Between Eastern and Western Europe, the gap widens

Home"TO THE ONE"Between Eastern and Western Europe, the gap widens
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Accused of social and fiscal dumping, the former countries of the East, who have not yet caught up with the standard of living of Westerners, feel cheated.

Bulgaria, Austria and Romania will succeed to the presidency of the European Union in the next eighteen months. Will this shift towards the east of the European decision centers help to reduce the gap with Western Europe? The migrant crisis exacerbated this division, with some eastern states categorically refusing to accept refugees. The illiberal excesses of Hungary and Poland did not help.

But it is on the economic front that the division is most evident between the economies of the founding countries and those, still catching up, former Soviet bloc countries, entered the club during the 2004 enlargement phases (Cyprus , Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia), 2007 (Bulgaria, Romania) and 2013 (Croatia).

The revision of the posted work directive, a priority of Emmanuel Macron (and François Hollande, before him) has polarized the debates for months. Finally, only four countries voted against the Council (including Poland and Hungary). But the clash could resume in the spring on the working conditions of truck drivers.

"Dismantling of the Union"

What are the main lines of fracture, and why? In Paris, Berlin and Brussels, Budapest and Warsaw are accused of abusing the free movement of services and people, bypassing the 1996 Posting Directive, which requires foreign workers to be paid at the country's minimum wage. Home. Since Bucharest, at the end of August 2017, Emmanuel Macron had castigated this "Social and tax dumping", which could lead to a "Dismantling of the Union".

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Not at all, say the East: if there are any breaches of the guidelines, they must be punished. But the fact that wages remain much lower than those in the West has nothing to do with dumping, it is explained by differences in development. The West would give way to a protectionist reflex by attempting to impede the free movement of workers from the former East European countries.

Who is wrong, who is right ? The reality is anything but binary. In France and Belgium in particular, the crisis, mass unemployment and offshoring have made the subject of posted workers highly sensitive. These account for only 0.9% of total employment in the Union, but their concentration in certain sectors (building, agriculture) is problematic.

It is the development model of the former Soviet republics which is disputed, based on attractive taxation, low salaries and very flexible social legislation. In Bulgaria, the poorest country in the Union, an application developer costs only 500 euros monthly, boasts the municipality of Plovdiv (center).

In France, these arguments are known. Those on the other side are less so. European citizens living in countries that joined the Union since 2004 feel cheated. Because, if East Germany has experienced a spectacular catch-up thanks to the "Marshall Plan" of reunification, its former "brother" countries have not experienced the same fate.

Striking contrast

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"Why are the Czechs the most Eurosceptic in Europe after the Greeks?, pretends to question Martin Michelot, from the Europeum think tank in Prague. Because we sold them an economic catch-up that does not happen ».

The contrast is striking between Vienna and Bratislava, just an hour away. The motorway that will connect the Austrian and Slovak capitals has not emerged. On the Slovak side, infrastructure from another time is "A major obstacle to the development of trade", according to Michelot.

The leaders of the region, often taxed populism, would gladly return the remark to Western Europeans, who caricature in profiteers of fat public subsidies - they should receive 205.5 billion euros from the Structural Funds between 2014 and 2020, according to Brussels - while themselves being tempted by protectionist measures.

Slovakia is up against the plans of the conservative and far-right government in Austria to index family allowances for cross-border workers leaving their children behind in the country's standard of living.

Europeans second area

This impression of being second-class Europeans emerges from all the debates opposing East to West. It was seen resurging in 2017, during discussions on the lower quality of products sold in Europe median by large agribusiness firms. A "Big scandal", according to Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who dedicated a summit in October 2017. "It is unacceptable that a ham of the same brand sold at the same price contains 10% more meat eight kilometers from here, on the other side of the border, and that on the contrary, on the Slovak side, it is contain three times more salt »the Social Democrat leader blasted.

"Why are the Czechs the most Eurosceptic in Europe after the Greeks? Because we sold them an economic catch-up that does not happen »

The other big reason for the resentment is that despite Western recriminations, the "old Europe" firms have taken full advantage of the opening up of markets in the East, while very few champions emerged in the east. The brain drain to the West, massive, prevents the emergence of a competitive national capitalism

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The Bulgarian example is striking. The only national car manufacturer, Litex Motors, is a joint venture with China, bankrupt in 2016. So, when France claims that Europe controls foreign investment, especially Chinese, it is ticking to the East . Questioned mid-January, Boiko Borissov, the Bulgarian Prime Minister, ironises: "Emmanuel Macron has just made a very successful visit to China, France also wants to work a lot with this country. "

"Break the marriage contract"

The influential Czech MEP Pavel Telicka (Liberal) is also rebelling. "The Czech Republic is in the 5e or 6e world rank of the most open economies. Are French investors unhappy? Eastern countries have become more open to western societies and have given up some of their economic sovereignty. "

In this context, the recent offensive by France and Germany, which say they want to link the allocation of cohesion funds to respect for the rule of law or social criteria, is very badly received. "In the treaties, there are two clearly separated procedures", according to Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister. "One concerns budgets, the other the rule of law. There is no connection between the two. " The leader does not want "To give the impression of stretching one's hat" - to do the quest - because, according to him, the "net contributors", more precisely France and Germany, largely benefit from investments made in the East.

For Yves Bertoncini, President of the European Movement, the idea of ​​blackmail is dangerous. "The payment of Structural Funds was part of an initial deal: you participate in the internal market while respecting its four freedoms of movement [people, goods, assets, services] despite less developed service markets and, in return, you are sent money. There, it is as if one threatened to break the marriage contract. "

"Cohesion is not charity"

Meeting in Sofia, Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev insists: "When we entered the EU, our companies had no experience: Bulgaria was a market for German, Austrian, Italian companies. Cohesion is not charity: we needed investments to survive and to be able to participate in the single market. "

Will we avoid arriving at this "Two-speed Europe" that some brandish as the only viable solution, especially in Paris? Luca Visentini, the Secretary General of the European Trade Union Confederation, is rather optimistic. "Things are changing: some governments in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria understand that they will not stop the brain drain if wages do not increase. "

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