Emmanuel Macron starts his tour of „new Europe“ on Wednesday (23 August). And, at least for some of these countries, it may redefine the role they play in the EU.
The French president will have three goals during his trip to the East of the EU: deepen cooperation with those member states the West still wants to talk to, push harder to protect the French labour market and see who will support him in the upcoming restart of the French-German motor of European integration.
Going to Romania makes perfect sense – both countries are historically close, Romania is a large non-member of the eurozone and could one day become a counterbalance to Poland among the „new“ member states.
Going to Bulgaria also makes perfect sense. Bulgaria holds the next six-month EU presidency and will thus manage the first discussions about the upcoming French-German proposals to deepen European integration.
The third country in Macron’s itinerary is Austria. It will take over the EU presidency from Bulgaria in the second half of 2018 and, as a eurozone member, will finalise the discussions about the single currency’s reform – just in time before the European elections in early 2019.
The ‚Austerlitz triangle‘
Going to Austria will also allow Macron to meet the Czech and Slovak prime ministers outside the ever more problematic Visegrad group (V4), which also includes Poland and Hungary.
The „Austerlitz triangle“ – originally created by the Czechs to draw Austria more actively into Central Europe – may, in the end, help the Czechs to decide where they want to belong.
After the clear and forceful statement of Slovak prime minister Robert Fico last week that the EU is more important for Slovakia than the V4, the Czechs remain the odd man out – not in love with illiberal democracy (at least not yet until the October election), but also not willing to move decisively forward with deeper European integration.
Wednesday’s meeting in Salzburg will therefore be a major Czech test.
Macron will seek answers to three key questions, which will determine whether he will consider Czechs friends or foes.
Firstly, he will want to know if Prague is willing to support deeper European integration and invest not only words but also political capital – or whether the Czechs will stand aside, no matter the damage it would cause to a country in the centre of Europe.
Secondly, he will want to know whether the Czech Republic can accept a compromise for the revision of the EU’s posted workers directive – and start behaving as a country that wants to compete through quality, not the cheapness of its labour force.
Thirdly, Macron will want to know whether the Czechs really want to participate in big new projects such as common European defence.
The Czech Republic was among the first to push this topic last summer and has enjoyed close cooperation in this area with the European Commission – but others are taking over this topic and are much more effective in realising the benefits available.
Slovakia came first
The next few months will be decisive in selecting who stays in the core of the European Union and who stays behind.
Slovakia took the lead and Prague will have to decide quickly whether it wants to remain a reasonable partner in the centre of Europe, or whether it wants to return to the years of former president Vaclav Klaus and behave like a stubborn child.
However, the times have changed: there are many others who want to cooperate and develop the European Union.
The decision is ours, but nobody will beg us twice. The first test comes this Wednesday at the meeting with Emmanuel Macron.
Written for EU Observer.