France's Macron, eastern Europeans try to mend ties after disagreements

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 23, 2017 9:16 AM

By Jean-Baptiste Vey and Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron and four eastern European Union leaders sought to turn the page on Friday after publicly trading barbs over their differences on issues ranging from jobs to the bloc's fundamental values.

Macron, in power for little more than a month, has vowed to protect French workers from what he sees as "social dumping", in which companies employ cheaper labor, and unfair competition from the poorer eastern European states.

Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic say they should be allowed to compete on lower prices - just as more developed western EU nations compete on quality products and know-how - to catch up after decades of communist stagnation.

Along with looming negotiations on the EU's next multi-year joint budget that runs from 2021, this dispute is shaping up as one of the most contentious issues facing the bloc, exacerbating an east-west rift as it seeks unity to tackle Brexit.

But meeting on the sidelines of a two-day EU summit that began on Thursday, Macron and the four east European leaders agreed to set up an expert-level group to try to narrow the differences over rules for so-called "posted workers".

"With President Macron we agreed today on a more intensive communication," Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said after the meeting. "We will start with the directive on posted workers."

"I have pointed out to Emmanuel Macron today how low wages are in the Czech Republic compared to France, and that French firms can also do more to raise (their) wages."

EU states are divided on rules under which, say, a Bulgarian truck driver or a Lithuanian bricklayer can work in France for a limited time for the eastern European wage, usually below the minimums guaranteed in the west.

A French presidency source said Macron had told the four, known as the 'Visegrad group', that exploiting the pay gap could backfire on them.

"We have to fight fraud and abuses. Otherwise, the whole posting of workers will be rejected," the source said.

A second diplomatic source said the five leaders had agreed to meet again in September.

EAST-WEST

The Visegrad four have also clashed with France on the treatment of migrants from outside the EU, and were infuriated by Macron's open criticism of the track record of Warsaw and Budapest on democracy and rule of law.

Macron previously said he would seek sanctions on Poland, whose nationalist-minded, eurosceptic government has angered the EU with its efforts to impose greater control over judges and state media and its refusal to take in any migrants.

For its part, France has sometimes come under fire from Brussels for bending EU rules on public finances and budgetary supervision.

Earlier this week Macron told the Visegrad-4 not to treat the EU as a "supermarket" and said they would face consequences if they failed to respect EU rules and values.

He drew scorn from Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who put Macron's comments down to his relative youth - the French leader is 39 - and accusations from Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo that he was showing off.

Szydlo's Europe minister said after the Friday meeting he hoped it would prove successful in clearing the air.

"We hope that (we) will be better understood now in Paris," Konrad Szymanski told reporters.

"We also hope that … political dialogue between France and central Europe will be carried out in a more orderly manner, without clichés and phrases that can at times be seen as stereotypical or insulting."

(Additional reporting by Jan Lopatka in Prague, writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones)