflects eurosceptic mood

By Thomas Escritt

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Dutch deputy premier has called for the European Union to deal with the "negative consequences" of unprecedented levels of labor migration within the bloc, calling for a new common approach to one of the EU's most cherished principles.

Lodewijk Asscher, who is also social affairs minister, wrote in De Volkskrant newspaper on Saturday that migration from the poorer, newer entrants to the 28-member European Union was crowding some western Europeans out of the labor market.

"If we want to continue to profit from the benefits of free movement, then we have to be ready to tackle the negative side-effects, from crowding out to the exploitation (of immigrants)," he said in the article, which was co-signed by David Goodhart, a British campaigner for restrictions on immigration.

His comments echo similar remarks by senior British politicians, including Prime Minister David Cameron. Britain and the Netherlands have also both called for Brussels to hand back some of its decision-making powers to sovereign governments, with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte saying in June that he wanted to see "a smaller, leaner and meaner Europe".

Asscher stopped short of calling for restrictions on free movement of labor, which would require a new treaty. He argued for rules to punish companies that exploit immigrant labor, both to protect immigrants and prevent companies that stuck to the rules from being priced out of the market.

He gave few details, but said the debate over labor migration should be "high on the agenda" in Brussels.

In raising questions about the free movement of labor, one of the most fundamental principles underlying the European Union, Asscher is reflecting a growing eurosceptic mood in the Netherlands.

Euroscepticism has been aggravated by a weak Dutch economy, which is still in recession while the rest of the euro zone is returning to growth. Unemployment in the Netherlands hit a record high of 8.7 percent in July.

Rutte's business-friendly Liberal Party and Asscher's Labor Party, its coalition partner, have both taken a beating in polls since being elected on a broadly pro-European agenda last September. Voters have flocked to eurosceptic parties like the Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, and the Socialist Party.

"If you see which part of the population is most disappointed in the government, it's especially people with little and lower education and little and lower incomes," said Maurice De Hond, a pollster.

"They are becoming unemployed because of competition from east European immigrants."

Wilders in particular has long been a critic of large-scale immigration from eastern Europe, saying it deprives Dutch workers of jobs, and his message has helped propel his party to the top of the polls.

(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Susan Fenton)

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