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Frictions on the issue of posted workers

Reading Time: 8 minutes

By Mihály Kecskeméthy.

European Union – Suffering an unprecedented decline of popularity in the history of the Fifth Republic, President Macron seems to choose an attack-based strategy, putting an end to his will to sit on the sidelines. For several days now, he has been multiplying declarations, changing his communication strategy and opening himself inevitably to the replicas of his opponents. One of the first points of friction of his offensive: his position on the issue of “posted workers”, maintained during his tour in Central and Eastern Europe.

Defined by the so-called Bolkestein Directive of December 16, 1996, the status of posted worker allows an employee of one Member State to work in another Member State while maintaining the payment of social security contributions in his country of origin. Notably since the wave of integration in 2004, the use of this status has increased up to lead to situations of social dumping and alarming unfair competition, which gave rise to the heated debates regarding the “Polish plumber” at the time of the 2005 referendum in France. Moreover, the fraudulent use of this directive by the “letterbox” companies further clouds the picture, which the European Commission noted in a recent report.

Overall, countries which joined the European Union in 2004 are hostile to any reform of this directive, which would immediately put them in conflict with tens of thousands of their nationals working in the West so their families leftover at home might live in better material conditions. On this point, Poland and Hungary are very firm and do not want to hear about it. These two countries were also excluded from the French tour, as Emmanuel Macron chose to make his first stop in Salzburg, to meet Austrian Chancellor Kern and the Prime Ministers Bohuslav of Czechia (Mr Bohuslav Sobotka) and of Slovakia ( Mr Robert Fico) before flying to Bucharest and Sofia.

Already at the first meeting between President Macron and the V4s, on June 23, 2017, on the sidelines of the European summit in Brussels, Poland and Hungary had tough words against the new French head of state, responding to the attack he made on these countries in an interview given to fourteen European newspapers a few days earlier. The verbal battle did only intensified in the days following Mr Macron’s statement to Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo: “The Polish people deserve better than that and the Prime Minister will have a lot of difficulties explaining that it is right to underpay Poles,” inducing a quick answer from Mrs Szydlo: “I advise the President that he will take care of the affairs of his country, he may then succeed in having the same economic results and the same level of security for his citizens as those guaranteed by Poland. (…) Poland is a member of the European Union on the same basis as France. (…) It is neither the President of France nor any other leader who will personally decide the future of Europe, but all the members of the community”.

Mr Macron thus undermines the centenarian relations between France and Poland. In the eyes of the Polish government, this attitude is seen as an arrogant and full of clichés. President Macron omitted a number of historical data making Poland, and more broadly of the other V4 countries, a highly specific region and piece of European construction. This peculiarity is characterized in particular by all that can have been brought about by half a century of Soviet occupation in terms of political reflex and culture. Contrary to some, the V4s are perfectly clear about their identity and are thus intransigent about a possible organization of the right of asylum at a European level. These countries have learned to adapt to a limited sovereignty, that is to say the most advantageous possible in the face of the will of domination of the big brother, yesterday Muscovite, today Brussels. The current French vision for this region is therefore full of misunderstandings.

The lack of understanding concerns, in particular, a point relating to the relationship between these countries and the freedoms of movement guaranteed by the European Treaties. Poland and Hungary strongly condemn the European Union, while they remain firmly attached to the four freedoms of movement (goods, capital, services and people), that is to say the heart of European Union’s law . If this seems contradictory a priori, this position is only the result of the history of these countries, very sensitive to foreign yokes, but terrorized at the idea of ​​being isolated. Mr Macron’s speech is therefore not acceptable, especially in Budapest and Warsaw, which saw it as an umpteenth attempt to curb their policies and an insult to their history. Emmanuel Macron shows his liberal vision of society, thinking that economic migration to the West is nothing else than an opportunity for the central Europeans, thus summarizing man to his value in the market, whereas it is often about suffering and tearing apart. He sees these posted workers clandestine passages, not understanding that their migration is the consequence of the European economic base. Inasmuch as he is a pure and recent product of the Parisian political-economic elite, it would be futile to reproach Mr Macron for demonstrating his ignorance of the intimate history of these countries, particularly concerning the question of migration towards the West, a phenomenon that is anything but recent, making up partly the melancholic character of the central Europeans, which each family deeply imbued with. This is a far away from the imagination of a person touting the merits of the market economy boosted by its flexibility.

It would appear, however, that Mr Macron was able to obtain concessions from the Slovakian, Czech, and Bulgarian governments. At this stage, the exact nature of the trade is unknown and what the Slovaks and Czechs are able to expect in return. Some speak of Mr Macron’s support on the question of the distribution of asylum seekers, as his statement on the subject might suggest: “It is not for me to say how many migrants should be sent to Slovakia or elsewhere, my wish is not to approach things according to this principle”. However, it is clear that no agreement will be reached before the outcome of the elections in Germany and the European summit on October 23. It is strange that Emmanuel Macron has embarked on a campaign of seduction so soon with these countries.

