A continental split opened up over the response to the Brexit vote as Poland and Hungary led calls for a new-style European Union amid fury that the founding member states were trying to call the shots.
Poland was the most outspoken of the 11 former communist countries in the EU which were dismayed at the way the six original members in the west were monopolising the discussions.
The revolt went further, with Austria and Spain among nine countries which joined a meeting in the Polish capital on Monday for those that had not been invited to the founder members’ ministerial summit at the weekend.
The Visegrad group of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia vowed to draw up their own plans for a less centralised EU. This will challenge the road map being prepared by the “big three” of France, Germany and Italy after their leaders met in Berlin on Monday.
“The aftermath of Brexit will leave central and eastern Europeans less trustful in the general idea of the European integration project and will boost nationalist sentiments,” said Visegrad Insight, a website reflecting the interests of the four central European allies.
It said that the UK’s advocacy of competitiveness and a stronger single market had been to the benefit of new member states but a British exit could leave reformers in the minority.
The UK is Poland’s third largest trading partner and Polish workers in Britain send €1 billion ($1.5bn) home every year. “Usually in politics when a political project fails — and here it is a political project to preserve European unity — then one either has to change the rules of the game or give other politicians a chance to improve this project,” said Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s foreign minister.
Poland’s attacks were also fuelled by a bitter dispute between the European Commission and the right-wing government in Warsaw over its heavy-handed legal reforms.
“We are asking if this leadership of the European Commission, which only a few months ago called on politicians to stop listening to their electorates, has a right to continue functioning, fixing Europe,” Mr Waszczykowski said.
“In our opinion, it does not. New politicians, new commissioners should undertake this task, and first of all we should give new prerogatives to the European Council because it consists of politicians who have a democratic mandate.”
The European Council is the forum for ministers from the member states to meet to revise laws proposed by the Commission.
Both Poland and the Czech Republic have yet to join the euro and have signed up to a Eurosceptic political grouping in the European Parliament founded by the British Conservatives. Without Britain to champion the non-euro states and lead the Eurosceptic alliance, they fear their influence will dramatically diminish following Brexit.
Bohuslav Sobotka, the Czech prime minister, joined calls yesterday to rein in the powers of the European Commission. “We need to change the overall functioning of the EU and I think it is needed to change the functioning of the European Commission,” Mr Sobotka said.
“Member states should be the engine of positive changes in the EU. I would be very glad if the Commission were more helpful in finding compromises within the EU.”
The discontent with the European Commission and the EU’s founding members that burst into the open following the Brexit vote went wider than Eurosceptic states outside the single currency.
Toomas Ilves, president of Estonia, which uses the euro, said on Monday that the behaviour of Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, had been “abominable”.
In contrast, the attitude of hard line founding member states was shown by Charles Michel, the Belgian prime minister. “I am not vindictive but we need to let the British feel that they landed a Pyrrhic victory,” he said.
“Only the Belgian and European interests count for me now — not the British ones. There is no way back.”
The six founder members were not all of one mind. France and Italy were regarded with suspicion by Germany and the Netherlands for trying to use the Brexit crisis to press ahead with integration of the eurozone. Berlin feared this could end up being too expensive and exclusive when voters were looking for concrete actions for more growth, jobs and security.
Aside from the wrangling over the future of the EU, Ireland is pushing for a policy of “business as usual” with Britain to avoid disruption to trade and its own border with the UK.
It has an ally in Germany with its trade interests although Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, is under domestic pressure politically to line up with France and Italy to put the EU first and make an example of Britain to deter populist parties elsewhere from leading breakaways.