The four Visegrad states — “condemned to cooperate” due to high stakes regarding UK social welfare benefits — were seen as a major obstacle to the British EU reform proposals. This helped their group’s branding; and their own Euroscepticism might now be mollified by their negotiation success.
Cameron's EU Reform Proposals: Antagonizing the V4
At a time when British media brimmed with headlines like “Slovakian Mother Boasts of Easy Time on UK Benefits”, Prime Minister (PM) David Cameron outlined four demands which were to reform the EU. The first one concerned safeguards so that non-Eurozone countries would not be disadvantaged; the second one stressed the need to enhance the EU’s competitiveness; the third demand would allow Britain to opt out from the EU’s ambition to forge an “ever closer union”, and grant power to national parliaments to block EU legislature; and finally, the restriction of benefits for migrant workers in the EU. This classic canon of gravamina against the EU was enshrined in the Tory Manifesto ahead of the UK elections last May, then formally negotiated at EU level after Cameron’s letter to European Council President Tusk in November 2015. Cameron promised that should the other 27 EU Member States (MS) accept these four so-called “baskets”, he would campaign for remaining in the EU ahead of the UK’s in-/out-referendum in June 2016.
Cameron did obtain consent from the other MS at the European Council Summit in February this year. This was only achieved after much bargaining, in the process of which the Visegrad Group (V4) – comprising Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – were portrayed as the major obstacle that had to be overridden. Indeed, Central and Eastern European (CEE) workers would be among the most affected by the cut of migrants’ in-work benefits.
A Gambit of Reforms
Cameron had probably envisaged that three fourth of his reform proposals could be easily accommodated. This is especially true for traditionally Eurosceptic countries (like the Czech Republic) or governments (the ruling parties Fidesz in Budapest and PiS in Warsaw). A commitment to protect non-euro states certainly would serve those who have still kept their forint, koruna and złoty; opting out of the “ever closer union”-clause seems merely cosmetic; and who could oppose the ever-attractive idea of empowering national parliaments (beknownst to them that they will not make much use of their power anyway)? Cameron’s strategy resembled a gambit in chess opening patterns: give me one of your pawns (support me on three of the four issues), and I will give you a pawn from me.
The V4 accepted the gambit. In turn, they demanded a pawn from the UK: a compromise regarding the intended welfare cuts. At stake was a vast voter base: more than one million Poles live in the UK. Slovakia, whose national hero Jánošík robs the rich to distribute cash to the poor, made notorious headlines in 2011 when their numbers in the UK had risen by 513% since their EU accession in 2004; thousands of them are entitled to monthly child benefits of € 86 instead of the € 23 they would get at home. Hungary’s fifth biggest city is said to be London. The Czech Republic, holding the V4 Presidency since summer 2015, had to speak for the UK’s CEE diaspora that could not be ignored as an electorate.
After his victory in the May 2015 elections, PM Cameron toured throughout Europe to fight for his cause. He had his very first official visit to Poland; three weeks later he was – another first-timer – in Slovakia. After the government change in Poland in autumn 2015, he went there again to meet his new counterpart Beata Szydło. Ahead of EU meetings, Cameron regularly called Sobotka, the Czech PM who had assumed the V4 Presidency in mid-2015. In January 2016, Cameron was in Budapest (another first-timer), then headed to Prague and wrote a robust appeal in a Czech daily. Bilateral meetings with Slovakia and Poland followed again on February 4th, and numerous meetings with Szydło occurred even in the midst of the decisive February 18th-19th European Council Summit.
Not Vicftims, but Defenders: The Way to Frame
Numerous were the meetings, but the answer was always the same. Without any flinching, the V4 supported the first three baskets, but balked at the fourth one. Their misgiving was not uttered in the role of a helpless victim vindicating social welfare rights from a richer country. Instead, the Visegrad Group took over the role of a promotor iustitiae, advocating to secure the right of workers, displaying statesmanship by using the authoritative language of law enshrined in EU Treaties. “The internal market cannot be reduced to three freedoms”, said the Slovak Foreign Minister, referring to the free movement of goods, capital and services; “it will not work without high mobility of people.” The Czech V4 Presidency Programme for 2015-16 prioritizes the “Social Dimension of Integration” and wants to avoid the social exclusion of workers. Only Orbán, known for his rather emotional way of reasoning, framed it more bluntly in saying that Hungarians do not want to be “parasites”, lamenting that calling Hungarian “migrants” is “painful to our ears”.
But the key message was the same: yes, we want the UK to remain in the EU, we support Cameron’s cause of increasing the EU’s competitiveness and strengthening national parliaments, but we will not accept any discrimination of workers. Not only in bilateral meetings was this response uttered. The same stance was reiterated in various V4 settings, even at a V4+Korea summit in December 2015. The convergence allowed the V4 to effortlessly elevate it into a regionally elaborated common position of a CEE alliance, thus multiplying their political leverage to a degree unattainable for a single small state. The V4’s astute twiplomacy ostentatiously made public each coordination meeting ahead of EU meetings, abounding with hopeful hashtags like #UKinEU, without concealing that they closely cooperated with Romania, the number two provider of Eastern EU migrants to the UK. When the new Romanian Foreign Minister Comănescu assumed office in November 2015, his first visits went to Slovakia and Poland, and Romanian President Ioannis had met Beata Szydło one and a half hour before the V4 coordinated their positions at the decisive European Council Summit.
