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Detour d’Europe

What the French president’s recent visit to Central and Eastern Europe reveals about his EU reform agenda.

Emmanuel Macron has gone East to pursue reforms of European labor laws, but his real target was his audience at home. This could cause headaches, especially in Berlin.

© REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

In late August, French President Emmanuel Macron embarked on a diplomatic tour through Central and Eastern Europe. The timing of the trip was curious, taking place a week before he was to unveil proposals to transform France’s rigid labor market – seen as the first big test of his presidency – and amidst a rapid decline in popularity; only months after his landslide presidential victory, one poll has shown Macron’s approval ratings as low as 36 percent, and several reports have confirmed that the president’s team has been busy figuring out how to correct course.

Macron’s destinations, however, were by no means random. He included Austria, Romania, and Bulgaria in his itinerary, three countries that will hold rotating six-month EU presidencies in 2018 and 2019, which will be crucial for Macron’s ambitious EU reform plans. As part of his well-choreographed program, the French president also met leaders of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which are now constructive members of the so-called Visegrad Group (or V4). The other half of this grouping is the illiberal pair of Poland and Hungary, which Macron criticizes for being at odds with the EU’s democratic values and treating the Union like a “supermarket”.

What made Macron head east at such a sensitive moment? And what have we learned about President Macron’s approach to Central and Eastern Europe?

Improving Access

According to the Agence France-Presse, the whole tour was meant to improve French access to the East. Minister of European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau acknowledged that Paris has ignored Eastern Europe in the past, and cast President Macron’s tour as a signal that this is going to change. “Every European state has its place and its importance in the ongoing discussion on European reform,” she told Euractiv. Indeed, if we recall Macron’s recent meeting with the V4 prime ministers on the margins of his first European Council in June 2017, Macron began his term with two meetings with Central and Eastern European leaders. In an August 26 editorial, the Financial Times pointed out that the two major objectives of Macron’s presidency, the re-invigoration of France’s economy and the relaunching of the EU, are intertwined. In order to secure German support for closer EU integration, Macron must deliver domestic economic reform and win the French people’s support for unpopular changes. He must demonstrate that he is changing the way the EU works. And the market-oriented newest EU member states with low wages and open economies are set to oppose Macron’s initiative to make EU labor rules more restrictive because it would go against the interests of their citizens.

Thus the main short-term goal of his diplomatic tour was preparing the ground for changes in the EU directive on “posted workers.” Macron pledged to protect French laborers against “social dumping” from poorer EU member states in his election campaign, and now needs successful resolution of this issue at the EU October summit.

Playing On Regional Differences

At the beginning of his tour, Macron met with Austrian Primer Minister Kern, an ally on the revision of the EU’s “posted workers” directive. They were subsequently joined by Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, social democrats like Kern, and together revived a new regional format called the Slavkov Three.

The new French president was playing on emerging regional differences in Central Europe. By co-opting the more pragmatic half of the Visegrad group, which has quite effectively opposed Western European countries in some EU initiatives, especially migration, Macron was also shunning the other, more hardline Visegrad countries – Poland and Hungary – which are less inclined to compromise on the directive, not least because the Polish in particular are much more affected than the Czechs and Slovaks. There were 450,000 Polish “posted worker” in 2015, almost a quarter of EU total.

A “posted worker” is an employee sent by their employer to provide a service in another EU member state on a temporary basis. It allows a service provider to win a contract in another country and send its employees there to carry out the contract, while continuing to pay their benefits and taxes in their own country for a period of up to two years. Approved in 1996, this measure has only recently become divisive among EU member states. Overall, posted workers represent less than 1 percent of the total EU workforce; but since the Brexit referendum, in which intra-EU migration became an explosive issue, politicians in countries like France and Austria have been giving it more attention.

