East European Leaders Signal Gaps in EU Draft to Avert U.K. Exit

  • Poland, Hungary indicate concern over benefits discrimination
  • Bulgaria critical, Czech Republic supportive of Tusk's plan

Governments across eastern Europe, a region that’s sent millions to live and work in Britain, indicated there are gaps to be bridged in European Union President Donald Tusk’s draft agreement aimed at keeping the U.K. in the 28-member bloc.

None of the region’s leaders outright rejected the proposals, which would allow Britain to temporarily cut benefits for foreign workers, and said they could serve as a basis of negotiations before a summit in Brussels later this month. The governments of Poland and Hungary warned against potential discrimination, while Bulgaria said it wouldn’t support the proposal in its current form.

“The issue of social benefits and free movement is the most sensitive one,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said Tuesday. “We need further analysis on the proposals.” 

Tusk’s plan offers Britain a four-year brake on welfare for EU migrants and sets out safeguards to shield the U.K. financial industry from interference by euro-area regulators and more powers for national parliaments. Based on the proposals, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was ready to campaign in a referendum on the side of keeping Britain in the EU. The leaders of the other 27 member nations must sign off on any deal.

Equal Treatment

“We are analyzing the latest proposal thoroughly,” Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo told reporters in Oslo. She said she would have more to say after meeting Cameron on Friday. Earlier on Tuesday government spokesman Rafal Bochenek told TVP Info: “We want hard-working Poles in the U.K. to be treated equally with all other EU citizens staying there.”

The Polish and Hungarian foreign ministers will huddle in Budapest on Wednesday to coordinate responses. While Hungary supported Britain’s effort to cut down on the abuse of its social system, the government opposes any discrimination in benefits among workers hailing form the EU, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Tuesday.

Bulgaria was coolest to the plan, with ruling-party lawmaker Dzhema Grozdanova, head of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee saying by phone that the government in Sofia “doesn’t support” it as it couldn’t accept limitations on benefits or on free movement. Still, she said the plan could “lead to negotiations that will help preserve the bloc.”

‘Good Solution’

The Czech Republic was the only country to cheer Tusk’s proposals, which forced Cameron to give ground on some key demands. Having pledged to stop people claiming welfare payments for children living abroad, the British premier has conceded that such claims will continue, and instead of a complete ban on non-U.K. workers getting in-work welfare payments for four years, he has secured an emergency mechanism that tapers them.

It’s a “very good solution,” for keeping the U.K. in the EU,” Czech State Secretary for EU Affairs Tomas Prouza said in telephone interview in Prague. “It doesn’t mean totally closing the U.K. and it isn’t turning anyone into a second-class citizen.”

In most countries, governments indicated that they see the proposals as the basis of an eventual deal. It’s possible to find a “reasonable compromise” regarding the timing, conditions and size of benefits, Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas said Tuesday in an interview at his office in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. He spoke just before Tusk published the draft.

“The approach that’s now on the table, stating that free movement of people shouldn’t be restricted and not aiming to set any EU quotas on that, is the logical direction,” Roivas said. “There’s readiness in Europe to discuss it. Last time EU leaders discussed it, there didn’t seem to be any insurmountable obstacles” to a deal.

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