Britain back in, central Europe (partly) out?

Tony Blair just published a long analysis on the British political situation. Not surprisingly, it centers around building a new attractive political middle ground. But it also proposed a dangerous bargain — the Brits will forget about Brexit if the EU agrees to limit freedom of movement.

It may sound like an idea from a parallel universe since we know that Brexit means Brexit as Theresa May and most of her Conservative Party keep reminding us while a significant ingredient of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party election success was to make sure they present no strong opinion on Brexit.

However, things may change quickly. If there is still a negotiation a year from now at all, it will be very rough as the Brits finally start to understand the economic damage Brexit will bring to their country of low growth, high inflation and an upcoming shock to its export-oriented industries. By early summer 2018 there may be a frantic search for a way out of Brexit — and the only argument that could persuade British voters would be a significant limitation of the freedom of movement in the EU.

Let’s forget for a moment that the British economy is badly dependent on EU workers and that they contribute significantly more to the UK Treasury than British citizens and migrants from third countries. The British political imperative has been the same for quite some time — we must limit migration, whatever the cost.

So it is perfectly logical that it is the limitation of free movement from the EU Tony Blair proposes to get as the benefit for the UK to stop Brexit. He also thinks that it is a good bargain for the UK despite the economic cost of kicking out the EU workers would have for Britain. It would help UK avoid a significantly higher economic and political cost of “hard” or “no deal” Brexit — and he also understands that the British dislike of “people from the East” is shared by many Western European politicians.

When we negotiated at the February 2016 European Council with David Cameron, trying to find a deal that would allow the UK to stay in the European Union, the problem was not to agree to limit the number of people working in Britain. The problem was with several other Western European leaders that liked this draft deal too much and wanted to get the same powers to limit free movement as the Brits.

Today, we can easily dismiss Blair’s idea of limited free movement in exchange of no Brexit as it was flatly refused by the Conservatives and his Labour Party also tried to shoot it down so that it could avoid having an opinion on Brexit and thus keep fishing in both the Remain and Leave ponds of dissatisfied voters.

But we need to be careful. Western Europe is no longer in love with the post-communist countries. And the unwillingness of the new member states to deal reasonably with thorny issues such as migration, asylum policy or posted workers, combined with the worsening image of the whole image due to the situation in Poland and Hungary, unfortunately solidify the image of Central and Eastern Europe as a region that is only interested in the benefits of the EU while trying to ignore the costs of the membership. It is a badly mistaken view — at least for some countries of the region — but we do nothing effective to change it.

Undoubtedly, there will be a price to pay for this failure. And we will be lucky if it is only a lower share of the EU funds post-2020. But we should not underestimate the danger of the freedom of movement debate getting out of control. And if the Franco-German engine of European integration finally gets restarted, it is clear that a lot of energy will be devoted to deeper integration of the Eurozone. In that case, nobody will pay much attention to the outliers — even if they are in the center of Europe geographically and their well-being is so closely interconnected with the Eurozone.

Tomas Prouza is a former State Secretary for EU Affairs of the Czech Republic. You may follow his opinions and comments via his @ProuzaTomas Twitter account.