Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News
It’s been five weeks since voters in the United Kingdom cast their votes and verdict against Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for a so-called ‘hard Brexit’ from the European Union. And with negotiations on the terms of Britain’s divorce from Brussels now fully underway between London and the remaining 27 members of the EU, May’s much-weakened bargaining position seems a plus for those such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, who remain the staunchest supporters of the bloc.
Each of the EU27 leaders have signed on to a set of bargaining principles and conditions that are forcing Downing Street’s hand in the talks. On the surface, things don’t bode well for May in her bid to take Britain out of the bloc. In the months leading up to last year’s historic Brexit referendum much was made in Britain of the bloc’s guarantee of free movement of labour — a cornerstone clause of EU membership that has seen more than 3 million EU citizens take up employment in the UK.
Polish plumbers, Czech waiters and Hungarian bar staff have been long accused of taking jobs from British workers — but the reality is that few British teens are willing to work for £6.50 (Dh30.70) an hour flipping burgers.
The former Soviet satellite nations of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuanian, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the EU in 2004. Their workers, however, were excluded from the freedom of movement clause until 2011 — and that’s when the floodgates opened, with cheap flights and cheaper buses taking them to the UK and Ireland for any work. Suddenly, that £6.50 an hour was a small fortune to workers from the east who made that much in two or three days. That’s why, in small towns across the UK, Polish delicatessens sprang up on the high street alongside bakeries and butchers, fuelling an anti-EU sentiment among voters.
Now, however, the ironic thing is that the governments of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic — whose very citizens working and living across Little Britain fuelled anti-Brussels bashing — may be May’s best and only hope of securing her best deal once the Brexit talks are wrapped up by the spring of 2019. At the European Commission level — the cabinet equivalency of the EU administration that works alongside the directly elected European Parliament — there’s growing concern over the actions of the three former Eastern bloc nations and their attitude to the EU.
As the government of Turkey can attest to over the past 30 years, gaining membership of the elite EU club isn’t easy. As well as meeting strict economic criteria, the political costs are high too.
White Brussels was dealing with the opening of the Brexit negotiations with London on June 19, its Eurocrats were commencing legal proceedings against the governments of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic over their failure to adhere to an EU-wide agreement to take in their respective quotas of refugees.
While there may be four million refugees trying to get into Europe, a million have settled in Germany, much to Merkel’s single-mindedness. Another 160,000 were supposed to be spread across the EU states.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have all refused to take a single refugee between them, leading to the legal action.
All things in the European Union take time — except for the two-year countdown set in place by the Brits’ triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on leaving the bloc. The three eastern European states face fines and other sanctions — budgetary actions, suspensions or other measures — but not for many, many months.
Since the settlement policy was introduced in 2016 — with Turkey being paid to host the refugees and promised a fast-track EU entry process in return — only 21,000 have been settled across Europe. Given the crackdown on press and other freedoms by Ankara in recent months since the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there’s little chance now that Turkey would meet the rules for membership now anyway. Besides, what’s a few more years anyway for Turkey’s application for EU membership, it’s only been mooted since the 1980s.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary says he’s proud to be leading “an illiberal democracy” and is leading the three nations in their fight against what they claim is Brussels imposing its rule on member states. That’s the same type of language that has been used by Brexiteers in the UK.
Across the three eastern European states, new laws are being introduced to clamp down on press freedoms and on groups such as human rights organisations, trade unions or others who would criticise to vocally against the actions of governments standing up for Polish, Czech or Hungarian values — values infused with Soviet-style thinking. At last, May must be thinking, there’s a crack now in EU unity that she might possibly be able to exploit. And it will all come a head in the spring of 2019 — if only May can last that long.