Poland against reducing benefits to Poles who already live in UK

Beata Szydło: We will never agree to 'different speeds'. [European Council]

While talks on a compromise to keep the UK in the EU continue, it has emerged that the Polish government will not support any solution reducing the privileges of Poles who already live and work in UK. EURACTIV Poland reports.

The Polish government is in a very difficult position. The ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) wants to present the United Kingdom as one of Poland’s closest allies. Both David Cameron’s Conservative Party, and Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski’s Law and Justice party, are members of the European Conservatives and Reformists’ (ECR) group in the European Parliament.

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szyd?o and Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski both call the United Kindom a “strategic ally” and stresses that the UK’s continued membership in the EU is “very important” for Poland’s interests.

But at the same time, the Polish government cannot accept any “discrimination” against Polish citizens living in the UK – such as cutting immigrant benefits.

According to a draft deal to secure the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union, London could suspend some payments to migrants from the bloc for four years, starting immediately after the referendum, after meeting the conditions to trigger a so-called “emergency brake” or “safeguard mechnanism”. 

Cameron knows that he has to convince the Polish government to accept his proposal to restrict welfare benefits for non-British EU citizens who have been working in UK, as Poles constitute the second largest immigrant community in the country. That is why he visited Warsaw twice within the last three months – on 10 December and on 5 February. During his last visit, the British premier spoke with Szyd?o and Kaczy?ski.

There are many issues on which Poland and United Kingdom agree. The most important are security policy and NATO’s role in Europe. The Polish government wants to increase the number of NATO soldiers and installations in Central Europe, but it needs the UK’s help to achieve it.

During Cameron’s last visit to Warsaw, Szyd?o and the British prime minister agreed to build a “strategic partnership in the EU and in NATO, in order to secure NATO’s eastern flank”. Warsaw will host the NATO summit on 8 and 9 July.

It is safe to say that the Polish government will not support any solution reducing the privileges of Poles who already live and work in UK. However, Polish officials’ statements indicate that they might agree with temporary restrictions of welfare benefits for workers who would arrive in the future.

The Polish government will not agree to any permanent mechanism allowing any member state to reduce welfare benefits for immigrants from within the EU.

Deputy Foreign Minister and State Secretary for Europe Konrad Szyma?ski said that a settlement should be “very narrow and specific” (“both in terms of scope and time”) and should not be used to restrict freedom of movement or social benefits in the EU’s internal market.

The solution preferred by the Polish government would be an agreement created exclusively for the UK, so that it would be the only member state which would be able to reduce benefits. There are many Poles working in Spain, Germany or France, and Warsaw doesn’t want them to be affected.

However, as such an agreement seems impossible, Poland will try to do everything to make the “emergency brake” as explicit as possible. “We want to make sure that the agreement could not be read in such a way as to pave the way for future segregation of workers on the internal market,” said Szyma?ski.

Poland’s premier said that Poles had been living in Great Britain, working and contributing to the country’s GDP. “That is why we want them to have the same conditions and opportunities for career development as British citizens have,”   Szyd?o said.

The Polish government doesn’t want to criticise the proposal by Council President Donald Tusk, who is a former prime minister, albeit from the Civic Platform, now in the opposition. Foreign Minister Waszczykowski said that Tusk’s proposal “would not adversely affect Poles who had already been living in the UK”.

Deputy Foreign Minister Szyma?ski added to that that he expected the future agreement to “properly recorded” that there will be no reduction of the social rights of those already working in UK.

Yet, it is not obvious that Polish government will officially back the Tusk proposal. Government officials do not want to give their final answer, as the PiS built its entire political narrative on bashing Tusk.

Szyma?ski emphasized that talks needed to continue, and that his country sought much clearer detail regarding the use of the extraordinary mechanisms”. Szyd?o too said further talks were needed. Waszczykowski expressed optimism that a compromise would be found. “Europe needs Great Britain which is a powerful financial centre,” he said.

Changes in other areas of the draft deal appear to be acceptable for the Polish government. “We fully support the prime minister’s proposals regarding solutions that are aimed at improving competitiveness, removing red tape and granting proper significance to national parliaments,”  Szyd?o stated. Law and Justice, and the Conservative Party, both do not want to give more power to the EU institutions, and wish to focus on the economic aspect of European integration.

The countries of the Visegrad group, of which Poland, is member will hold a mini-summit on 15 February in an effort to coordinate a common position ahead of the 18-19 February summit, which is expected to seal a deal with Britain ahead of the referendum.

>> Read: EU eastern states ready joint response to ‘Brexit’ deal

European Council President Donald Tusk published on 2 February a package to address the four British demands for EU reform that David Cameron demanded to support the remain campaign in the upcoming in/out referendum.

The text envisages a legally binding provision allowing a group of 55% or more member states to stop EU legislation or demand changes, a measure Britain has sought to address voters' concerns that it has handed too much power to Brussels.

It also includes a clause saying Britain could suspend some payments to migrants from the rest of the bloc for four years, starting immediately after the referendum, after meeting the conditions to trigger a so-called 'emergency brake'.

Britain would also be excluded from the EU goal of "ever closer union" and be safeguarded against moves by the 19 countries that share the euro currency to impose rules by majority vote on London.

But there were gaps in the proposals, for example on how long Britain could suspend migrant benefits for and how Britain could push back against decisions made by euro zone members.

  • 15 February: Visegrad summit in Prague
  • 18-19 February: EU summit to address the migrant crisis and the UK demands for reform of the Union.
  • 23 June 2016: Rumoured favourite date for referendum.
  • End of 2017: Final deadline for holding the UK referendum.

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