Monday

21st Jan 2019

Opinion

A Czech view on UK referendum demands

  • Prague: 'We cannot support any solutions that would be in any way discriminatory' (Photo: Moyan_Brenn)

The EU is facing many challenges. Just as it seemed that the economic and fiscal crisis is over, that we remained united on sanctions against Russia, and that we managed to keep Greece in the eurozone, the attention of Europe's leaders and its citizens has been grabbed by migration issues, amid growing nationalism and xenophobia in many member states.

The EU finds itself at a crossroads - will the Union emerge stronger, more consistent in its approach to emerging crises, or will the current state of affairs prove to be a far greater challenge than expected and will we witness partial disintegration?

Read and decide

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The way the EU reacts to these fundamental challenges will test the foundations it is built upon and will be a measure of the strength of the Union for the foreseeable future.

But let me be more specific.

One of these key challenges is, of course, the EU reform agenda as formally introduced by British prime minister David Cameron in his letter and speech in November.

From the Czech perspective, the UK has traditionally been seen as a strong supporter of the internal market and the four fundamental freedoms that form the basis of not only the internal market, but the entirety of the EU as a whole.

Especially nowadays, given the weak growth of the European economy (with the exception of the Czech Republic, currently at 4.3 percent), it is important that the UK’s commitment to the effective functioning of the internal market and the associated benefits remains unchanged.

The Czech Republic and the UK have been collaborating on strengthening of the internal market and are participants of a like-minded group focused on increasing the competitiveness of the EU. This goal has not changed.

Looking back at the historic enlargement of the EU 11 years ago, we still remember the UK’s push for a large and strong EU with an internal market without barriers to drive the growth of Europe.

In 2004, the UK, as one of the few ‘old’ member states, did not impose a transitional period for mobility of workers from new member states. Instead, the UK opened its labour market and benefited significantly from the hard work of those who found a ready market for their skills.

Moreover, the UK has been in favour of including issues of posted workers and mobility into the revision of the EU services directive, including for the newly acceded member states. Again, a notion supported by only few of the ‘old’ member states.

The recent British reservations towards immigration and free movement have been known for quite some time and must be taken seriously.

But we must also be careful not to tear the fabric of united Europe, as the current British proposal could inadvertedly introduce discrimination or creation of EU citizenship of distinct categories.

This topic, as well as the rest of the UK reform agenda, will be discussed this Thursday at the European Council.

British baskets

The British agenda is composed of four “baskets.” In terms of competitiveness, the UK’s proposals are very much in line with the current heading of the EU as it is. And there's no doubt we can support initiatives regarding the deepening of the internal market and free trade.

The second basket, economic governance, is for us of significant importance as it relates to the relationship of eurozone and non-eurozone countries.

We strongly support the inclusion of non-eurozone members in key decision making; however, we should keep in mind that most of the remaining non-eurozone members (including the Czech Republic) are on the road to joining the eurozone in the future.

Sovereignty represents the third basket. We are prepared to partake in genuine discussions in this area. We must keep in mind that the “ever-closer Union” is a fundamental principle of EU integration, one that already allows for differences in integration amongst the member states.

A binding interpretative instrument could make this fact clearer.

The proposal for more proactive and initiative role of the national parliaments is also closely connected to this.

The Czech Republic already has a very active parliament, which takes great interest in European affairs and is very helpful in streamlining Czech positions. We believe that viable compromise could and should be reached concerning these proposals.

Discrimination?

The last remaining “basket”, however, is problematic.

Some of the issues, particularly the protection against abuse of social systems as well as changes related to the export of child benefits, may be negotiable as all countries share an interest in prevention of misuse of their welfare systems.

The four-year limitation period for in-work benefits remains controversial, but not non-negotiable.

Nevertheless, we cannot support any solutions that would be in any way discriminatory or would limit freedom of movement. Key studies from recent years, including a study by University College London, have proved that European immigrants have paid more in taxes in the UK than they have received in benefits.

Workers from the ‘new’ member states in particular have contributed 12 percent more in taxes than they received in benefits in the period 2001 to 2011.

The discussion at the December European Council will not be easy, even though a substantive decision on the UK reform agenda will be taken only early next year.

Still, the Czech Republic is prepared to take an active role in the discussion and we hope that the EU leaders’ debate will produce basic principles that will pave the way towards an agreement by February.

It is crucial to find a compromise as soon as possible in order to allow the UK to hold the referendum in a viable timeline. We could then again focus on other challenges that the EU faces. We can tackle them in a well-rounded way, as long as the UK stays a strong and effective member of the EU.

Tomas Prouza is the state secretary for European affairs of the Czech Republic

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