Brexit Veto Talk Rises in EU’s East on Concern Over Workers

  • Polish negotiator says ‘veto pressure’ to weigh on talks
  • Eastern nations say no free market for U.K. if worker access

Poland, the biggest exporter of workers to the U.K., joined a chorus of voices from the European Union’s eastern nations in signaling it may veto any Brexit agreement that would erode the rights of its citizens to live and work throughout the bloc’s single market.

QuickTake Brexit

While negotiations will aim at a compromise, Poland won’t support a deal that’s not “balanced” in terms of the four principles of the EU’s single market -- the free movement of goods, people, capital and services -- Deputy Foreign Minister Minister Konrad Szymanski told Bloomberg on Monday. Along with the EU’s other eastern members, Poland has made the free movement of people a key condition for the U.K. to maintain unfettered access to the world’s biggest trading bloc.

European governments are staking out so-called “red lines” detailing what they’ll accept or reject in Brexit negotiations, with Poland and Hungary also trying to use the U.K.’s withdrawal as a trigger for a deep overhaul of the way Brussels works. The influence of the post-communist countries is bigger now, as all EU leaders excluding the U.K. must agree unanimously on the guidelines for the talks, while the actual deal must pass by qualified majority, meaning bigger countries may manage to approve one without their support.

“It’s clear that negotiations on a new relationship are being held under pressure of a veto,” Szymanski said, when asked about the possibility of Poland blocking a deal. “Negotiations are aimed at avoiding a veto, but we will not seek a compromise at any cost.”

Communist Memories

The bloc’s 11 ex-communist members, where memories of dreaded visa regimes which kept them behind the Iron Curtain remain vivid, have insisted that the U.K. can’t have free access to the common EU market unless it also opens its borders to their citizens without limits. The push by Poland and Hungary to reduce oversight from Brussels is also a bid to help their governments escape scrutiny from the EU’s executive over whether they’re adhering to the bloc’s democratic standards.

After last week’s summit of EU leaders in Bratislava that excluded Britain, Slovak Premier Robert Fico said his country, along with Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, were ready to veto any Brexit deal that didn’t guarantee their citizens equal access. Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said last week that “the application of the four freedoms must remain the paramount condition for keeping access.”

With Britain facing staunch opposition to a deal giving it flexibility on immigration, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond may be ready to accept that his country may have to give up single-market access, including U.K. banks’ ability to work with clients on the continent, two officials familiar with his thinking said last week.

Qualified Majority

The eventual Brexit deal must be passed by a qualified majority of 72 percent of the remaining states -- or at least 20 -- that represent 65 percent of the bloc’s population of just over a billion people. It must also win a simple majority vote in EU parliament, according to the European Commission.

Meanwhile, the U.K. is losing its appeal for Poles seeking to work abroad. About 41,000 Poles moved to Germany in 2015, the fourth consecutive year that Poland’s neighbor has been a bigger draw of Polish workers than Britain, according to calculations based on data from Poland’s statistical office.

Almost two thirds of Poles, a country of 38 million, and 70 percent of Czechs see the free movement of people, goods and services within the EU as the most important positive result of the bloc, according to a Eurobarometer poll published in 2015. That compared with an average 57 percent for all 28 members.

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