Initiated by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker last year, the reform of the status of posted workers was put back on the agenda by the freshly elected Emmanuel Macron at the Brussels summit last June. Delcaring that some people see Europe as a “supermarket”, he then expressed his willingness to go further on the question of the period of secondment, wishing to reduce it to 12 months, whereas the Commission’s plan was less ambitious, and said he wanted to incorporate the problem of road transport and the social dumping engendered by Romanian and Bulgarian truckers. A week ahead of the end of political vacation in his country, Mr Macron now castigates the promotion of the least social right, complaining that the Polish workers are badly paid. This is at least paradoxical when one knows the very liberal fate that Emmanuel Macron reserves to the labour law in his own country. The reform he is preparing is apparently anything but in accordance with his statements at European level. Man of the post-textual era, master at the “but at the same time” manipulation, M. Macron is not at his first contradiction and his ease in the age of communication leaves little room for logical and coherent discourse . An opponent of social dumping one day, everything suggests that his hand will not shake when it comes to dismantle (“simplify”) French labor law.

Several remarks have to be maid on this last point. First, the diversionary maneuver is obvious. Mr Macron gives himself the image of someone caring for social conditions, while at the same time, the attack on social welfare and security begins with great pace in his country. The communication stroke is by no means a Macronian novelty, but the fact of involving other countries, the smallest of course, and offending them, is definitely new. If the low maneuver always has negative consequences on a given population on the long run, these consequences appear immediately when other countries are targeted. In this case, Poland did not wait to react, and the French media, although in a slightly watered down way, did not failed to relay the brawl in the eyes of all. While the unraveling of social law is barely hidden unraveling of the French diplomatic tradition is not left behind, in that it is in turn drowned in communication all over the place. Second, the context of Mr. Macron’s election is not innocent in this fight. Getting every day more a political minority, the French President uses a stale remedy which consists in cutting the grass under the foot of his opponents. Indeed, both the France insoumise of Mr Mélenchon and the Front National of Ms Le Pen had violently criticized the directive on the posted workers. The problem with this kind of tactic is that it inevitably leads to approve its adversaries, which the French seem to have understood, since Mr Macron continues his fall. It would therefore be even better to think further, thinking that the substance of Mr Macron’s statement was not to say that the Polish workers were ill-paid, but that the French were too well.

Moreover, Ms Merkel’s silence on the question is quite astonishing. For reasons essentially due to German demography, Angela Merkel seems assured of her re-election in the autumn. Prudent, however, she is careful avoiding subjects likely to give more weight to his opponents. Her discretion and her alleged support to France over the reform of the status of posted workers seem to be at odds with the interests of German employers, but the timetable should nevertheless make the latter triumph. At the moment, Merkel simply leaves Mr Macron to engage in his activism, the topic will be settled anyway on October 23, shortly after the outcome of the German elections. Everything suggests that Germany will not be so sweet and will not accept the reform of the directive. With a very flexible labour law regarding wages, Germany is using this directive wholeheartedly to put downward pressure on wages and to counter its aging demographics. Moreover, Germany will neither accept that France comes to hunt on its center-European private preserve. But for now, it is good for Merkel not to tackle this strange German “Macronmania” triggered in May. Many German retirees women then went so far as to openly display their physical attraction for the young president-elect. The dominant German press had shown itself to be dithyrambic towards Mr Macron. Here again, several remarks have to be maid. However Paris has a hard time defining its interests in Europe, it is absolutely clear about its total commitment to the Franco-German couple. In reality, this is in line with the interests of Berlin, which are clearly displayed. The Germans have clearly understood this French alignment on their interests and therefore do not make an issue of Mr Macron’s agitation, knowing that he has no plan to oppose them. Ms Merkel therefore leaves the French President make his attacks against the “betrayal of the European spirit” as a way of better call him to order and then humiliate him on October 23. However, if Ms Merkel were to stand behind the French position, this would mean that it was no longer necessary to use the directive to attract cheap labor, but that dumping would have in the future to be intensified by workers from outside the European Union, which would corroborate the statements made by German employers as soon as migrants arrive in 2015.

Finally, the “betrayal of the European spirit” evoked by Mr Macron is in fact much more a logical consequence of this very spirit. Emmanuel Macron seems surprised that the European Union has taken the path of social dumping, of the prize to the least social right and of unfair competition. The celebration of “free and undistorted” competition is shattered on the wall of reality and reminds us sharply that competition can be free or undistorted, but that these two epithets are hardly cumulative. This is all the more true when it comes to a market as heterogeneous as the European market. The difference in production structures can in this case only lead to dumping of any kind. Increasingly, there is an agreement on the economic nonsense of the single market, of which it is getting more openly apparent that the raison d’être lies in satisfying the interests of Berlin. Mr Macron is well aware of this and seemingly does not intend to get back seriously to this question, preferring to display a fake harshness against Poland, whereas his attack could very well have been addressed to Ms Merkel, who has every interest in ensuring that the Polish workers remain permanently ill-paid. This episode of posted workers status’ reform is likely to see its epilogue summed up in a word to which French diplomacy is now familiar: “Nein!“.