Realistic Aims Amid Pressure: A Symbolic Seven
The entire social system of the UK was in unfathomable danger, against which Cameron was chivalrously conducting a victorious struggle in overriding the V4’s reluctance – at least according to some tabloids. To others, the negotiations posed a mere political theatre with foreseeable outcomes – in other words, a gambit where all the apparent sacrifices made were premeditated. Nevertheless, real struggle was involved after European Council President Tusk published his draft for an “emergency brake” on February 2nd 2016. This measure would allow any MS to cut benefits to migrants in case the national welfare system was under exceptional strain from immigration; what remained undefined was the length of the limitation.
Whereas Cameron advocated for thirteen, the V4 opted for five years. The compromise concluded in the Summit was seven years. A symbolic length – for this covers the duration which the UK “lost” when Tony Blair decided not to impose restrictions on the new CEE MS after the EU enlargement in 2004. Other states like Germany and France did not grant them free movement until 2011 – precisely seven years after their accession. Seven was still closer to the V4’s stance of five years than to Cameron’s overshooting will of thirteen years. The V4 knew to display ambitions not too low and not too high, thus pursuing realistic aims in times of diplomatic pressure.
Cameron claimed victory after the European Council Summit on February 19th 2016, for it “has delivered on the commitments I made at the beginning of this renegotiation process.” But diplomatic success was also on V4’s side. They secured that the migrant workers already living in the UK would not fall victim of the welfare limits. The restrictive wording of the European Council Conclusion allows the mechanism only to enter into force in “such an exceptional situation” that it puts “excessive pressure on the proper functioning” of the welfare system. It is then the Council which has to authorise the MS concerned to restrict access to in-work benefits – oh horror concilii! Nigel Farage called Cameron’s victory claim “frankly ludicrous”, and some media reactions were just as malevolent: “From the land of chocolate”, they wrote, Cameron “was always destined to bring back fudge.”
Propelling the "Visegard Conspiracy" onto European Center Stage
Some were eager to present Cameron as brimming with boundless ambition, stemming himself against the vast Eastern European influx of immigrants. This view propelled the Visegrad states into the centre of international media coverage. Conspiracy websites, British tabloids, international news and respected think tanks all depicted the V4 as the major bottleneck for a UK reform deal, even speaking of a “Visegrad conspiracy”. The reports might have dramatized the situation by misconstruing sober objections as aggressive warnings against the UK, but as a side-effect the V4 successfully claimed “ownership” over the Brexit issue.
This view is tantamount to an acknowledgement of the V4’s influence in the EU, and it fuels the still fledgling “region-ness” of the Visegrad Group (Fawn 2013). It surpasses the recognition inherent in Sarkozy’s statement in 2009 when he castigated the group for caucusing before EU meetings. Opposing the UK in the midst of a growing anti-EU sentiment is indeed daring for small CEE states which too often deem themselves to be “second-class citizens” in the EU. Moreover, they did so in promoting realistic aims (regarding the duration of the emergency brake) and by using flexible mechanisms of adding MS (Romania) with which to cooperate in selected issues.
The final answer has not been given yet. The V4 recognized the UK’s strategy and shrewdly accepted the gambit. But the chess of EU politics has a rather slow tempo; the next move is only due with the referendum in June 2016.
Conclusion: the Danube and the Vistula flow into the Zenne, too
The Visegrad Group’s diplomatic strategy – claiming ownership over an issue, promoting realistic aims, using flexible cooperation mechanisms with other states – helped raise the awareness of both the Brexit danger and the V4, both internationally and domestically. The example of the UK’s EU reform proposals demonstrate that regional cooperation heightens small MS’ political leverage at EU level. Such a grouping may also serve as a blame-avoidance for individual MS; the antagonist to the UK was not Poland, but the Visegrad Group. By contrast, MS without any participation in intra-EU regional cooperation were often sidelined by the media; Romania, which can also claim to have high stakes, was often just an also-ran in media reports.
The Visegrad Group’s negotiation success may also help tampering euroscepticism at home. Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic repeatedly rank among the most eurosceptic countries in Eurobarometer surveys. A majority of their citizens feel left out from crucial EU negotiations in which they are marginalized as “second-class citizens” (Falkowski 21). But having been able to cooperate with the EU in securing social welfare benefits for their fellow citizens may shape their perceptions vis-à-vis “Brussels”. Now they know that they, too, can shape EU politics. Not only the Rhine and the Seine flow into the Zenne, the Danube and the Vistula do so too.
Aller plus loin
Sur Nouvelle Europe :
- Dossier du mois de mai 2016 : A "post-Brexit Visegrad"
Sur internet :
- Programme for the Czech Presidency of the Visegrad Group 2015–2016, Prague, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, 2015
- “One in a hundred Slovakians has come to live in Britain”, Daily Mail, 13 June 2011
- “Sarkozy warns Visegrad countries not to make a habit of pre-summit meetings”, EUObserver, 4 November 2009
- FALKOWSKI, Mateusz, Visegrad in the EU – Common vs. Individual Approach?, in: GYÁRFÁŠOVÁ, Olga (ed.), Visegrad Citizens on the Doorstep of European Union, Bratislava, Institute for Public Affairs, 2003
- FAWN, Rick, Visegrad: Fit for Purpose?, in: Communist and Post-Communist Studies 46 (2013), pp. 339–349
Crédit illustration : Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło talking to David Cameron during the European Council Summit on February 18th 2016. (Source: The Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Poland.)