VISEGRAD: Macron plays divide and rule in Central Europe

VISEGRAD: Macron plays divide and rule in Central Europe
Macron appears to have given up hope of winning over the rightwing populists of Poland and Hungary and has consigned them to the margins of Europe. / Photo: CC
By Robert Anderson in Prague August 24, 2017

French President Emmanuel Macron has won the backing of the Czech, Slovak and Austrian premiers for his drive to reform the EU’s rules on posted workers – employees sent by their employer to carry out a service in another EU member state.

Macron, who met in Salzburg on August 24 with the Slavkov Triangle leaders on his first Central European tour since his election, argues the way companies send lower paid Eastern European workers temporarily to Western European countries, evading local collective bargaining wage rates and social contributions, is one of the main factors driving populism and Euroscepticism.

“The single European market and the free movement of workers is not meant to create a race to the bottom in terms of social regulations,” Macron told reporters. “The directive as it stands is a betrayal of the fundamental spirit of the European Union. The objective of the single market is not to favour countries that have the least social rights. We see that this feeds populism and erodes confidence in the EU.”

The minimum wage in France is about €1,480 a month, in Poland it’s about €450, giving multinational companies a clear incentive to import cheap labour, at the expense of domestic firms and workers.

Macron has argued that the EU must do more to protect workers and that member states must not “benefit from social and fiscal differences within the EU that are simultaneously going against every principle of the Union”.

The Visegrad Group (V4) of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary has previously been opposed to any attempt to tighten the rules on posted workers, seeing it as a protectionist move that will harm their workers. But the Social Democrat Czech and Slovak premiers have also highlighted their countries’ continuing wage gap with Western Europe, and argue pushing up wages will help quell the populism and Euroscepticism they face. They are sympathetic to the idea of workers being paid the same rate for the same job in the same place, regardless of wherever they come from.

“The posted workers' directive solves a certain problem but we have to also solve the fundamental issue, which is the huge differences in living standards in individual parts of the EU,” Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka told a joint news conference after the meeting. “For the Czech Republic, I can say we are prepared work with all our partners on a technical level to agree an adjustment of the posted workers directive so that we can overcome the split in the EU.” 

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was even more positive. “We are very close to agreement. We see October 2017 as a realistic date by which we could reach an agreement,” he said. “We, and I think the Czech prime minister agrees, will make a maximum effort so that the V4 agrees on this issue.”

Estonia, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, is due to table new proposals on posted workers in September, ahead of a EU summit in October. Macron wants the proposal to include policing the rules more tightly, and allowing workers to be sent abroad only for 12 months rather than 24, something that the Central European leaders have not yet signed up to.

In 2014, there were almost 2m posted workers in the EU, according to commission data, with 43% of them in the construction sector. More than 50% of posted workers go to Germany, France and Belgium.

By only meeting the Czech and Slovak premiers, and shunning the populist leaders of Poland and Hungary, Macron seems to have widened the existing split inside the Visegrad Group and given his posted workers reform a better hope of being achieved. Macron will continue his tour by meeting Romanian leaders on August 24 and visiting Bulgaria the next day.

Macron is also hoping to enlist the new member states of Central and Eastern Europe into his wider plans to revitalise the European Union to make it more resilient to populism. This could include moving towards a “multi-speed Europe”, enabling some states to move ahead to enhance their co-operation.

France has had a troubled relationship with Central Europe since the collapse of communism, seeing it as a region dominated by Germany and the US, and a threat to its domestic and foreign policy interests. Macron himself has criticised the way Central Europe accepted EU money but rejected its values, particularly by refusing to accept migrant quotas, saying in June: “Europe is not a supermarket. Europe is a shared destiny”.

But he now appears to see an opportunity to rebuild France’s historic influence in the region and find some allies there for his European plans. At the same time, by shunning Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s de facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński, he appears to have given up hope of winning the rightwing populists over and has consigned them to the margins of Europe.

While the V4 as a whole remains wary about any drive towards a multi-speed Europe, fearing they will be left on the periphery, the Czech and Slovak Social Democrats are attracted by the idea of joining any inner core.

Over recent months, Fico has backpedalled on his vehement opposition to migrant quotas, and has declared that Slovakia’s place is in any inner core, given that it is already a member of the Eurozone.

“The fundamentals of my policy are being close to the core, close to France, to Germany,” he said in mid-August. He added that he is “very much interested in regional cooperation within the Visegrad Four, but Slovakia’s vital interest is the EU”.

Czech PM Sobotka’s policy has been more erratic because he is facing a general election in October that opinion polls show he is likely to lose heavily. The Czech Social Democrats favour adoption of the euro, but have done little to make the public case for it and it remains very unpopular. Nevertheless, this month the government has indicated it wants to be given observer status in the Eurogroup (a forum for eurozone finance ministers) if the institution's powers are enhanced in future reforms.

However, the government has also virtually courted EU infringement proceedings by refusing to accept even the token amount of migrants that Slovakia agreed to host. But joining Hungary and Poland in the EU “sin bin” seems to have done little to improve the Social Democrats’ opinion polls rating.

Their coalition partners, the populist Ano party, led by billionaire Andrej Babis, oppose euro adoption and have prevented the government moving forward on the issue. Babis also firmly opposes migrant quotas and, if he wins the election, as polls indicate, he could forge closer links with the populist leaders of Hungary and Poland, leaving the Czech Republic on the periphery of Europe.

“The Czechs remain the odd man out – not in love with illiberal democracy (at least not yet until the October election), but also not willing to move decisively forward with deeper European integration,” former state secretary for European affairs Tomas Prouza wrote in an opinion piece for Eurobserver this month.