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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker arrives at the EU summit meeting in Brussels, Belgium, October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Dario Pignatelli(reuters_tickers)
By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Leaders of four eurosceptic governments in the east of the European Union sat down for a nearly three-hour dinner with the head of the bloc's executive in an effort to narrow their differences on issues from migration to labour rules.
Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic highlighted the positive after their leaders dined with Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission over scallops with Jerusalem artichokes and venison medallions on the eve of an EU summit starting in Brussels on Thursday.
"On the menu: consensus through compromise and cooperation. Unity," Juncker said.
Czech EU affairs minister Ales Chmelar said the five had an "excellent debate". Another diplomat from one of the four states said their delegation was pleased by Juncker's apparent readiness to listen to their arguments.
No decisions were made public after the meeting, but the mere fact of the lengthy dinner was intended as a gesture by the Commission to woo the reluctant states closer.
Brussels has annoyed the ex-communist countries by embracing calls for faster and deeper integration, demanding they take in refugees, and contemplating restrictions on the right of their citizens to work in wealthier EU states for lower salaries than native workers receive.
French President Emmanuel Macron says cheap labour from eastern Europe puts his people at a competitive disadvantage, and is pushing to curb that right with the backing of Belgium, the Netherlands and other more-developed EU states.
After EU leaders are expected to discuss the matter on the sidelines of their two-day summit, their ministers will try to seal an agreement on the divisive issue at further talks in Luxembourg on Monday.
Poland and Hungary, with nationalist populist governments, also have a number of disputes with Brussels over upholding democratic principles and ensuring judicial independence.
Such issues have fuelled talk in the EU that the reluctant easterners could be left behind as others in the bloc seek to deepen their ties in the wake of Britain's exit.
Italy has been going even further in calling on the bloc to take away some of the generous EU handouts the easterners receive to punish them for failing to show enough solidarity on handling migration and undercutting the rule of law.
"The EU 27 must avoid any splitting into east or west," said the Czech Republic's outgoing Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.
"We agreed... that any further discussion on the future of the EU must be led in the format of 27 member states. No member state can be excluded from these negotiations. All states must be treated equally."
Sobotka is likely to be replaced in an election this weekend by tough-talking billionaire Andrej Babis, who has often criticised Brussels and the bloc's push for all member states to host some asylum seekers who make it to Europe.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Peter Graff)