Articles - October 2017

The Visegrad Four

An Inconvenient Alliance
By Roland Flamini

In Washington, D.C., on a hot summer afternoon in August, the diplomatic representatives of the Visegrad 4 held a press conference.

The what? That’s a typical reaction to the mention of the Visegrad 4, or V4—even in politically knowledgeable Washington. Formed 27 years ago, the grouping of the then three, and later four, Central European states (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) had long become a footnote to post-Cold War history, a dim memory at best.

But no longer. Lately, the Visegrad 4 has found new life as an increasingly controversial group within the European Union; and the ambassadors’ press conference was firstly aimed at defending its actions as misunderstood and maligned, and secondly, at reminding the Trump administration of its existence and collective admiration amid the current, widespread European ambivalence towards Washington.

Whether anyone in Trumpland was listening is a question raised by the envoys themselves. “This year has been difficult in presenting our views,” complained Poland’s Ambassador Piotr Wilczek. The ongoing “political thriller” in Washington has made it “more challenging to communicate with the administration,” he said.

In Brussels, however, the Visegrad 4 needs no introduction. The group alliance has been a thorn in the European Union’s side for the past couple of years, but its strong opposition to the European Union’s approach to the refugee and immigration crisis was perhaps the most serious confrontation yet. The EU’s mandatory relocation quotas--Brussels’s desperate attempt to impose some order on the chaotic flood of refugees seeking safety on Europe’s shores—were rejected outright. To date, out of a combined quota of 11,069 refugees, the Visegrad group has relocated around 50, closing their borders and citing security concerns. Hungarian Ambassador, Laszo Szabo, called the EU migration policy “a failure,” and argued that the reason why Hungary has had no terrorist incidents is because it has kept a tight rein on the influx of immigrants.

The V4 countries’ open opposition in the refugee crisis drew harsh criticism from Western Europe, furious politicians and public opinion accusing them of a lack of solidarity and of turning their backs on burden-sharing. The January 2016 issue of The Economist, which has a penchant for eye-catching headlines, called its story “Big, Bad Visegrad,” and said, “The migration crisis has given an unsettling new direction to an old alliance.”

When Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland initially joined forces in 1991 as the Visegrad 3, they had recently become free from Soviet control and wanted to coordinate the process of joining NATO and the European Union. Both these institutions had established qualifying benchmarks for a transition from communist regimes to democracies, and the Visegrad countries coordinated their response, and to some extent, negotiated together.

In 1993, the Czech Republic and Slovakia split into two nations and the group was renamed the Visegrad 4. They were admitted to NATO in 1999, and to the European Union in the enlargement of 2004. The Visegrad process had fulfilled its primary purpose and thereafter, was virtually dormant. Until, that is, it was resurrected by a populist government in Hungary, and an ultra-conservative government in Poland, as a vehicle for their coordinated opposition to closer EU integration, what they perceive as dominance by the big Western countries (read Germany and France), resentment of the “elitist” Brussels-knows-best attitude, coupled with a sense of being patronized by the Western governments – and, more recently, the refugee debacle.

The Visegrad 4 has a total population of 64 million, and accounts for a sizeable chunk of trade, both within the EU and outside it. Czech ambassador in Washington, Hynek Kmonicek, called it “a club within a club.” Such regional “clubs” proliferate in the fractured European Union: in fact, coordinating in small groups now seems to be the name of the game. There is the Nordic council, the Mediterranean club (sometimes derisively referred to as the olive oil group), the six EU founding members, and the Franco-German alliance. But the Visegrad 4 is the one with the image challenge, as the Union debates its post-Brexit future.

As the European Union has closed ranks and adopted a firm stance against the U.K’s impending departure, the Central Europeans have distanced themselves from the British position. At the Washington press conference, for example, the four ambassadors stressed that their respective countries have no plans to follow the United Kingdom out the door. Ambassador Wilczek said the V4 countries were “devout” EU members, with polls showing up to 80 percent support among the general public. “The European Union sometimes forgets about diversity,” he said, but the V4 wants to change the Union, not leave it.

The V4 members’ determination to have their goulash and eat it too extends to the fact that the commitment of three of them—Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic—to join the euro zone has been shelved, seemingly indefinitely. Only Slovakia has switched to the European currency. The leading defender of national sovereignty is Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. He has proposed amendments to the EU constitution that would make the nation-state the basis of EU decisions, and not Brussels. As Ambassador Laszlo stated at the press conference, “We believe the EU should be composed of strong countries.”

Both Hungary and Poland have tightened up on press control. The EU has threatened Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party with the suspension of voting rights in European institutions—under an article in the Lisbon Treaty which Brussels has never before used—if Warsaw goes ahead with legislation that would bring the appointment of judges under closer government control, thereby undermining the independence of the judiciary. (At the time of this writing, President Andrzej Duda has blocked the laws pending revision.)

The Visegrad 4 is not likely to go away any time soon. Indeed, the group’s clout would be stronger in Brussels if its members were not divided over many issues or became a larger group. The ambassadors ruled out admitting new members but said some other form of association was under consideration. The V4 countries presented a united front over the immigration crisis, yet their internal differences are generally greater than the similarities.

Prague and Bratislava are governed by center-left coalitions, with little inclination to join a right-wing revolution against the EU institutions. Poland is historically wary of Germany, though the Czech Republic is closer to the Germans by geography, trade, and inclination. Slovakia, as part of the eurozone is more integrated with Germany and the core of Europe than the other V4 countries.

There are also differences over Russia. Poland is suspicious and welcomes a permanent NATO presence in Central Europe; however, Orban has called for an end to EU sanctions against Russia, and Russia is financing a nuclear plant in Hungary. Slovkia and the Czech Republic keep their distance from Moscow, but they breathed a sigh of relief when President Trump, in Warsaw, confirmed American support for NATO’s Article 5 (an attack on one NATO member is an attack on the whole alliance). “Every 20 years or so somebody comes to Prague in tanks, so we support Article 5,” said Hynek Kmonicek.

How did the group come to be formed in a small Hungarian medieval town of less than 2,000 inhabitants? It was where the kings of Hungary, Poland, and Bohemia once met to form an alliance that would make them more competitive against neighboring Austria in trade and political influence. That was in 1335. The Europeans never stray far from their history.


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