CEE member states could hold key to averting Brexit

CEE member states could hold key to averting Brexit
Visegrad prime ministers are normally natural UK allies.
By bne IntelliNews February 4, 2016

UK Prime Minister David Cameron arrives in Warsaw on February 5 looking to seal a deal seen as key to keeping his country inside the EU.

A compromise draft deal between Brussels and London was unveiled on February 2. The UK premier insists it will deliver the "substantial change" in the European bloc's relations with member states that he has been chasing ahead of a referendum – perhaps as early as June – on whether the country should remain within the EU.

Facing predictable criticism from the eurosceptic media at home, Cameron has said there is "detail to be worked on" before a crunch EU summit on 18-19 February. However, it's not just at home he has to sell the deal; the EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe, from whence millions have relocated to Britain, need persuading to support the watered down "emergency brake" on migrant benefits.

The CEE member states have faced several tests of their commitment as fully fledged responsible member states of the EU recently. For the most part, they've failed as a group to join the mainstream western European responses to the crises over migrants, Greece and Ukraine, exhibiting instead a preference for short term and provincial populism to win applause from their domestic audience. They now stand at the centre of another potential crisis for the bloc.

Natural allies

The Central European states are a natural ally for the UK. London's broadly sceptical view of the EU is close to their own and they're happy to have a major western European member state in their corner. The Baltics, although more enthusiastic towards the European project, also share London's general opposition to domination of the bloc by the German-French axis.

The compromise, which would mean benefits for EU workers phased in over four years, rather than a full halt for the period as previously pushed by the UK, appears to have persuaded many in CEE to play ball. However, the details are still being debated ahead of the summit, and the likes of Poland and Hungary could yet put up a fight.

The Czechs have led the support for Cameron. State Secretary for European Affairs Tomas Prouza suggested the benefits brake is "acceptable" and blessed other parts of the deal, especially the move to allow non-members to take part in Eurozone decision making. There are also reports that London has, in return, agreed to lift its objections to the sale by Prague of trainer jets to Iraq.

At the same time, now surrounded by eurosceptic populists since PiS took power in November, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka is pushing hard to cement an image in Brussels as the most reasonable and responsible leader in the region. Although expressing strong reservations, Prague has toed the EU - or German - line on issues such as migrant quotas, whilst regional peers exploded in fury.

Estonia led the support for the compromise in the Baltics. Prime Minister Taavi Roivas told Bloomberg: “The approach that’s now on the table, stating that free movement of people shouldn’t be restricted and not aiming to set any EU quotas on that, is the logical direction." It’s possible to find a “reasonable compromise” regarding the timing, conditions and size of benefits, he added.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius was only slightly less effusive. He called the proposal “positive,” but warned that the migration and benefits solution must not "smell of discrimination".

Hungary, however, was less enthusiastic. While Budapest supports the UK's effort to stem "abuse" of its social system, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said, it opposes any discrimination in benefits among workers hailing form the EU.

Poland is the main obstacle. With hundreds of thousands of Poles having moved to the UK in recent years, it’s a tough sell for the nationalist and populist Law & Justice (PiS). Little wonder then that Cameron heads to Warsaw for the second time in as many months on February 5.

The benefits brake compromise was openly labelled “discrimination” by Europe Minister Konrad Szymanski. “The UK’s first three demands are acceptable,” he said. “The fourth one is the problem."

Yet even Warsaw is making noises of concession, suggesting the government is ready to pitch in if Cameron and the EU can offer Poland enough in return to spin the move favourably. Warsaw will likely have demands for more support on its efforts to persuade Nato to beef up its Polish presence on the agenda. PiS would also welcome help in its ongoing fight with Brussels over recent moves to consolidate power.


The risk remains that the Brexit crisis could split the Visegrad Four (V4) yet again, signalling a continued slide into irrelevance for the loose regional club. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia simply can't seem to hold the V4 together in the face of almost constant EU crisis and pressure from the likes of the US, Russia and Germany. It's only the four's xenophobic rejection of migrants - who don't want to go to V4 anyway - that has united them in recent months. Otherwise they have argued vociferously over Ukraine and Russia, and Germany's plan to help Moscow expand the Nord Stream gas pipeline

That, of course, is the trouble with populists and pragmatists, they're left blowing in the wind. Strategic demands are trumped nearly every time by domestic political manoevuring and the pressure applied by the region's powerful local business interests.

Visegrad's leaders understand the domestic pressures on the UK prime minister, and are keen to help him secure the changes that would keep the UK in the bloc. But at the same time, they have their own pressures at home, and none more so than the issue of freedom of movement and labour. Likewise, the four Visegrad states have reacted with fury to the threat hanging over the Schengen zone, which is seen as a key benefit that allows their workers and companies to trade freely across borders with the likes of Germany, whose supply chain drives a huge chunk of their economies.

Cameron's need to secure some significant brake on benefits to EU citizens is therefore a rare sticking point amongst countries that share similar views - if not realities - on immigration, power sharing and potential federalisation. However, with hundreds of thousands of Poles and others having moved to the UK since 2004, it's a troublesome one.

The danger is that the UK will end up with a deal that satisfies no one, least of all Visegrad. That then threatens to deepen the disillusionment in the region with the European club and the promises it was meant to fulfill in 2004.