EU eastern states ready joint response to ‘Brexit’ deal

Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó. [European Council]

Countries on the European Union’s eastern flank will meet next week and try to provide a joint response on the recent proposal to keep Britain in the EU bloc, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said yesterday (4 February).

In an interview with Reuters, he also said that if Britain was allowed to apply restrictions on benefits to EU nationals, it would raise “serious questions” about other large EU members replicating the move.

A draft deal to secure the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union was unveiled on 2 February by Council President Donald Tusk. A sensitive element of the plan is the possibility to suspend some payments to migrants from the EU for four years, starting immediately after the referendum, after meeting the conditions to trigger a so-called “emergency brake” or “safeguard mechanism”. Many of the EU migrants in the UK are from Central Europe.

Szijjártó said it was overwhelmingly in the EU’s interest to keep Britain in the 28-member bloc, but that cutting benefits of those that had moved to live there was a highly sensitive issue.

“I have hosted the Polish foreign minister yesterday, UK Prime Minister Cameron visits Poland tomorrow, the Polish prime minister visits Budapest on Monday and then on 15 February we will have a Visegrad summit,” he said.

“We will make an attempt to put together a joint Visegrad position.”

The Visegrad group comprises Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, the biggest supplier of migrant labour to Britain.

>>Read: Visegrad group calls migration mini-summit, seeks plan B

The Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov, is invited to attend the Visegrad summit, his Hungarian colleague Victor Orbán announced in Sofia on 29 January.

Szijjártó said there were a number issues to respond to, including on ensuring national powers were not diluted and making sure regulations did not only benefit countries that use the euro. Of the group, only Slovakia uses the euro.

But it was the issue of potential benefit restrictions that is like to dominate. One of the key proposals of the draft put forward by Tusk is suspend some payments to migrants from the rest of the bloc for four years.

“We respect the right of any country to cut the possibility to abuse its social system. But a regulation which is discriminatory is not acceptable for us,” he said of Hungary’s view, ahead of a speech at the London School of Economics.

“So the main issue on Monday (in the meeting between the Hungarian and Polish prime ministers) will be whether it is possible to execute temporary limitation of access to state benefits in a way which does not end up as discrimination.”

Szijjártó also said that a collapse of the passport-free Schengen travel zone arrangement would be highly problematic for the region and that it was in everyone’s interest to keep it “alive”.

The Visegrad countries and the “like-minded” countries of Western Europe differ on the very basic concept of how borders should be strengthened. The V4 countries take the view that wall and fences should stop the migrants, while the Western countries seek to “slow” their arrival, being prepared to provide asylum for a limited amount of time only to people fleeing warzones. 

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