The Brief: Macron scores points in first mission to Eastern Europe

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

French President Emmanuel Macron opened the autumn political season last week by meeting four Central and Eastern European leaders, succeeding in drumming up support for his key political initiatives.

In Vienna, his face-to-face with Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Slovakian counterpart Robert Fico elicited surprisingly pro-European responses.

Both countries are part of the so-called Visegrad Four, a group that was until recently seen as being Eurosceptic, and also comprising the ‘rogue’ member states Hungary and Poland.

But in recent days, Fico has made a U-turn, stating that his country wants to stay in the EU’s core.

And the Czech Republic, which unlike Slovakia does not have the euro, said it would seek an observer status with the eurozone. So far, the country has sought for years to delay its eligibility for the single currency area.

After that Macron went to Bucharest for a chat with Romanian leaders, and on to Varna, the ‘summer capital’ of Bulgaria, whose leaders were delighted to receive him.

This was the first visit by a French president since Bulgaria joined the EU ten years ago and is all the more important as Bulgaria takes the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU from 1 January.

Macron’s Eastern European tour was a success. His most visible goal was to win support for changing the Posted Workers Directive at an EU summit on 19-20 October , in contrast to the Commission’s original proposal which Macron says “creates unfair competition” in wealthier nations like France and Germany.

By and large, he reached his objective as no outright rejection was voiced.

But more importantly, Macron managed to rally the pro-EU leaders of Central and Eastern Europe behind him, in his push for a radical reform of the EU.

He also succeeded in avoiding a divided EU along the lines of ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Europe, which Donald Trump is trying to engineer. It’s something Moscow would savour too.

Two countries are still a problem: Hungary and Poland. Macron did not pay them a visit this time or meet their leaders.

Hungary is a special case because it doesn’t have big stakes in the reform of the Posted Workers Directive – relatively few Hungarian citizens have gone to work abroad.

The real thorn in the side remains Poland.

In Bulgaria, Macron said Poland is not the country to show Europe the way, and then underscored it by adding Poland had placed itself on the margins of Europe’s future history.

It may sound offensive for those in charge in Warsaw. But Macron is right. Today’s Poland has no right to teach others.

After all, under its present leadership, it has become the only EU country under the EU ‘Rule of law’ mechanism. Worse still: because of its controversial judicial reform, it’s on the verge of seeing the triggering of Article 7 procedure, known as ‘the nuclear option’, for serious violations of basic human rights and democracy .

Macron’s thinking seems to be in line with what we said in June: in the absence of new EU treaties, the best way to deal with rogue governments is to ignore them until someone else takes charge.

The only further advice we could offer Macron is not to speak of “Poland” but of “those in charge in Warsaw”. Poland is a great country and France has historically been its good friend. Possibly a better friend than its Visegrad allies.

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Look out for…

The live press conference between EU Commission and UK chief negotiators Barnier and Davis begins at 5pm in the Berlaymont’s VIP corner. You can watch it here.

Views are the author’s.

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