ŠTRBSKÉ PLESO, Slovakia — Central Europe’s unity is cracking.
The common purpose the region rediscovered during the refugee crisis has frayed in recent months amid differences over matters large and small, concerning everything from regulatory fine print to the future of Europe.
Tensions within the so-called Visegrad Group burst into the open last week over the question of Europe’s cross-border labor rules, as Poland and Hungary refused to follow Slovakia and the Czech Republic in endorsing a French-led compromise to tighten regulations on employees posted to work in the EU outside their home countries.
A bigger worry to those hoping to maintain a semblance of unity is that Prague could turn away from the alliance under populist oligarch Andrej Babiš, whose party won the parliamentary election on October 20-21. Though Babiš is not as ideological as Poland’s current right-wing leadership and doesn’t have a poisonous history with EU institutions like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, he’s given little indication of what his foreign policy will look like.
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“Babiš doesn’t really care about Visegrad,” said a Czech official, adding that Babiš is likely to stake out his own course.
The divergence is raising doubts over how Visegrad — a region of about 65 million people — can function as a coherent political bloc at a crucial moment in the EU’s history.
“In no way do we want to create an East-West rift. That’s absolutely essential. France knows this” — European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič
“The attempt to turn this club into a counterweight failed,” said Milan Nič, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations who previously worked for Slovakia’s foreign ministry. “They’re too divided on fundamental issues to push a common agenda, but they want to also prove that it’s not over. All four need the club.”
At stake is Central Europe’s ability to influence, or even halt, “multi-speed Europe” initiatives championed by France and Germany. Though Visegrád’s disunion may sound like good news for Brussels integrationists, further isolating the EU’s critics in the region could fuel populism and undermine confidence in the bloc.
The controversial EU labor reform marked an important victory for French President Emmanuel Macron,who has made combatting what he considers “social dumping” a top priority.
Macron argues the current rules make it too easy for employers to avoid paying social security contributions in countries such as France, where the payments are much higher than in Central Europe. A number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, however, worry that the reform, which EU ministers approved by a qualified majority, undermines the single market and will hit their citizens particularly hard. In addition to Hungary and Poland, Lithuania and Latvia opposed the measure.
What may sound like a narrow technical issue could end up having much larger implications. Some in Central Europe worry the deal opens the door to protectionism within the common market by establishing a precedent for raising standards that place the poorer countries of their region at a distinct disadvantage.
“That’s exactly the question,” European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, who is Slovak, said in an interview at the Tatra Summit, an annual gathering of Visegrad and European officials in Slovakia. “In no way do we want to create an East-West rift. That’s absolutely essential. France knows this.”
Some say the rift is already there.
French officials deny trying to drive a wedge through Visegrad. Yet Macron has openly cultivated the leaders of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, who are generally regarded as pragmatic. He met with both in August, avoiding Visegrad’s more difficult half.
Illiberal and Euroskeptic
The Visegrad alliance, established in 1991 to further regional cooperation after the collapse of communism, has functioned as more of a diplomatic network than a true bloc for most of its history. In the early days, the countries shared the dual common objectives of joining the EU and NATO. Once members, their priorities diverged as they became competitors for Western investment and pursued different political paths.
During the refugee crisis in 2015, however, the group was reenergized as the four stood together to oppose German-led efforts to force them to take in refugees. That sparked hope in the region that the V4, as the quartet is often referred to, could push a common agenda on other fronts as well.
Brussels was less enthusiastic, voicing concern that the group could devolve into an illiberal, Euroskeptic platform. That view has led Western European officials to equate Visegrad with the politics of the current governments in Hungary and Poland and question whether the broader region has embraced the EU’s core principles. “Unfortunately, there’s a tendency in West to put everybody in East in the same basket,” Nič said. “It’s a serious problem.”
The EU’s skepticism might be short-sighted. At a time of severe tension between Brussels and both Warsaw and Budapest, the V4 (via the Slovaks and Czechs) is one of the few backdoor channels Europe has to reach Poland and Hungary.
Euro-Slovaks, cool Poland
With the Czech Republic’s political course clouded by Babiš’ recent election victory, Slovakia is the key to preventing the region’s further estrangement from the EU.
As Visegrad’s only euro member, Slovakia has a clear interest in tethering itself to the EU’s “core” and Prime Minister Robert Fico has made it clear he doesn’t want to be relegated to a “second tier.”
“Visegrad is still in good shape because it delivers on issues that are important to us” — Ivan Korčok, the Slovak state secretary for Europe
At the same time, if Slovaks feel they are being coerced into submission by Western European countries, the strategy could backfire. Outside of the common currency, many of Slovakia’s interests are closely aligned with the broader region when it comes to issues such as protecting the single market, preserving Schengen and EU subsidies.
Ivan Korčok, the Slovak state secretary for Europe who played a key role in crafting the posted-worker compromise, says talk of a Visegrad split is overblown.
“You have to look at the end result,” he said at the Tatra Summit, where he hosted his counterparts from the region. “Thanks to Visegrad, all four countries got more than was on the table when we started.”
Indeed, France had hoped to limit the duration of posted-worker contracts to 12 months or less but eventually accepted an extension to 18 months under certain conditions. The V4 is still trying to forge a compromise on truck drivers, however.
Despite such complications, Korčok said he saw a readiness from the other Visegrad countries “to stay together” in upcoming talks on the EU budget.
“Visegrad is still in good shape because it delivers on issues that are important to us,” he said.
Konrad Szymański, Poland’s state secretary for Europe, was less effusive, referring to the V4 as a “very important point of reference.”
“It’s not the whole world because,” he said on the fringes of the summit, “there are 28 countries in the EU.”