The EU Commission has tried to stay ahead of the game as well, and in March 2017 presented proposals under which “posted workers” would be subject to pay and working conditions equal to those of local workers. Macron declared himself not satisfied with these new proposals, however; he wanted to make them even more restrictive and protectionist. In any case, he needed to pick a political fight at the EU level to sell it at home. A final decision should be formally made at the meeting of EU’s labor ministers in October, which then needs approval by the European Council and the European Parliament. “We are very close to an agreement. We see October 2017 as a realistic date,” Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico told a joint news conference after the meeting. Romanian and Bulgarian leaders late added approving noises.

As Natalie Nougayrede, a former editor-in-chief of Le Monde, pointed out in The Guardian, Macron took to battling with Eastern Europe to show he is on the side of French workers, not EU technocrats. But the degree of manipulation wasn’t hard to detect: in a candid moment at a press conference in Salzburg, he almost admitted as much, saying, “France’s problems have nothing to do with posted workers.”

The Sirens of Populism

Essentially, President Macron is being tempted by the very sirens of populism against which he so admirably mobilized large segments of French society in the recent election. He seems to be using this region as a backdrop for his domestic agenda, and to rekindle the “Polish plumber” bogeyman – however, the same trope played a part in French voters’ rejection of an EU constitution project in 2005, and it could now backfire as the EU moves toward deeper cooperation.

Among the Visegrad countries, eurozone member Slovakia is the most willing to move along. Primer Minister Robert Fico has already signaled his support for German-French initiatives beefing up Europe’s common currency.  In contrast, the Czechs, who are not in the euro, will have parliamentary elections in less than two months, which could result in a euroskeptic government in Prague. Before meeting Macron, Czech Prime Minister Sobotka said that he would push the French president to ask French investors to raise the salaries they offered in the Czech Republic to avoid profiting from another kind of “social dumping.” The issue of “posted workers” is thus two-sided, and shows how painfully and slowly the process of convergence between the EU’s East and West has been moving. As Martin Ehl, one of the leading Czech commentators on European issues, has pointed out, pushing too hard to change the “posted workers” directive might help populists and nationalists in Central Europe, and increase the popularity of euroskeptics.

This was illustrated by a bitter exchange of with Poland. Reacting to Warsaw’s refusal to consider the compromises discussed in Salzburg, Macron quipped that that Poland was isolating itself within the EU, and that Polish citizens “deserve better” than a government at odds with the bloc’s democratic values and his plans for EU reform. “In no way will the decision by a country that has decided to isolate itself in the workings of Europe jeopardize the finding of an ambitious compromise [on ‘posted workers’],” he said, adding that Poland was moving in the opposite direction from Europe on numerous issues.

The government in Warsaw rejected the accusations, saying Macron was inexperienced and arrogant. The fight fit Macron’s strategy, casting the Poles as the main opponent of French proposals. This seemed deliberate: attacking Warsaw nowadays costs Macron nothing, as the ultra-conservative PiS government has few friends on the EU level. On the other hand, it illustrates Macron’s short-term approach to his EU partners. In the fall, the French president was supposed to organize a high-level meeting with Germany and Poland in a revived Weimar Triangle format. These plans are now most likely buried, as Macron’s attacks resonated strongly in Poland and will not be easily forgotten.

In fact, Macron’s spat with Poland could end up causing problems for France’s most important European relationship. Any conflict within the EU – even one meant to serve domestic political goals, like Macron’s fight over “posted workers” – means more problems and more work for Germany, which is pursuing a careful balancing act among various positions and groupings within the EU. At the same time, Macron was conspicuously quiet about Viktor Orban’s Hungary. This could be a sign that Budapest is either open to more talks on labor issues or has some other good news for Macron in stall – like a big contract for French military helicopters.

To a certain extent, Macron has fallen back to traditional French behavior in the EU: the European dimension is useful to him if it allows France to align its partners’ positions with its own. However, Macron will need to adopt a more genuine European spirit toward the EU’s Eastern members if he wants to deliver a relaunched EU, one that serves these countries’ long-term interests and does not increase support for nationalist and populists leaders across the region similar to those already in power in Poland and Hungary.