Eastern Europe warns against EU 'disintegration'
By Eszter Zalan
Prime ministers of four central European countries warned against the "disintegration" of the EU a day after European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker outlined possible scenarios for the future of the bloc, including a multi-speed Europe.
"Any form of enhanced cooperation should be open to every member state and should strictly avoid any kind of disintegration of the single market, the [passport-free] Schengen area and the European Union itself," leaders of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia said in a joint statement on Thursday (2 March).
Ahead of a summit in Rome at the end of the month on Europe's future, the Visegrad Group acknowledged that a "necessary flexibility" in integration could be achieved through enhanced cooperation under the current treaties, but insisted on the need for unity as a principle for cooperation between member states
Eastern member states were unnerved by the possibility that Juncker's proposals, and a declaration to be adopted in Rome, could entrench existing divisions and see them permanently fall behind.
At a joint press conference in Warsaw, Poland's prime minister Beata Szydlo said changes in the EU should not lead to "permanent cracks".
"We will not agree to division within the EU, because that leads directly to disintegration," she said.
The statement also said any development in the eurozone should be open to all and called for deeper defence cooperation.
But that does not mean the Visegrad Four want to move ahead with integration any faster.
The prime ministers again reiterated that a "more significant and definite role" should be given to national parliaments to "enhance legitimacy of the EU decision-making process".
Szydlo called on European Council chief Donald Tusk, whose re-election Szydlo's government does not support, to ensure that EU reforms are agreed before the Rome summit on 25 March.
At the Rome summit, leaders are expected to outline a common vision for the future of the EU after the UK leaves the bloc.
Slovak prime minister Robert Fico said preparations for the summit were "lamentable".
"It may happen that [the Rome statement] will again not be a vision for the future of Europe, but a collection of individual, national interests, which cannot help anyone today, but only do harm," Fico said at the news conference.
Founders would move ahead
Among the five proposals outlined by Juncker as a preparation for Rome, one called for a multi-speed Europe, in which those countries that want to have a closer and deeper cooperation could move on, while others can pick and chose if they want to join.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Francois Hollande, Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, and Maltese PM Joseph Muscat, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, all recently spoke out in favour of a multi-speed Europe.
That could pit the Visegrad countries, which have been reluctant to participate in the relocation of asylum seekers in Europe, and some founding countries against each other in Rome over whether a multi-speed Europe is the way to go.
Visegrad countries receive substantial EU funding to help develop their poorer regions, but the feeling that they were "second class" EU countries has lingered in political discourse ever since they joined the bloc in 2004.
Poland and Hungary have been criticised over rule of law issues, in what the two governments see as Western lecturing.
Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban has argued that EU funding to the east benefits Western companies as well.
Recently, a scandal over different food quality in the east and west also become a sensitive political issue.
At their Warsaw meeting the four prime ministers came out strongly against the "double standards" in food quality, because some firms used cheaper ingredients in food stuff sold in central and eastern Europe than in the west.
The prime ministers urged the European Commission and Parliament to act.
Slovak PM Fico said the different standards in food quality are "unacceptable", and send a "dangerous political message".