Has V4 Group Lost Its Relevance?

Caspar David Friedrich: Two Men Contemplating the Moon // Public domain

The Visegrad Group — comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — has been declared dead, barely alive or at least unconscious a number of times due to disagreements on a wide range of issues such as democratic values, rule of law, European Union as well as foreign policy in a broader sense.

Recently, the most notable schism has been around supporting Ukraine’s war effort against Russian aggression, but different divides emerged  years, even decades ago. What follows is a list of five reasons why the V4 cooperation is and is not a thing of the past.

Goals Fulfilled – Then What?

The roots of the Visegrad group go back to the historic congress held in the Hungarian town of Visegrád. It was attended by the Hungarian, Czech, and Polish kings (Charles I, John of Bohemia, and Casimir III, respectively) in 1335. Centuries later, its concept was revived by the post-communist leaders of the three countries to facilitate the transition into Western liberal democracies.

The 1991 Visegrad Declaration, signed by Václav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia; Lech Walesa, President of Poland; and József Antall, Prime Minister of Hungary, outlined five main fields of cooperation between the countries:

  • restoring independence, democracy and freedom;
  • eliminating the manifestations of totalitarianism;
  • establishing democracy and the rule of law;
  • creating a modern market economy;
  • full integration into the European political, economic, security, and legislative system.

In 1992, after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, a trade deal independent of the Visegrad Declaration, the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) was signed by the four countries, to which other neighboring states would join as well.

The V4 were not concerned with institutionalizing their cooperation or deepening their ties at this time for a number of reasons. As newly independent states, they were keen on maintaining their sovereignty and mostly regarded the cooperation as a “gentlemen’s club” for discussions among leaders.

In addition, they feared that alliances with less developed partners would slow down their path into the European Union, so they went at it alone. “The degree of coordination and solidarity between the countries noticeably weakened” – as per the assessment of this study.

The V4 summit in 1994, held a day after NATO’s Partnership for Peace was launched, was attended by US President Bill Clinton as well. The program enabled Eastern European countries to establish ties with NATO, and the presidential visit raised the profile of the Visegrad Group.

In 2000, the group launched its only institution to this day, the International Visegrad Fund, which

supports regional cooperation between civil society organizations to advance their relations, exchange and share ideas and promote mutual understanding.

The fund’s 10 billion euro annual budget is financed through equal contributions by the V4 to promote areas such as culture, education, innovation, democratic values, public policy, environment and tourism, and social development. The supreme body of the fund is made up of the four foreign ministers with ambassadors to the organization supporting their work. In 2000, the Visegrad group introduced another novelty, which is still in use: the rotational presidency system, meaning that one of the members holds the group’s presidency for a year.

With Czechia, Hungary and Poland joining NATO in 1999, and the EU in 2004 — Slovakia became a member of both in 2004 — they essentially reached all the objectives they set out. Their EU membership also entailed withdrawing from CEFTA (which is still in place with mainly Western Balkans countries in it), so the question of whether the Visegrad Group should also be scrapped arose. In brief, citing the above-mentioned analysis,

“there was no common goal or strategy that could be understood in the long term and in a regional context, and that could match the quality of EU and NATO accession.”

They Have Never Been That Close

Before the turn of the millennium, nevertheless, relations within the group were already faltering throughout the second half of the ‘90s. Especially so between Hungary and Slovakia due to the Hungarian minority’s status in Slovakia and the row over the Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros Dams. This period was marked by Slovakia’s move away from the West, and their pivot to Russia, which caused a setback in its V4 relations and European integration.

As an analysis by Political Capital and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Budapest points out, “[t]he period between 1994 and 1999 showed that the implementation of the Visegrad Declaration mainly depends on the political orientation of the governments of the Visegrad countries and the extent to which these political orientations coincide with the strategic objectives set out in the 1991 declaration.”

After joining “the Western world”, which was a one man game for each country due to the lack of multilateral negotiations, the Visegrad cooperation became the scene for the four countries to coordinate their policies and strategies, especially within the European Council.

In their 2004 declaration, they described the future of the group as follows: “[it] will continue to focus on regional activities and initiatives aimed at strengthening the identity of the Central European region. In this context, their cooperation will be based on concrete projects and will maintain its flexible and open character.”

So, no further integration or institutionalization, but no disbandment either.

In comparison to other regional alliances within the European Union, the Visegrad Group can be best described as pretty loose. For example, the Benelux Union was established after the Second World War, and has developed into an institutionalized intergovernmental organization with its own Committee of Ministers as a supreme decision-making body, Council, Parliament, Court of Justice, and General Secretariat.

As a comparison, the Nordic Council is much more heterogeneous in terms of its constituent countries: Denmark, Sweden, and Finland are EU members with Norway and Iceland only being in the European Economic Area. With Finland’s accession to NATO (and soon Sweden’s as well), their integration might be taken to another level with the prospect of a joint air defence.

