Since the 1989 revolutions, the strategic priority of Central Europe was integration into the European Community (EC) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Central European states returned to democratic Europe after 40 years of Soviet domination. In this strategic framework of integration with the West, Central Europe was involved in establishing a sub-regional partnership to facilitate the process and also to say goodbye to their Cold War past. The Visegrad Group is an example of a (non) institutional organisation that has helped such a process.
Although sub-regional cooperation in Europe was already established prior to the fall of communism (i.e. the Benelux Group and Nordic Cooperation), the proliferation of groupings after 1989 developed the need to understand the purpose, potential and limitations of the ‘children of the post–Cold war era’. When the Visegrad Group was formed in 1991, its function was to integrate in the EC and improve mutual cooperation, democracy, and free-market capitalism in post-Soviet Central Europe. The group became an exclusive framework for both internally and externally-oriented sub-regional cooperation between its four Central European member states (V4 – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia).
The 2004 EU enlargement and the V4 function
The 2004 EU enlargement then introduced the V4 as a new sub-regional partnership in the European Union (EU) framework. Since then, all V4 states are full EU members and have the right to participate in shaping the EU’s future. Over time, similarities among the V4 countries in terms of economic profile, geography and history have led to a greater awareness of how their intra-EU interests tend to overlap.
During the Czech V4 Presidency in 2003-2004 cooperation revitalised, embodied in a declaration adopted in Kroměříž in 2004. It reflected the EU membership, the belief in common European heritage and the development of European architecture within existing Euro-Atlantic institutions. This group was considered an important actor by the EU institutions in the EU enlargement policy, keeping an open channel eastward.
Though European integration was the ultimate proof of the legitimacy of the V4 objective and challenge, three significant historical events occurred and fostered intra-V4 cooperation:
- Firstly, the Ukrainian Orange Revolution in 2004, as Moscow began to reassert itself in its sphere of influence and push back against the West’s attempts to expand NATO into its former territory.
- Then, the 2008 economic crisis and the 2011 Euro debt crisis, which proved to the V4 countries that the EU heavyweights were not necessarily reliable partners. The consequent adoption of austerity policies in the EU and collective efforts (EU, EBRD, IMF, ECB) to bail out the then-troubled Central European economies, strengthened this assumption. The V4 perceived the EU not as guarantor of economic prosperity as expected.
- Finally, the 2015 refugee and migration crisis and the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum have provided a more favourable context for the V4 to reinforce cooperation, but with different goals from the 2004 Declaration. No more in the context of European integration but in the context of sovereignty and nationalism, which has considerably influenced and continues to influence the acceptance of the EU’s operating institutional framework.
The Visegrad Group today
Today, the Visegrad Group’s function has changed. It is now characterised by extraordinary government prerogatives including limitations to constitutional provisions and rule of law, to the development of a free and open society. It has become a pressure group of hybrid regimes contributing to base the EU on sovereignty and intergovernmental decision-making processes. The function has gone from pro-European cooperation to differentiation of interests of individual countries in specific strategic issues.
The Visegrad Group offers its members a useful model to discuss, represent and safeguard common interests in a collective manner within the regional and broader international political landscape. The success of the Group can be measured by analysing the V4’s approach to key issues (i.e. migration and refugee crisis) of EU policy-making process. The Visegrad Group is able to act as a ‘bloc’, exploiting the current vacuum of EU governance and maintaining its one-cause mobilisation capabilities against refugee and migrant redistribution across the EU, while enjoying billions of EU funds for economic development. For example, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, to safeguard Hungary from immigration, has erected a separation fence on the border with Serbia and Croatia. According to Deutsche Welle, in 2015, more than 170,000 people applied for asylum in Hungary while, in 2017, it was about 3,400. The V4 approach to the refugee and migration crisis diverges significantly from Brussels. The V4 member states mostly disagree with quota principle of distribution of refugees and migrants and oppose the financial aid given to Turkey to stop refugees and migrants from entering in the EU.
The V4 states have been successful in promoting their strategic interests within the EU framework over the years. This success is based on flexibility and ‘transformational capacity’. The Group is able to disagree on key strategic issues (i.e. relations with Russia) while be strongly cohesive on pursuing its interests on other issues (i.e. the refugee and migration crisis) without compromising the strength of the group.
When it comes to Russia, unlike the rest of the Visegrad Group, Hungary has good relations with the Russian Federation. In the last meeting in Budapest, Orbán and Putin discussed business and energy deals, making Hungary a close Russia’s ally in the EU. According to Prime Minister Orbán, good relations with Russia are a necessity because of country’s geographical location.
Poland instead is unlikely to re-approach to Russia and refuses any interference in its home affairs. There are both historical and strategic reasons for this. Poland suffered significant changes in its political structure and territories over the years, especially during the 18th century and due to the fight against Soviet Russia in the 1920s. Important changes occurred just before and after World War II (WWII) as well. The Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (mostly known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) was used by Moscow to unilaterally occupy part of the country. At the end of WWII, the new frontiers of Central and East Europe were defined by leaders of the winning parties in the conferences in Tehran (1943), Yalta and Potsdam (1945). Poland formally belonged to the winners of the WWII, its eastern borders were also changed in accordance with the so-called Curzon line.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation emerged and the Polish-Russian relations entered a new phase. The turbulent history of conflicts and tensions with the Soviet Union and the subsequent mutual accusations of historical revisionism affects today relations. Russia’s current foreign policy agenda aimed at destabilising Eastern Europe (i.e. hostile influence operations and media campaigns) represent another significant challenge for Poland, the entire region and even the EU efforts for integration.
The energy policy is another crucial issue, especially the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project as bypasses East Europe, bringing natural gas from Russia to Germany. Although the pipeline is expected to be operational in early 2021, it is likely to cause geopolitical tensions between Russia and East European countries, including Poland. Also, Ukraine remains a strategic priority for Poland because a strong pro-European Ukraine would be an important ally in an anti-Russian perspective. The deep differences in security policy and a long-term mistrust do not make rapprochement very likely.
When it comes to European integration, the V4 countries partially disagree. Slovakia and the Czech Republic are more Europe-friendly than Hungary and Poland. However, the Eurosceptic approach has overall increased in the region, affecting the chances for better European integration eastwards. The V4 seems to be more interested in strengthening a sub-regional partnership – promoting Western Balkans’ integration as well – rather than a stronger EU. The Czech, Hungarian and Polish EU Council presidencies made Western Balkan integration a priority on the agenda to finalise integration talks with Croatia and beginning preliminary accession negotiations with Serbia.
Central Europe has recently gained importance due to the divisions of the political course of various states forming the V4, the different strategic orientation of the member states in the region, the strengthening of the asymmetric inter-governmentalism (favouring EU big member states over smaller countries).
The EU macro-political environment changed dramatically since 2004, whereas the complex set of emerged political and economic issues turned to multi-speed integration affecting initial Euro-enthusiasm.
The importance of the group is increasing due to internal challenge to EU cohesion and the variety of strategic preferences.
All of these elements intersect in an interesting matrix as the role of the Visegrad Group is evolving within the process of European integration. In the near future, it can work as amplifier, reinforcing or affecting the relationship between regional and sub-regional partnership in the EU. The Visegrad Group has the potential to become a more relevant actor in the EU political framework and pursue its strategic goals. However, the changes in the institutional structure of some member states, the emerged illiberal democracy and reduced rule of law in Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland has a negative impact over the V4’s influence in the EU.
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