In Sickness and in Health? On Importance of Visegrad Cooperation

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In Hungary, in pro-government media and on other platforms, one can often hear how unchallengeable and inextricable the alliance between the countries taking part in the Visegrád Cooperation (the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary), and how they protect the interests of the CEE countries in favor of damage controlling the real or believed grievances.

The Hungarian prime minister enjoys highlighting his belief that the Visegrád Four is a crucial part of the European Union both in a political and economical sense.

What is more, lately he has been referring to the bond of these countries as the savior of the future of the European Union, a bond that became the leader power of the EU both on a value basis and in an economical sense in the past few years.

The question arises – is there such a harmony between these countries considering common interests, benefits and identifying and evaluating threats? Unlike the highly one-sided government approach and communication, reality shows a considerably more complex picture regarding the topics mentioned above.

In this article, I will be exploring and presenting both the conflictual and converging political and economical interests, which can show a clear image about the context and frame of the Visegrád Cooperation.

In my analysis, I will also be discussing the migration politics of the countries in question, as well as their standpoints regarding the refugee issue, their opinions on the integration and conversion of the EU, their relations with Russia, and other current political issues like these countries’ attitudes towards the EU’s environmental policy, or the EU’s budget proposal

One can hardly deny the fact that thanks to the importance and activity of the V4, it has grown into a real political alliance that is able to voice its beliefs and put them into action – it amplifies the voice and importance of Eastern countries in the EU, strengthening their position considering decision making.

Migration

When it comes to united fronts of the V4 countries, one of the main ones became the question of immigration and illegal migration. The cornerstone of this is the refusal of the mandatory quota system. In all of the countries, illegal immigration has become a determinative domestic significance, which can be seen in particular national governments’ media and election campaigns.

An example of this is the 2018 Hungarian election campaign and the adoption of the “Stop Soros” legislative package, in which one of the main elements was the refusal of immigration and drawing a parallel between terrorism and refugees, therefore creating fear.

In 2016, Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico stated that he wanted to prevent “the emergence of an unified muslim community in the country”. When it comes to legislating the mandatory distribution system, mostly the Hungarian and Polish government are against it.

According to them, this system would not ease the immigration situation, in fact, it would even make it worse. The main con of the quota system would be the mandatory nature of it, which is refused by the V4 as a whole. They believe that the topic of immigration and illegal migration is not to be discussed and decided upon in a supranational circle and the authority belongs to the Council of the European Union, which works on an intergovernmental basis.

In the spirit of “effective solidarity”, they highlight an opinion that is known in Hungary as well thanks to the government: that the immigration process is to be decreased and stopped outside of the EU with the support of the countries of origin.

As a result of the joint action of the Visegrad countries, the EU decided to establish reception centers outside the Schengen Area at the June 2018 EU Summit and the quasi-rejection of the mandatory quota system was adopted, creating the principle of volunteering.

However, the effectiveness of V4 joint action is undermined by the fact that each country has a different emphasis on the problem therefore it is different how far they go in representing the common position.

In 2015, the Slovak and the Hungarian Governments filed a lawsuit against the Council of the European Union over the transitional quota system, but neither the Polish nor the Czech state joined the propose, thus losing unified action of the V4.

Coordinated action on immigration can be seen in the ongoing debate on the EU budget for 2021-2027. They are strongly criticizing that according to the European Commission’s budget scheme European Union wants to reduce agricultural subsidies or reallocate part of cohesion funds thereby reducing regional development aid.

This planned move was unanimously condemned by the V4 Prime Ministers at their meeting in November 2019. The V4 is calling for an increase in the budget, while rejecting linking EU funds to the rule of law criterias.

Carbon Neutrality

However, the effectiveness and durability of the joint action is overshadowed by the recent debate on the EU’s carbon neutrality program for 2050. Initially Visegrad Group rejected the draft, but later their unity broke down. The draft would have resulted in significant additional costs for the Member States, but Slovakia and Hungary in June 2019 and later the Czech Republic accepted the proposal after its amendment.

Poland, on the other hand, has consistently opposed it, as coal mining and the capacity of existing coal-fired power plants are not insignificant, the closure of these would entail significant redundancies and the cost of replacing the lost energy production.

In the end, as a compromise, Poland finally allowed the draft to be adopted in exchange for its exemption from legal obligations. However, the case has shown that the V4 member states are willing to give up the common position and act independently, even weakening the negotiating position of the other member states.

Deeper European Integration

Nevertheless, the positions and interests of the V4s are much less united with regard to the deeper integration of the European Union, the empowerment of common institutions, and the concept of a “core Europe”/multi-speed Europe initiated by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Generally speaking, the V4s would reinforce the EU’s intergovernmental character and reject supranational powers, thereby voting for a Europe of nation states, but in many cases the views and interests of individual member states are not in line.