In 1952, the Nordic Council was set up as an interparliamentary consultative body, while its intergovernmental counterpart took shape in 1971. The Baltic Assembly and the Baltic Council of Ministers, both established in the early ‘90s, link the legislative and executive institutions of the closely allied Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In addition, the two cooperations are in touch with each other too, known as Nordic-Baltic 8 (NB8), with their leaders and interparliamentary bodies meeting on a yearly basis.

Evidently, the Visegrad Group is far away from being as close of an alliance as the regional cooperations mentioned above. Without formalized institutions, it is contingent on the reigning governments’ interests and willingness to give it a meaning and purpose. Nonetheless, the meeting of V4 leaders prior to European Council summits has become a tradition, as a means to coordinate their perspectives.

As Political Capital details, between 2004 and 2014, “cooperation was maintained in a less spectacular but more visible framework, mainly through expert, governmental and political consultations between the four participating countries at different levels, as well as through the successive V4 presidencies.”

2015 brought about something of a turn of events. During the migrant crisis in Europe the interests of all the V4 governments aligned. The European Commission’s proposal to relocate people in member states based on a quota was rejected by Prague, Budapest, Bratislava— and after the victory of PiS — Warsaw as well. The V4 bloc opposing any measure of compulsory relocation managed to keep the issue on the European agenda, and refused to implement the Council’s pertinent resolution.

As per the ruling of the European Court of Justice in 2020, Czechia, Hungary, and Poland all breached EU law by not complying with the resolution. However, they managed to present a united front — with Czechia and Slovakia being more moderate — and despite the legal outcome have basically won the discourse on migration.

The divide between two pairs, Hungary joined by Poland and Czechia with Slovakia, sharpened when Article 7 was triggered against Poland in 2017 and Hungary in 2018 over concerns about democracy and rule of law. Against this backdrop, the V4 attempted to offer an alternative center of power to mainstream Europe.

“During the period in question, all Visegrad governments, but especially the Polish PiS and the Hungarian Fidesz-KDNP, saw migration, a pan-European political issue, as an opportunity for prominence. This was essentially motivated — in addition to the public security arguments of the Visegrad governments — by domestic political considerations” — writes Political Capital.

At this time, the differences within the V4 were highlighted again. As a Slovak official told Politico, “Slovakia and now the Czechs are elsewhere compared to Hungary and Poland when it comes to the rule of law — both administrations have a very strong interest in strengthening, not undermining the EU.”

In the meantime, another short-lived example of a joint V4 approach was over the question of food quality: the Slovakian food agency reported in 2017 that multinational companies put lower-quality products on shelves there than in Western Europe. After an extraordinary V4 summit, the issue was taken up in Brussels, and a 2019 Commission report revealed that one-third of the products under scrutiny in East Central Europe was of lower quality than their Western European counterparts sold in the same packaging.

In conclusion, it can be said even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the cohesion of the Visegrad Group, for the lack of formal interparliamentary or intergovernmental institutions, depended on its respective governments’ short-term political goals, the alignment of which is less than usual.

Looking out for Other Alliances

Just like when they joined the European Union, another greater alliance, the Visegrad Group’s importance was also challenged due to the rise of competing cooperations that some V4 countries are part of. What is more, the significance of some of these has intensely grown after Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

The Three Seas Initiative (3SI) consists of 12 EU member states, and after its birth as the Polish notion of Intermarium during the interwar period, was initiated by Warsaw and Zagreb in 2015, following the Russian annexation of Crimea.

As a research paper by the Hungarian Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade explains, “[t]he historical Polish concept reflected geopolitical considerations: the need to contain German and Soviet expansion. Although today’s cooperation would advance only infrastructure projects, it would inevitably entail civil and military logistical results too.”

Some of these projects are the Via Carpatia and the Rail-2-Sea. Although the 3SI is not institutionalized, the member states’ leaders meet annually.

Poland, a crucial middle power in Eastern Europe, is part of various other cooperations as well. The Weimar Triangle, made up of France, Germany, and Poland, was founded in 1991 to strengthen relations between the three countries, but it has remained fairly loose with sporadic trilateral summits. The Lublin Triangle, in contrast, has gained importance for Warsaw.

Referring to the historical Polish-Lithuanian Union, it was established in 2020 with the addition of Ukraine in order to support the Western aspirations of Ukraine and to coordinate their activities within international organizations. Previously, in 2014, a joint military brigade had been set up by the three countries shortened as “LITPOLUKRBRIG.”

Another format that has become more prominent is the Bucharest Nine (B9), involving NATO member states in Central and Eastern Europe. Similarly to the Three Seas Initiative, its first meeting was held in 2015 at the initiative of Poland and Romania. The aim of the B9, as analyzed in this paper, “to secure, where it is necessary, a «robust, credible and sustainable Allied military presence» in the region”, additionally, what joins the members “is their willingness to increase defense spending to 2% of GDP”, the recommended amount for NATO members.

