PRAGUE (Reuters) - Unchecked freedom of movement could push the European Union toward a break-up, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek was quoted as saying on Monday, citing the example of Britain's pending divorce from the bloc.
The Czech Republic has been a strong defender of the EU's fundamental freedoms, including the right of citizens to live and work in other member states, since joining the bloc in 2004 with a other eastern European countries.
But speaking to newspaper Hospodarske Noviny, Zaoralek hinted that curbs on freedom of movement might be needed to shore up support for the EU.
He also rejected demands from Brussels that all 28 EU states must accept some of the more than 1 million migrants who have arrived from outside the bloc in recent years, many fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond.
"We are saying that we have to respect freedom of movement and other things, for which we would let ourselves be crucified, figuratively speaking, but the outcome may be that due to these principles the union may break up."
Immigration, including the arrival of large numbers of people from the EU's poorer east, was a major issue during the British referendum campaign that ended with a vote for "Brexit".
"When you have 2 million people coming from the east who take your jobs, social support and a number of other things, you can (try to) persuade your own people a thousand times to get used to it. They won't take it, because you simply went too far and you did not tell them the truth," Zaoralek told the paper.
His comments contrasted with Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka's insistence - reiterated last month by him and leaders of other Czech political parties - that Czechs want to retain freedom of movement.
Zaoralek later said in a separate statement that he did not attempt to alter the Czech foreign policy stance and that he meant movement of workers, not travelers in general.
"Free movement of people is the basis of the EU. However, we have to consider how to regulate the jobs market, how to combat social dumping, so that the united market will not work against EU citizens," Zaoralek said in an emailed statement.
"I reject (the notion) that this would be in disagreement with the priorities of Czech foreign policy."
The foreign minister, a member of Sobotka's Social Democrat party, also criticized the EU's functioning and the executive Commission's push for member states to accept quotas on migrants coming from outside the bloc's borders.
"The tragic thing about Brexit is the fact that we have not learned from it so far," Zaoralek said. "For starters, it would suffice to realize what we did wrong and then not to repeat it."
(Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Tom Heneghan)