BUDAPEST — Once again, the debate is on over how fast and how closely EU countries ought to get together. The divisions on this perennial question about the future of Europe are nowhere sharper than among the more recent arrivals out east.
As much as the focus is on where the new leadership in Paris and the next government in Berlin want to take the EU in the post-Brexit future, the formerly eastern bloc countries are weighing in on proposals for tighter eurozone integration, for a multispeed Europe and for an enlarged passport-free Schengen area.
Their views clash, denying the region a chance to present a united front against Brussels and the renewed Franco-German alliance. Yet these countries are still bound to complicate efforts to chart the path ahead for the EU.
Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia are actively pushing for greater integration, including Schengen and eventually also eurozone membership.
Poland and Hungary, on the other hand, are already in Schengen but are shying away from joining the single currency, and fear greater integration could empower Brussels further.
“The eurozone is an idea for wealthy countries” — Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki
The Czech Republic is caught in the middle, its public skeptical but its leaders keen to ensure the door remains open for future integration. Eurozone member Slovakia, meanwhile, has no problem with allowing a club of members to push ahead with greater integration, seeing no problem with the vision for a multispeed Europe pushed by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Here’s how these countries split on Europe’s future.
Integration club: Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia
Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia all aim to join Schengen and the eurozone, and worry about what they perceive to be political efforts to slow down their further integration with the bloc.
While eurozone membership remains years away, all three countries have emphasized their commitment to ultimately joining the currency. In June, Bulgaria’s finance minister declared his intent to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM-2), a “waiting area” for accession, while in September Croatia set a 2020 target for joining the mechanism as well. Romania said in August that it aims to adopt the euro in 2022.
“Some member states have been on different speeds for a long time already,” Bulgaria’s foreign ministry wrote in a statement to POLITICO. “What we insist on is that all forms for enhanced cooperation among member states in various areas have an inclusive character, and that those who are willing but not yet able to join receive pre-accession assistance.”
These countries were heartened by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union speech last month, which insisted the easterners wouldn’t be left in the slower lane. “If we want the euro to unite rather than divide our Continent, then it should be more than the currency of a select group of countries,” Juncker said. “The euro is meant to be the single currency of the European Union as a whole.”
Bulgaria and Romania should join Schengen now, he added, and Croatia when it’s ready.
Eurozone integration is popular in these three countries: According to an April 2017 Eurobarometer study, the majority of respondents in Romania (64 percent), Croatia (52 percent) and Bulgaria (50 percent) are in favor of adopting the euro.
The EU is also popular as an institution: In Romania, 57 percent of respondents in a May 2017 Eurobarometer poll said they tend to trust the EU, one of the highest rates in the bloc.
Marcon’s proposals for deepening eurozone integration have raised fears in these countries that their ambitions for further integration will be derailed — and that their access to EU structural funds limited in the future.
“A eurozone budget is a logical step in the attempt to improve the policy mix between a single monetary policy and national fiscal policies,” said the Bulgarian foreign ministry. “However, in our opinion this budget should be limited to policy areas that are specific for the euro area, without duplicating community policies financed by the EU budget.”
Skeptics: Poland and Hungary
Poland and Hungary, which are both embroiled in battles with Brussels over rule of law and migration issues, formally oppose a multispeed Europe.
In September, Polish President Andrzej Duda warned that, if implemented, a multispeed Europe will “ultimately lead to a break-up of the European Union.”
At the same time, Poland and Hungary don’t plan to join the eurozone in the near future and view some efforts at greater integration with skepticism.
“The eurozone is an idea for wealthy countries,” said Ryszard Czarnecki, a member of the European Parliament from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party. “Poland is still one of the seven poorest countries in the EU in terms of GDP per capita. Therefore, we do not intend to go to the eurozone in the foreseeable future.”
Hungarian authorities take a similar view. While the majority of Hungarian voters, unlike their Polish counterparts, support eurozone membership, the ruling Fidesz party — which has a strong hold on the central bank — prefers to keep control of monetary policy.
“Joining the euro is a treaty obligation, so, yes, Hungary will join,” said György Schöpflin, a Fidesz MEP. “When is hard to determine. Economists are divided on the issue.”
For the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the EU is a forum for cooperation only on selected matters.
“The Hungarian government takes the view that integration can and should take place when and where it is useful,” said Schöpflin, pointing to issues like defense and counterterrorism. “But it is not in favor of integration for its own sake. Equally, and Hungary is not alone in this, the government is uneasy with new exclusions in the EU.”
A spokesman for the Hungarian government did not respond to questions from POLITICO for this article.
Czechs: Caught in the middle
Czech voters are highly skeptical about EU integration: Eurobarometer data from spring 2017 shows that just 29 percent of Czechs favor introducing the euro and 30 percent tend to trust the EU.
The eurozone’s low approval ratings notwithstanding, the government in Prague — unlike its counterparts in Warsaw and Budapest — publicly advocates for a role in shaping the future of the eurozone.
For Slovakia, the crucial principle is that everyone should be allowed to move faster” — Peter Susko, spokesman for Slovakia’s foreign ministry
“The euro area must remain as inclusive as possible and the debate on its further deepening must be kept in the EU27 format,” said Aleš Chmelař, who serves as the Czech Republic’s state secretary for European affairs.
“The participation of non-euro area members in discussions and full transparency and openness of the initiatives should be guaranteed,” he said, adding that Prague proposes the opening of the Eurogroup to non-eurozone members, for example in the form of granting countries like the Czech Republic observer status.
Czech politicians acknowledge that despite their hope to one day join the eurozone, domestic considerations make integration a distant possibility.
“Politicians mainly are happy to take the EU benefits and distance themselves from non-popular elements,” said Petr Ježek, a Czech MEP for ANO 2011, the movement behind Andrej Babiš, the front-runner to become prime minister in the national election on October 20-21. While Ježek believes the Czech Republic should anchor itself to the West and join the euro, the public’s opposition means prospects are “slim.”
Babiš has run a strongly Euroskeptic campaign, opposing eurozone membership.
But as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia grapple with how to respond to debates over the EU’s future, one of their neighbors is far from worried about the prospect of a multispeed Europe.
The eurozone “cannot remain in the state it is right now, and it is clear that if we want the euro to remain as our currency, we will have to go deeper,” said Peter Susko, spokesman for Slovakia’s foreign ministry. His country joined the euro in 2009.
“Why shouldn’t we let move faster those who want to? For Slovakia, the crucial principle is that everyone should be allowed to move faster, no limits on the number or the composition of the front-runners,” said Susko.