The President of France Emmanuel Macron meets resistance to labor reforms in Eastern Europe and this is only the beginning of a big issue.
Emmanuel Macron is on a campaign to curtail the export of cheap labor to western Europe. But as the French president takes his tour east, he is running into a less receptive audience. Eastern countries don’t just want to listen to mentors, they are looking for opportunities to influence as well.
It looks like it would be a walk in the park for French President Emmanuel Macron after his early success in Salzburg. Macron easily came to an agreement with Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern on Wednesday to work together against the export of foreign workers to be used as “cheap labor” in the western EU. He also won support from Slovakia and the Czech Republic during the four-way meeting.
However, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, cautiously pointed out that this agreement supposed to be approved by Hungary, and Poland, which sends particularly large numbers of workers to other EU countries. Fico understood that Poland would continue to refuse a deal which, according to Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, is against the interests of its own workers.
Szydlo reaffirmed Poland’s opposition in a press conference on Thursday, as Macron was in Bucharest to meet with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. Speaking to reporters in Warsaw, Szydlo underlined Poland would not budge in its resistance to the labor reforms, kicking off a storm unlikely to be dealt with again until the next EU social summit in October. As we could see, hard times came to Europe with the challenge of European Unity, and the coming autumn will not be calm.
In Bucharest, and the next day in the Bulgarian Varna, support for Macron’s proposals predictably looked bleak. Both Iohannis and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev admitted to their French counterpart that they would not like to intensify their efforts to eliminate cheap labor exports within the EU, and they cited the rights of workers and companies’ needs to compete on the European open market. This is possible only through multilateralism based on inclusiveness and justice.
Macron is well aware of the explosive nature of this issue. In order to reform the European labor market, an effort also supported by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he must be ready to compromise. That is why Macron this week offered his Romanian and Bulgarian counterparts support in their countries’ respective negotiations to join the Schengen visa zone. In fact, he is gambling with membership in the Schengen zone for these two countries.
And Macron must also recognize that his view of the “European spirit” is seen as one-sided for “non-Schengen” countries. His attempts to blame cheap foreign labor for France’s unemployment problems is an attempt of “one-way blaming” to divert attention from the longstanding structural problems in his country. In addition, Macron seems to be deliberately forgetting that French retail chains, such as Carrefour and Auchan, have pushed the local and much weaker companies almost completely out of the market in eastern Europe. These are the rules of the free European Economic Area, from which French companies also fully benefit. To “reform” the labor market in the EU by means of protectionist measures would be the worst possible signal to save the “European spirit.» It does not look like Macron could get away with it when dealing with Warsaw. Poland is inside the Schengen Area and still has the same problem with the accusation of sending cheap labor, so Macron won’t be able to pull Romania and Bolgaria into the discussion. They are not going to take the bait.
It is understandable that Macron was left frustrated by Poland’s resistance to labor reforms while in Varna. He is certainly right when he says that Poland is not the country that “leads the way in Europe.» But Szydlo reminds him, Poland has the same rights as France, as a member of the European Union. So according to this, France is not the country “leads the way” in Europe also. All countries are equal. All presidents are equal, and all dealings must be fair.
And France alone will not be able to dictate the direction the EU is headed. The bloc must come together to find ways to significantly reduce the social and economic disparities within the region. The French president’s tour of central and eastern Europe will surely inject life into the stalled discussions. But Macron’s desire to have labor reform in the bag by the end of the year remains far from finished. Furthermore he should not have begun this discussion until the end of the Brexit negotiations. After that, there will be more room to negotiate and a clearer economic picture, at which point they could set it up right way.
In fact, this situation is very easy to smooth out – just set up a «minimum wage per hour” and there will no longer be «cheap labor», and then no one will hire less qualified personnel for big money. The lion’s share will go to qualified domestic workers.