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Lost in the Pond: Macron’s Eastern Maneuvers

In a time of grave European instability highlighted by British secession, Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victory provoked an almost messianic reaction among the anti-Brexit population. The conservative British Daily Telegraph touted headlines claiming Macron’s election “putting a cloud over Brexit” while liberal Italian media proclaimed “Macron wins: for France and for Europe.” The European Union could not have asked for a stronger note to turn the tide around onand yet, after four months of presidency, Macron seems to have lost the fervor of the masses that propelled him to his landslide victory.

If anything, the numbers are pointing in a pessimistic direction for the young president. A poll from August 27 shows a sharp decrease in approval for Macron, with over half of respondents expressing dissatisfaction with their leader. While this number is not as alarming as former-President François Hollande’s abysmal four percent approval rating, it still represents the fastest fall in popularity for any French president since 1995. What’s more, this sharp decrease in popularity comes at an especially sensitive time as Macron embarks on his quest to reform France and give new hope to the European project.

After taking the summer to digest unprecedented presidential and legislative victories as well as to cement his cabinet, Macron and his government are starting the year by launching a reform of labor law so vast that it encompasses changes not only to the French code but also to existing EU laws. Paradoxically, it is precisely for the European changes that domestic support is crucial. Macron’s parliamentary majority nearly guarantees his ability to pass a national overhaul (though he will face strong opposition in the streets from unions and the far left), but submitting an amendment to European code with less than half the submitter’s population supporting said amendment is much harder to justify.

Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski seemed to allude to Macron’s domestic policy in his criticism of the labor proposal. In an interview with the pro-government radio station Radio Maryja he said that “instead of forcing the French economy to compete, President Macron has come up with the idea to limit our activities on the common market.” Given the nature of the reform, it is not surprising that the Polish government is keen to shoot it down.

The major European-tier change that Macron is campaigning for concerns laws on posted workers. Under current EU directives, multinational enterprises can hire workers in Eastern Europe, where wages and social charges are significantly lower, and then temporarily “post” them on a project in France, Germany or England.

By doing this, the employer avoids social charges in the host country and increases profit margins. Workers also benefit from this scheme by earning higher wages than they would be working in Eastern Europe. Said wages are paid out in Euros or Pounds, allowing workers to additionally profit from exchange rate fluctuations.

Foreseeing the inevitable opposition in Eastern Europe, Macron paired his announcement of the reform with a tour of the region, meeting with leaders to secure support in the EU legislature. Over the course of three days, he met with Austrian, Slovak, and Czech leaders in Salzburg. After that, he traveled to Romania and Bulgaria. What is perhaps most interesting is the deliberate exclusion of Poland and Hungary from his tour route, despite the two countries being the largest exporters of posted workers in Europe.

Given Macron’s firm disapproval of the internal politics of Warsaw and Budapest, this is not surprising. Macron evidenced his sentiment in a speech in Bulgaria where he stated that “Poland today is not a country that can show Europe the way, it’s a country that has decided to go against European interests in many areas.”

Yet again, right-wing governments lose out in realpolitik for their blindly stubborn populism. The way the Polish government has played its hand on this issue can only end in one way: with a decrease in the percent GDP generated by its posted workers.

There is no reason for Eastern Europeans to find solace in a potential legislative failure of the French motions in the European Parliament and European Council. It is obvious that the change very favorable to Germany, France, and the Netherlands. More importantly, though, it is likely that Macron has convinced other Eastern European leaders to support the measure in exchange for decreasing pressure on the Eastern members with regards to migrant quotas.

Given the high probability of success for the French motion, a pressing question emerges: If the vote would be against Poland regardless of the government, could Warsaw’s defiance of negotiation simply be a stronger, more honorable diplomatic path?

However reasonable on paper, the Polish position is dangerously short-sighted. It exemplifies the underlying misconception in Polish right-wing movements which has moved them so far off the European course. Although unconditional scepticism of the EU has proven to be a powerful short-term instrument in creating a common enemy that rallies electoral turnout, as Macron’s case shows, politics isn’t based on polls alone. In reality, the geopolitical course of a European country proceeds on two timelines.

Domestically, policy is dependent on popular opinion and its effects can be mapped out on a term-to-term basis. More importantly, however, the nature of the European Union is such that politics also develop on a continent-wide scale. Projects like the Schengen zone or common currency took decades to come into existence, and the success of a country participating such schemes depends on a long-term commitment from successive administrations. These administrations must realize that their duties extend past election cycles, with adjustments to the prevailing European initiatives being at the top of the list.

In their obsessions with controlling their own backyards, Polish and Hungarian governments have effectively forgotten the long-run game that has to be played. This case of labor law reform is a perfect example. Instead of eagerly participating in negotiations and using this change as an opportunity to begin slowly transitioning their economies from labor exporters to competitive, industry driven markets, Warsaw and Budapest are left with nothing but French contempt. What looks like lionhearted defiance now will turn into crippling exclusion down the line.

In fact, the loss is not only economic but also diplomatic. Emmanuel Macron’s trip has done a lot to shatter the unity within the Eastern EU bloc. His labor proposal has brought to light stark differences between the varyingly eurosceptic group of countries. By bringing the Czech Republic and Slovakia on board, the power of the previously four-state group has been noticeably reduced.

What remains to be seen is how Polish and Hungarian governments react once the economic pitfalls of their lack of dialogue become evident. Orban’s government has already begun hedging its bets against the West by partnering with Russia in a 10 billion dollar loan agreement to modernize its’ nuclear program. The dependence on Russian atomic expertise will likely tie the countries together for decades to come. Perhaps the only benefit of Poland’s nationalism in this situation is that it will prevent it from drifting further East and finding once again itself subjected to foreign dominance.