While the Hungarian and Polish positions are firmly in favor of this concept, the opinions of the Czechs and especially the Slovaks can be considered more pragmatic.

This is especially true for the latter, as Slovakia is a member of the european monetary system following its accession to the euro area, and thus has closer economic ties and interests to a more integrated Union than other V4 Member States.

This was well illustrated by the words of former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico in 2017, when he declared that the country’s primary interest was to be a part of Europe. In this way, he anticipated the possibility of further deepening integration from Slovak side.

The Czech Republic has a similar, though less powerful and determined opinion. In contrast, the Polish Government emphasizes that only voluntary integration is acceptable.

Hungary is strongly opposed to the “core/periphery Europe conception”, as falling into the latter category would significantly reduce the country’s role as an advocate of closer economic cooperation, thereby making the country a second member state within the EU.

Therefore, the Hungarian government considers the concept of a Europe of equal nations to be exclusively acceptable.

Another fracture in V4’s seeming unit is the Slavkov cooperation, launched in 2015 with the participation of Austria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

Despite the fact that the member states underlined that the organization was not created as a competitor of V4, given the above facts, and that Austria is also a member of the euro area, this seems to be the opposite.

As you can see, the V4’s position on the future and form of integration is often contradictory, making it clear that although the V4 is a framework for increasing political power of the four countries, individual member states’ own interests can override the common position, drawing attention to their divisions.

Russian Issue

One of the most conflicting areas in the relationship between the Member States is their relationship with Russia and the EU’s sanctions on the country. The deeper divide in this case is between the positions of Poland and Hungary, which are the most prominent and advocating about V4 integration and cooperation in other areas.

Poland clearly sees Russia as a potential threat, mainly as a result of its aggressive foreign policy moves in recent years in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea to Russia. The Polish government is considered to be the strongest supporter of V4 in maintaining EU sanctions.

In addition to the aforementioned factors, this position is also supported or facilitated by the extremely negative Polish historical memory of Russia and the relatively low level of economic relations, which have been steadily declining in recent years.

On the other hand, Hungarian-Russian relations, although past events do not presume good relations with Hungary, have steadily and spectacularly improved since 2013. In recent years, the Russian head of state has repeatedly visited Hungary, at the invitation of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (most recently in October 2019), despite the fact that the sanctions are in force and the reasons for them have not disappeared.

Unlike Poland, the Hungarian government does not regard Russian foreign policy as a risk factor, and the Hungarian government does not criticize the annexation of the Crimea and the Russian support of the eastern Ukrainian separatists, thereby de facto accepting its territorial demands on Ukraine. In fact, they try to portray Western countries and their political elites as anti-Russian.

Accordingly, the Hungarian government, while complying with the sanctions, is constantly pushing for their lifting, primarily with reference to the loss of export earnings of Hungarian agriculture. The Hungarian-Russian relations will be tightened further by energy policy as Russians will be the creditor and the builder of the second block of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, increasing Hungary’s dependence and exposure to Russia.

It is not a negligible factor either that the Hungarian government, unlike other EU Member States or even the Czech Republic and Poland within the V4, does not seem to be doing anything against Russian’s disinformation activity despite the fact that its existence and seriousness are recognized by the European Union as well.

To further deepen the contradiction within V4, the Russian International Investment Bank which has just come back from the dead – formerly facilitating and financing trade between the Comecon countries – is moving its headquarters to Budapest with the approval and support of the Hungarian government.

Within V4, the Czech Republic is the most exposed to Russian disinformation activities, as evidenced by the fact that a significant part of Czech society is not able to filter out fake news, so they can easily fall victim to it.

This is one of the reasons behind the government’s decision to set up a separate institution to filter out fake news and detect online news portals that spread Russian views.

Accordingly, the Czech Republic also explicitly advocates the need for sanctions. Common Slavic roots also have an impact in Slovakia, with surveys showing that the majority of society trusts Russians, as opposed to the United States. And while Slovakia is not openly calling for sanctions to be lifted, the issue split the political elite.

As we can see, the V4’s relationship with Russia is multifaceted, in many cases intersecting and one of the most divisive issues in the Visegrad Cooperation, which is exacerbated by the radical contradiction between the two most determining member states.

Strong Together?

As can be seen from the cases listed above, the Visegrád Cooperation is not nearly as united and indissoluble as the Hungarian Government wishes to present it. Member states often have conflicting interests which are pursued to the detriment of each other and cooperation.

The importance and the “blackmail potential” of V4s in EU decision-making is also greatly reduced by the fact that they do not have the required population to effectively use the „blocking minority-card” and thus have limited opportunities for shaping the Union.


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Balint Toth-Kaszas
Republikon Institute