It is easy to notice that the Visegrad platform has a number of “rivals” when it comes to regional cooperation in Central Europe. Even though they do not exclude, rather complement each other, states cannot be equally active in all groups, as it depends on their interests and the overall political environment and geopolitical considerations.

Since Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the formats that included military aspects — the Lublin Triangle and the Bucharest Nine — have become more relevant as NATO’s eastern flank has been uneasy about the lack of determination of the Franco-German tandem to deter Russia. The Polish attitude, in particular, has been key when it comes to the question of which alliance goes up or down on the priority list.

Polish Ambitions

The security and foreign policy strategy of Poland, the largest of the V4 with regards to territory and population, has been consistent over the years. Their main goal has been to maintain and defend their sovereignty, which has rendered them a staunch ally of NATO and the United States, who can guarantee it.

In times when France’s Emmanuel Macron talks about the need to decouple from the US by establishing European strategic autonomy and advocates for not going so hard on China, and Germany is still hesitant to make the Zeitenwende reality, Poland’s determination has been welcomed by Washington. According to some, Warsaw has now become Washington’s most important ally when it comes to countering Russia.

In terms of Polish defense policy, they announced a whopping 4% of GDP increase in their military spending in 2023, meaning that they would outspend every NATO member, even the US. If their goal of doubling their manpower and raising the largest army in Europe is met by 2035, they would have 300,000 soldiers ready to be deployed. These efforts already started before the Russian invasion, which accelerated it even more.

Warsaw’s ambitions to brand itself a military superpower in Europe by becoming an indispensable player in the continent’s security and their promotion of other formats, such as the Bucharest Nine has undermined the Visegrad Group’s importance, since it has no military dimension. Their perspective is completely understandable based on Polish history, however, it has driven another wedge between the constituents of the V4 owing to Hungary’s unwillingness to support Ukraine as enthusiastically as Poland — a stance that can be justified based on Hungarian’s horrible past experiences with entanglements into international conflicts too.

Hungary’s Balancing Act

As mentioned before, the V4’s integrity was questioned amidst the row over the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, which led to a division of 2+2, since Czechia and Slovakia took political turns favoring European integration and Western alliances. However, this split in half is nowhere to be seen nowadays.

After the Ukrainian war, Hungary has been criticized for its “pacifist” stance, that is, mounting a huge government-sponsored political campaign around the rejection and uselessness of the EU’s sanctions against Moscow, the unwillingness to provide military aid to Kyiv, and promoting a negotiated peace deal between the parties. Despite the fact that some EU countries agreed with some of the points Orbán was making, such as Austria, Italy, or Germany, it was the rhetoric that most found displeasing.

Since Viktor Orbán’s regime took over in 2010, Hungary’s gradually more and more evident balancing act between Western alliances and the so-called “Eastern Opening” is nothing new. Earlier, in 2021, after a warehouse was blown up in the Czech Republic by Russian intelligence services, which killed two people, Hungary stood in the way of strongly condemning Russia by the Visegrad Group. The Hungarian government vetoed parts of it that expressed support for the democratic movement in Belarus and war-torn Ukraine, and rejected the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Even though debates still go on about rule of law issues between Warsaw as well as Budapest and Brussels, and a great deal of EU funding has been consequently frozen, the two countries are playing different games. Poland stands at the forefront of the EU’s efforts to combat Russian aggression and now that power seems to be shifting eastward, they might have an easier way in political negotiations with the Commission.

On the other hand, Hungary has gone on the offensive in terms of rhetoric. The Orbán government has used the European Council’s need for unanimous decision-making on Russian sanctions as leverage to pressure the EU into giving up some ground. Therefore, even if the Polish and Hungarian governments can most likely rely on each other when it comes to sanctions over the rule of law, Poland views the Hungarian reaction to the Russian invasion with great bewilderment.

As a consequence, it might seem that the Visegrad Group has become completely irrelevant since the war in Ukraine. Yet, this is not the case. What happened is that in the new environment created by the war, member states have chosen different strategies — Hungary, in particular —  and as it was already discussed, the V4 format, as a loose cooperation, has always hinged upon the countries’ interests colliding. In addition, the Visegrad group has never been strong on foreign or defense policy coordination to start with, and the challenge of Russian aggression has led to the appearance of more comprehensive platforms, such as the Bucharest Nine.

Some even go as far as envisioning a “new Warsaw pact” as a consequence of Eastern Europe’s dominance in the defense of the continent, which would entail the demise of France and Germany, and the entrenchment of American interests in Europe. Despite this, the V4 format can be easily resurrected should its member states’ political interests collide in the future, just as it has happened before, and coordination regarding particular issues is still present. So it is still too early to dig the grave of the Visegrad Group. It might revive sometime.

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Akos Szabo
Republikon Institute