On 23 August in Salzburg, Austria, French President Emmanuel Macron met with leaders of the Slavkov Triangle (S3), a grouping of three Central European countries: Austria, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, established in 2015. Among the leaders were Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. Macron’s visit to Central Europe also includes Romania and Bulgaria.
The meeting in Salzburg was part of the overall consultations among EU Member States about the future of the bloc. President Macron is particularly active in this field and planned to meet with 12 heads of government of EU states over 10 days. His proposals for amending the Union’s directive on posted workers—one of his main election promises—has met considerable opposition from many Central European countries. The French side explained the reason for meeting in the S3 format as not dividing the EU into “Eastern” and “Western” parts. Austria, which is fourth among host states of posted workers, supports Macron’s initiative. Poland and Hungary, which were not present in Salzburg, are among those countries opposing Macron’s proposed amendment of the directive.
The EU’s future shape and social policy were at the centre of the talks between the French president and the three social-democratic chiefs of government. The leaders reached agreement on basic principles to use in modification of the posted work rules in the Union, including reducing posted time, equal pay for equal work in the same place, and increased controls over posting companies and working conditions. The conclusions will be clarified by 23 October, so before the summit of EU labour ministers. The meeting confirmed the determination of France and Austria to counteract so-called “social dumping” (the use of cheaper, often migrant labour), which undermines confidence in the European project. The participants of the S3 meeting agreed that the EU should strengthen protection of its external borders, but the meeting also reaffirmed the differences in position towards the Union’s mandatory refugee reception system, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia on one side and France on the other.
The first meeting of the S3 with the leader of third state has demonstrated that for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the grouping in some areas might be an alternative to the V4. It cannot be ruled out that a new “S3+” format instead of a “V4+” one potentially could play a bigger role as a platform for cooperation with third countries of Poland’s southern neighbours. This would be useful if the Czech Republic and Slovakia would like to distance themselves from the other V4 partners, Poland and Hungary. Moreover, the Czech Republic used the summit to seek observer status at Eurogroup meetings. That could possibly deepen the divisions inside the V4. At the same time, the Czech and Slovak prime ministers offered assurances that the V4’s function is not endangered, but also acknowledged that the S3 helps them pursue a more effective European policy.
Poland is the top EU sending state for posted workers (about 460,000). Amendment of the directive as proposed at the Salzburg summit would be unfavourable for it. Companies or representative offices based in Poland would see a less competitive position through wage increases and/or higher costs of adaptation to other EU countries’ labour markets, with one consequence for the state being the loss of social security contributions (estimated at up to PLN 8 billion a year). There will be an opportunity for intergovernmental consultations at the V4+France summit in Budapest (planned for September). Changes to the proposal may include a time limit for delegated work or the introduction of a transitional period if there is new legislation. After the S3 consultations in Salzburg, it will be more difficult for the Polish government to negotiate favourable changes to the proposed directive amendment.