UK demands for EU reform provoke fury in Visegrad

By bne IntelliNews November 11, 2015

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The Visegrad states raised a chorus of objection on November 10 as the UK prime minister demanded his country's welfare system be allowed to discriminate between EU citizens.

The four Central European states are seen as natural allies of the Euro-sceptic UK government. PM David Cameron's push to demand EU reform is in line with views across the region, but immigration from the east end of the EU is a hot potato in Britain, preventing Visegrad from supporting the UK.

Cameron has committed to hold a referendum on the UK's EU membership. He has pledged to change the UK's relations and agreements with Brussels, to keep the country in the club.

In a speech opening the full campaign to avert a Brexit, the PM outlined four key demands. The most contentious is for the UK to have the right to restrict welfare benefits for those from other EU states for four years. Current EU rules stipulate citizens of all countries in the bloc should be treated equally.

EU and UK government lawyers agreed that the move would be discriminatory, untenable and highly unlikely to pass, The Guardian reports. “I have strong doubts about the legality,” said Martin Schulz, the European parliament president.

However, the reaction from across the EU was split. To the west, the likes of Germany - working hard to avoid a Brexit - suggested a compromise could be found. Chancellor Angela Merkel said a "deal" can be found.

The mood was very different further east, however. With hundreds of thousands of their citizens in the UK, the Visegrad states - with the notable exception of Hungary - reacted with fury.

Any changes to the free movement of labour in the EU would cause a “very serious problem” for the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said. “The right to live and work anywhere in the EU is absolutely fundamental to us given our historical experience”, Sobotka said in a statement.

Slovakia also joined in the criticism, saying the issue is highly sensitive in Bratislava. “We cannot create two categories of EU citizens,” said Peter Javorcik, Slovakia’s ambassador to the EU.

There has been much debate over whether Poland's incoming populist PiS government would offer Cameron support in his mission to reform member state relations with Brussels. However, with the country having huge numbers of its citizens in the country, it was clearly riled by the proposal over benefits.

Even UK government officials knew it was beyond the pale for Warsaw. “A very conservative Polish prime minister will probably not agree to this. Poland is the most mobile country in Europe,” one noted.

Poland's incoming Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, said Cameron’s proposal to divide people according to their nationality is against the free movement of labour and the EU treaty. “It would be humiliating”, Waszczykowski told The Daily Telegraph. “Also, if this was allowed, other countries might follow suit and place their own restrictions”.

Hungary, however, was out of step with its Visegrad peers. Budapest made no open attack on the UK proposals. Hungarian diplomatic sources claimed Budapest’s muted reaction reflects the strength of the relationship between Cameron and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has made much of his career by bashing Brussels.

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