France's Macron, eastern Europeans try to mend fences


UPDATE 1-France's Macron, eastern Europeans try to mend fences

* East leaders meet with Macron to clear the air
    * France has differences with Hungary, Poland, Slovakia,
    * Macron promotes "social Europe"
    * Merkel backs Macron in east-west tensions

 (Adds comments from Macron, Merkel, Orban)
    By Jean-Baptiste Vey and Gabriela BaczynskaBRUSSELS, June 23 (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel
Macron and four eastern European Union leaders sought to smooth
relations on Friday after publicly trading barbs over jobs and
democratic values.
    Macron, in power for little more than a month, has vowed to
protect French workers from what he sees as "social dumping", in
which companies employ cheaper labour, and unfair competition
from the poorer eastern European states.
    Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic say they
should be allowed to compete on lower prices - just as more
developed western EU nations compete on quality products and
know-how - to catch up after decades of communist stagnation.
    Along with looming negotiations on the EU's next multi-year
joint budget that runs from 2021, this dispute is shaping up as
one of the most contentious issues facing the bloc, exacerbating
an east-west rift as it seeks unity to tackle Brexit.
    But meeting on the sidelines of an EU summit, Macron and the
leaders of the east European states - known together as the
Visegrad four - agreed to set up an expert-level group to try to
narrow differences over rules for so-called "posted workers".
    "At the Visegrad meeting this morning we established which
issues we disagree on and where we will continue to talk to
better understand each other's constraints," Macron told a joint
news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday.
    "There are issues where I'd like to advance together, the
posted workers directive being one... I believe we need a
profound reform of the balance. I will do it with respect for
our partners."
    EU states are divided on rules under which, say, a Bulgarian
truck driver or a Lithuanian bricklayer can work in France for a
limited time for the eastern European wage, usually below the
minimum level guaranteed in the west.
    "I pointed out to Emmanuel Macron today how low wages are in
the Czech Republic compared to France, and that French firms can
also do more to raise (their) wages," Czech Prime Minister
Bohuslav Sobotka said.
    "We will start with the directive on posted workers."
    A diplomatic source said the five leaders had agreed to meet
again in September.

    The Visegrad four have also clashed with France on the
treatment of refugees and migrants from outside the EU, and were
infuriated by Macron's open criticism of the track record of
Warsaw and Budapest on democracy and rule of law.
    But Macron received strong support from Merkel, Europe's
most powerful leader, who said on Friday she believed they were
obliged to speak out when common EU values were being damaged.
    Macron has previously said he would seek sanctions on
Poland, whose nationalist-minded government has angered the EU
with moves to impose stricter state control over judges and
public media and with its refusal to take in any refugees.
    Earlier this week Macron told the Visegrad four not to treat
the EU as a "supermarket" and said they would face consequences
if they failed to respect EU rules and values.
    He drew scorn from Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban,
who put Macron's comments down to his relative youth. The French
leader is 39. [nL8N1JJ5BV]
    On Friday Orban struck a more conciliatory note.
    "As far as I can see, we identified the issues where
pragmatic cooperation and agreement can be achieved on the basis
of mutual respect," he told reporters.

 (Additional reporting by Jan Lopatka in Prague and Noah Barkin
in Brussels, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Gareth
 ((gabriela.baczynska@thomsonreuters.com; +32 2 287 68 39;
Reuters Messaging:


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