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Europe

France's Emmanuel Macron meets resistance to labor reforms in eastern Europe

Emmanuel Macron is on a campaign to curtail the export of cheap labor to western Europe. But as the French president takes his tour east, he is running into a less receptive audience.

It looked like it would be a walk in the park for French President Emmanuel Macron after his early success in Salzburg. Macron swiftly came to an agreement with Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern on Wednesday to work together against the export of foreign workers to be used as "cheap labor" in the western EU. He also won support from Slovakia and the Czech Republic during the four-way meeting in the Alpine city.

Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, however, cautiously pointed out that Hungary, and above all Poland, which sends particularly large numbers of workers to other EU countries, would have to sign onto any European agreement. Fico understood that Poland would continue to refuse a deal which, according to Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, is against the interests of its own workers.

Eastern Europe works differently

Szydlo reiterated Poland's opposition in a press conference on Thursday, as Macron was in Bucharest to meet with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. Speaking to reporters in Warsaw, Szydlo stressed Poland would not budge in its resistance to the labor reforms, kicking off a storm unlikely to be dealt with again until the next EU social summit in October.

Emmanuel Macron in Bucharest (picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Ghirda)

Macron found less support for his proposed labor reforms in Romania

In Bucharest, and the next day in the Bulgarian city of Varna, support for Macron's proposals suddenly looked bleak. Both Iohannis and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev admitted to their French counterpart that they wanted to intensify their efforts to eliminate cheap labor exports within the EU. But they cited the rights of workers and companies' needs to compete on the European free market as stumbling blocks.

Analysis: Macron willing to compromise ...

Macron is well aware of the explosive nature of this issue. In order to reform the European labor market, an effort also supported by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he must be ready to compromise. That is why Macron this week offered his Romanian and Bulgarian counterparts support in their countries' respective negotiations to join the Schengen visa zone.

But Macron must also recognize that his view of the "European spirit" is seen as one-sided. His attempts to blame cheap foreign labor for France's unemployment problems is too transparent an attempt to divert attention from the longstanding structural problems in his country. In addition, Macron seems to be deliberately forgetting that French retail chains, such as Carrefour and Auchan, have pushed the local and much weaker companies almost completely out of the market in eastern Europe. These are the rules of the free European Economic Area, from which French companies also fully benefit. To "reform" the labor market in the EU by means of protectionist measures would be the worst possible signal to save the "European spirit."

Construction workers (picture-alliance/Sven Simon)

Eastern European construction workers are often poorly paid in Western EU countries

...but no consensus in sight

It is understandable that Macron was left frustrated by Poland's resistance to labor reforms while in Varna. He is certainly right when he says that Poland is not the country that "leads the way in Europe."

But France alone will not be able to dictate the direction the EU is headed. The bloc must come together to find ways to significantly reduce the social and economic disparities within the region. The French president's tour of central and eastern Europe will surely inject life into the stalled discussions. But Macron's desire to have labor reform in the bag by the end of the year remains far from finished.

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