Last week the French president has completed his first tour around Central Europe campaigning for the new EU policy reform on posted workers. He met only with carefully selected leaders from Austria, Czechia, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria, while ignoring government in Budapest and openly criticizing Warsaw. Although Beata Szydło’s rebuttal already went viral inciting mostly negative comments it is nobody’s secret that Macron deliberately evoked a diplomatic crisis with Poland. Such tactic is a double edged sword.

His plan partly worked as he managed to get support for the reform that promises to limit international competition on the labor market in France and slow down expansion from Central European companies on the EU market. That support is yet to be confirmed as the Visegrad leaders declare at the same time united stand on the proposal. And partly his plan did not work out – French domestic issues overshadow president’s foreign policy initiative and leave his popularity rankings as low as they were.

Leaving domestic politics aside – albeit his success at home is more important for Europe than France’s foreign policy – the tour may look like a testing ground for a new French approach. Previous French presidents already have a record of criticizing the region: Chirac or Sarkozy were no more diplomatic when they commented on the New or Central Europe. But they were not picking a fight with a particular government like Macron did. How does this help him the reform of Europe that involves upgrading the powers euro zone?

Macron can hardly isolate countries that have already pushed themselves to the margins of the EU. His tactics seem even less coherent when he engages in a diplomatic fist fight that exaggerates the importance of his sparring partner. On international scene Poland’s credibility has already sustained heavy self-inflicted damage during attempts to subordinate judiciary branch to the central government or because of ridiculous statements by government’s ministers, not to mention peculiar scheme to oust Donald Tusk from his office that caught even Hungary, its closest ally, by surprise.

Even though comments addressed at PiS government were right, the French president gave Warsaw a reason to believe that it acts in self-defense. The more they criticize us the more we are right – used to be the message from Budapest, a template that Warsaw may be eager to employ.

To over 40% of PiS supporters, it may also very well look like an attempt of arrogant European elites to ditch Polish sovereignty. Never mind that it is a self-fulfilled prophecy. More importantly, in a case of a deeply polarized country, this is counterproductive. In order to influence Central Europe France could try rather a less confrontational approach, that already appeared to be employed. Despite appearances, Visegrad is more patchy than it looks and unity is more of a goal pursued by four capitals than a natural state of affairs.

In a private conversation, French diplomacy already signaled that Macron would meet all Visegrad leaders during one of next months’ summits in Budapest but only under the condition that all four countries would sign an agreement with France on the issue of posted workers. That move makes much more sense.

A conditionality approach and negotiating with individual V4 members helps to empower pragmatist approach within the Visegrad Group. Despite apparent cracks in group’s position on that policy reform, the V4 is going to prevail as one of the several important regional formats that have become the modus operandi in the EU.

Unless France has a really good idea how to tame the shrew (Warsaw, occasionally Budapest), which it does not, it should simply allow Poland to digest its own failures. Time will come to reform Poland’s approach that would once allow it to regain regional leadership and European relevance. For now, blocking a restart of the Weimar triangle (French-German-Polish consultation format pursued by Poland) or attempts to make good use of the region’s V4 format seem to be just enough.

If Macron would consider that the Central European tour was a testing ground for his foreign policy than the effectiveness of restraint and playing cool should be his primary conclusion. Too much in Europe depends on his overall performance to lose energy for petty skirmish.

Photo (c) Lorie Shaull

Wojciech Przybylski is editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight

Wojciech Przybylski

Scenarios for cohesive growth

As of 2019 the negotiations about the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will enter a critical moment. In the face of an imminent Brexit and the fallout from global turmoil, the EU has to reflect on its guiding principles and take decisions to fulfil the promise of a united Europe.

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The Visegrad/Insight is the main platform of debate and analysis on Central Europe. This report has been developed in cooperation with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

Launched on 1 October 2019 at the European #Futures Forum in Brussels.