British PM to push EU reform goals on Prague trip

David Cameron, photo: CTK

Britain’s possible exit from the EU will be one of the big European issues this year. The Czech Republic, currently heading the Visegrad Four group, has suggested it’s willing to see some reforms that could help keep Britain in. But how far are Prague and its neighbours willing to go?

David Cameron,  photo: CTK
A referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union climbed the political agenda early in the new year with Prime Minister David Cameron announcing that the vote could be staged as early as this summer if he wins the promises of EU reform he is looking for soon.

In theory, Cameron has a longer time frame to play with as the pledge to hold the vote runs until the end of 2017.

A key test of Cameron’s reform winning capacities will be an EU summit next month where changes needed to decrease the likelihood of British exit or ‘Brexit’ will be discussed. The British prime minister came away largely empty handed from a similar summit at the end of December.

Cameron is looking for reforms on four main fronts: non-discrimination between the euro and non- euro areas; competitiveness; an opt out for Britain from ever closer EU union and more powers for national parliaments to block some EU legislation; and a curb on immigration into Britain, particularly reducing the draw of allegedly easy social benefits.

Since December, Cameron has embarked on a European tour, recently including Budapest and Munich, and with Prague pencilled in on January 22. There have also been reports suggesting that the new conservative government in Poland could be willing to do a deal on social benefits if Britain is willing to help deliver in return Warsaw’s goal of a stepped up NATO presence in Central Europe.

The regional grouping, the Visegrad Four, including Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia, have previously said they are willing to talk about most of Cameron’s reform demands but have baulked at the idea that EU workers are denied social payments for four years while contributing to the British system.

Benjamin Tallis,  photo: archive of Institute of International Relations
We asked Benjamin Tallis of the Prague-based Institute of International Relations if the British prime minister can expect any concessions from the Czech Republic or the Visegrad Four on the crunch issue of social payments.

‘’I think the most likely situation is that the Czech Republic will wait for the decisions of others and will not take the most active role in trying to extract further concessions from the UK government, partly because of the low number of Czech migrants in comparison to other countries, particularly Poland, living in the UK but also from a wider sense of political positioning of not perhaps wanting to stick their next out too much on this issue despite having previously been strong defenders of freedom of movement."

And do you see solidarity among the Visegrad Four because a week or so ago there seemed to be some hints out of Warsaw that the Poles might be willing to do some horse trading?

“Yes, I think there is definitely room for that and I think that reflects the positioning of the new Polish government and wider issues relating to NATO and perceived threats.”