Aug 22, 2017 | 21:10 GMT

5 mins read

The Subtle Game France Is Playing in Central Europe

French President Emmanuel Macron will soon focus on Central and Eastern Europe, meeting with the leaders of Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in Salzburg on Aug. 23, and then visiting Romania on Aug. 24 and Bulgaria on Aug. 25. The official goal of these meetings is to discuss the situation of Eastern European nationals working in Western Europe. But France is also playing a more subtle political game.
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Since taking office in June, the French government has been hurriedly building its foreign policy. President Emmanuel Macron has already met with U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin and has had several discussions with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to reform the European Union. Macron will soon focus on Central and Eastern Europe, meeting with the leaders of Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in Salzburg on Aug. 23 and then visiting Romania on Aug. 24 and Bulgaria on Aug. 25. The official goal of the meetings is to discuss the Eastern European nationals working in Western Europe. But France is also playing a more subtle political game: The European Union is about to start a debate about its future and Central and Eastern European countries will have to decide what role they want to have in it. Macron wants to shape that decision.

The French government has said that Macron will use his tour to discuss the posted-workers system, an EU scheme by which companies in Western Europe can hire cheaper labor from poorer countries in Eastern Europe. Though less than 1 percent of all European workers carry out their jobs under the scheme, Macron has identified it as a form of social dumping that creates unfair competition for French workers. The European Union is unlikely to abolish the posted-workers system, but it will seek to reform it and probably limit its use. Support from at least some Central and Eastern European countries will be important to prevent the reforms from widening the divisions between Western and Eastern EU member states.

But Macron's visit also has the unstated goal of strengthening France's presence in a region that hasn't been a priority in recent years. Macron has criticized those Eastern European countries that, according to him, accept EU money but don't respect its values. His choice of countries for the tour is notable, as two governments that have tense relations with the EU Commission, Poland and Hungary, have been excluded. Poland and Hungary are, along with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, members of the Visegrad Group, a bloc that has repeatedly criticized the European Union. With Macron's visit, France may be trying to differentiate between cooperative and uncooperative members of the Visegrad Group.

Others have been making similar moves for some time. Brussels threatened to sanction Poland because of recent judicial reforms and Hungary because of recent laws on foreign universities and foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic could also be sanctioned because of their refusal to enforce an EU plan to distribute asylum seekers across the bloc.

Still, Brussels keeps good ties with Slovakia, the only country in the region that is a member of the eurozone and the only member of the Visegrad Group that has accepted a small number of migrants to avoid sanctions. In early August, Prime Minister Robert Fico even said Slovakia's future lies with Europe's "core" countries in the West. Similarly, in the Czech Republic, the government wants to be given observer status in the Eurogroup (a forum for eurozone finance ministers) if the institution's powers are enhanced in future reforms. The Czech Republic does not use the euro and the issue is controversial, but Prague wants to keep the accession door open, even it's only to have a seat at the table when the future of the currency is debated. The Czech Republic and Slovakia understand that the European Union will start talks to reform the bloc after the German general elections in September. They want their voices heard.

Austria's decision to invite Czech and Slovak leaders but not Polish or Hungarian representatives to meet Macron suggests that the Austrian government is interested in acting as a bridge between them and the largest EU member states. Austria sees Central Europe as its sphere of influence, a consequence of centuries of its political control of the region during the Habsburg Empire. Austria isn't interested in joining the Visegrad Group, because it doesn't want to compete with Poland and Hungary for the bloc's leadership. Austria seems more interested in weakening the Visegrad Group and siding with the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Of course, Austria and the Czech Republic will hold general elections of their own in October, which means that these strategic decisions could be revised. In Austria, the right-wing Freedom Party could enter a coalition government, which would make Vienna more Euroskeptic. In the Czech Republic, the ANO party, which is against adopting the euro, is polling strongly. But even under different governments, Central and Eastern European countries would continue to have different strategic interests that could undermine their regional alliances and open the door for external influence.

These political moves are all the more relevant considering the upcoming debate about the future of the European Union. On the table are ideas ranging from the introduction of new EU-wide investment mechanisms to strengthening military cooperation. In recent months, EU members have been toying with the idea of letting some countries move ahead with integration while others are left behind (a concept known as a "multi-speed Europe"). The French government believes the participation of the 27 members of the bloc is not necessary to move ahead with reforms. It would put Central and Eastern Europe in a dilemma. On the one hand, most of these countries want to remain outside the eurozone and are wary of Brussels interfering with their domestic issues. On the other, they rely on EU funding, investment and, to some extent, protection.

But in addition to increasing East-West divides on the Continent, the multi-speed Europe could also lead to conflict between France and Germany. France doesn't see Central and Eastern Europe as an indispensable element of its grand designs for the future of the European Union. But Germany is deeply interested in the region, both for economic and security reasons. Many of these countries are important export and investment destinations and some are crucial parts of its supply chain. Moreover, many of these countries play a role in Germany's competition with Russia for influence. As a result, the European Union's redesign will force its members to make strategic decisions — both among the so-called "core" countries and among a periphery that risks being left behind.

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