PARIS/WARSAW (Reuters) – While Britain toils over its messy
divorce with the European Union, France’s president Emmanuel
Macron is embarking on a drive to deepen the economic integration
of a bloc he says needs to be more protective of its citizens.
The French leader this week embarks on a three-day tour of
central and eastern Europe, where he will seek to win backers for
his push to tighten labor rules over ‘posted’ workers, a
sensitive issue that has exacerbated an east-west rift.
Days later, euro zone reforms, defense cooperation and
immigration will be in focus when Macron hosts the leaders of
Germany, Spain and Italy for talks, as he seeks to enhance
France’s leadership in Europe.
Paris has long complained that central and eastern Europe gains
an unfair advantage from the “social dumping” of cheap labor,
arguing the posting of low-paid workers hurts local jobs and
erodes labor protections in higher-wage member states.
Although posted workers make up less than 1 percent of the EU
workforce, with many employed in the haulage and construction
sectors, the issue has deepened a divide between the poor east
and rich west.
Macron will visit Romania, Bulgaria and Austria, where he will
also meet the leaders of Czech Republic and Slovakia, but is
skipping Hungary and Poland, whose right-wing governments he has
accused of spurning the bloc’s values.
An Elysee Palace source said Macron was visiting countries who
were “the most attached to their European anchoring”.
The source dismissed suggestions that Macron is seeking to drive
a wedge between central and eastern European countries staunchly
opposed to reform and those that see scope for compromise.
“This is not about dividing in order to better rule,” the source
said in a briefing to reporters earlier this month.
Macron’s election win has re-energized the EU’s Franco-German
axis but in Poland and Hungary it has fanned fears of a
“multi-speed” Europe that could mean reduced influence, financial
support and economic competitiveness.
The 39-year-old leader will find a sympathetic ear in Austria,
which borders four eastern European countries and where the
ruling Social Democrats say an influx of workers from the east is
weighing on wages.
The posted workers directive permits European companies to send
employees to other EU states on contracts under which they only
have to guarantee the minimum wage of the host country.
Macron has said a European Commission proposal that posted
workers’ pay packets should include benefits in line with host
country regulations and that their contracts be limited to two
years does not go far enough.
Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — known
together as the Visegrad four — say the proposals go too far.
They argue they should be allowed to compete on lower prices to
catch up after decades of communist stagnation.
Estonia, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is due to
table a new proposal in September.
Poland has accused Macron of double standards by advocating a
closer Europe while seeking to erode competition in the single
market. Two sources in the Polish government said it had tried to
invite Macron to Warsaw as part of his trip.
“But we didn’t see much willingness,” said one of the sources.
Poland’s Deputy Infrastructure Minister Justyna Skrzydlo told
Reuters the Warsaw government trusted in the “continued unity and
solidarity of the Central Europe countries”.
“We believe that Central European states highlight
competitiveness in the European economy,” she said. “We are
utterly confident that it will endure in the future.”
Other countries have shown signs of being open to compromise and
aligning themselves with an eventual new EU proposal.
“I am very much interested in regional cooperation within the
Visegrad four, but Slovakia’s vital interest is the EU,” Slovak
Prime Minister Robert Fico.
Beyond the issue of posted workers, Macron is likely to be on a
charm offensive to drum up support for proposed wider reforms to
the European Union that include deeper defense cooperation,
fiscal harmonization and a common budget for the euro zone.
His advisors say French diplomacy has long neglected central
“He wants to get started on Europe. The sooner he starts building
these relationships, the more political capital he will
accumulate to use at a later stage,” said Teneo Intelligence
analyst Antonio Barroso.