Saturday

10th Dec 2016

Opinion

EU-UK deal must preserve social rights

  • 'The devil will be hidden in the details of the fourth basket' of the aggreement with the UK (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Given the major, interlinked challenges the European Union is facing, such as the migration and eurozone crises, the UK’s proposals for EU reform might seem less significant than they are.

But if we don’t find a solution, the consequences of Brexit might negatively influence the future direction of European integration. Now is time to be decisive and take action so that we can clear the table for other topics.

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From the Czech point of view, the European Union is much stronger and better off with the United Kingdom as a full and fully engaged member.

Not only is the UK a highly competitive and developed economy that helps the EU’s global standing, it is also one of the foremost supporters of creating a strong internal market without borders that would give Europe the competitive edge it seeks - and badly needs when I compare us with the US and many Asian economies.

The Czech Republic has always valued Britain’s openness and its willingness to open up to the new member states right after they joined in 2004.

Strong support, mostly

However, times change and Britain’s concerns regarding the strain migration puts on its social system have been known for some time. We must take them seriously and address them, as we should any concerns of any other EU member state.

When we take a look at the first three baskets of UK demands for EU reforms - economic governance, competitiveness, and sovereignty - the position of the Czech Republic as well as the position of the Visegrad Group [Czech Republic along with Hungary, Slovakia and Poland] is clear.

The proposals are in line with our views on how the EU may become stronger and more efficient.

We aspire to lessen the differences between eurozone and other member states, most of whom will join the eurozone in the future.

We also strongly support the proposals regarding competitiveness (lowering the administrative and legal burden for businesses is a badly needed change) and sovereignty (interpretation of ever closer union principle and strengthening the role of national parliaments).

EU essence at stake

However, the devil will be hidden in the details of the fourth basket.

We must also not forget that freedom of movement, an area without borders that allows us to move from country to country, is the main benefit of the EU in the hearts and minds of many Europeans.

Historically, for the Czech Republic and all other Central and Eastern European countries, freedom of movement is viewed as the essence of the European Union.

That is why we are focusing our energy on finding a feasible solution regarding the so-called safeguard mechanism and the indexation of child benefits. We cannot agree with any changes to the current framework that would mean permanent barriers to free movement.

We appreciate that the safeguard mechanism is a reactive solution that should only be applied to the newly incoming workers and only used when validated by the facts.

The debates right now are focused on the timeline and duration of its use. For us, the shorter the period, the better. We cannot allow the mechanism to turn into a de facto permanent solution, prolonged again and again.

We understand UK’s need to make adjustments to the current situation but we need to protect our core values and freedoms.

The proposal to gradually withdraw the limitations for individual workers over time as they participate in the social system is, in my eyes, a reasonable compromise.

It must be clear, though, that if a worker is contributing to the system and fulfils all the duties, he or she must be also eligible for the contributory benefits.

For a compromise to be reachable, we suggest to follow a few simple principles. Our main concern is that the indexation of child benefits will create a precedent for other social benefits to be indexed.

Hunt for compromise

We cannot let that happen and the line must be crystal clear.

The indexation should also be optional for member states and the obligation to pay out the benefit needs to stay with the hosting state.

Moreover, the indexation should only be applied to people newly entering a member state and its labour market. We must protect people who are already working in and contributing to other member states, so that their social standing is not worsened simply because of a passport they are holding.

Newly incoming workers can fully assess the situation before they decide to move to a different country but it would be unacceptable to change the rules for people that already work outside of their home country.

The situation of EU citizens working in another member state cannot be more disadvantageous than that of citizens of third countries.

We still have a week left before the European Council to find the final compromise that everybody can agree with.

We must also keep in mind that we are trying to find solutions to the UK’s needs.

If we want to find an agreement, we cannot open Pandora’s Box and include issues of other member states in the discussion.

Our key objective is to help the United Kingdom stay a member of the European Union. However, the compromise must adhere to European values and laws as well as respect other states’ needs.

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

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