Czechs, Poles Huff and Puff as British Propose Benefits Reform

But restricting access to welfare is not the main issue for Central Europeans outside the eurozone.

British prime minister David Cameron welcomes his Irish counterpart, Enda Kenny, to 10 Downing Street in London, England, November 9
British prime minister David Cameron welcomes his Irish counterpart, Enda Kenny, to 10 Downing Street in London, England, November 9 (The Prime Minister’s Office/Georgina Coupe)

Central European governments responded angrily on Wednesday to British prime minister David Cameron’s proposal to restrict their nationals’ access to welfare benefits in the West.

“If Cameron wants to divide people according to their nationality then that is against the free movement of labor and the treaty,” Witold Waszczykowski, the new Polish foreign minister, told The Daily Telegraph.

His Lithuanian counterpart, Linas Linkevičius, similarly cautioned against “discrimination or restrictions.” In Prague, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said, “Any interference in free movement poses a serious problem for the Czech Republic.”

Millions of citizens of the former East Bloc states that joined the European Union in 2004 work in wealthier Western European nations such as the United Kingdom.

The European Commission has called Cameron’s proposal to deny them benefits for the first four years of their residency “high problematic.”

Other leaders are more sympathetic. Denmark’s Lars Løkke Rasmussen said his British counterpart had laid out a “good basis for concrete negotiations” while the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said she is “reasonably confident” a compromise can be found.

Cameron hopes to secure ample changes in Britain’s relations with the rest of the European Union to convince his Euroskeptic electorate to vote in favor of continued membership by 2017.

Most of his wishes — canceling the commitment to “ever-closer union”, less regulation, deepening the single market — are broadly shared by governments across Central and Northern Europe.

So it may be a bit of a stretch to claim, as The American Interest does, that it was unwise of the British to “tick off their much-needed allies” in the East.

Poland, especially under the incoming Law and Justice administration, is a British ally, as the Atlantic Sentinel has reported. It wants virtually all the things Cameron wants.

But it was never going to be happy about a policy that would disadvantage Polish workers abroad.

To suggest, as The American Interest does, that Britain “should have worked hard behind the scenes to buy Eastern European acquiescence beforehand” reveals an ignorance of political realities. Czech, Lithuanian and Polish leaders will eventually acquiesce but they were never going to roll over on day one. Even if they agree that it may be unfair for one country’s taxpayers to finance the welfare benefits of another’s, they were never going to say so publicly on the day Cameron made his proposal.

The more serious issue — as we keep pointing out — is that Cameron’s renegotiation, if successful, will formally divide Europe between its eurozone core and the non-euro outsiders.

Britain’s foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has said this is the point. “We seek reforms that will allow those countries that want to integrate further to do so while respecting the interests of those that do not.”

That’s fine for the United Kingdom. But Poland, which has no intention of joining the euro any time soon but still harbors much stronger European ambitions than Britain, should be concerned.

Especially when Germany wants to link its push for a more integrated eurozone with the British desire for a less closer union.

Sweden, also outside the eurozone, has already cautioned that such a two-speed Europe must not lead to the nineteen countries that do use the euro effectively taking over the government of the single market.

Long term, this may be a far bigger threat to the free movement of people and labor in Europe than Cameron’s proposal to restrict access to benefits.

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