Why Not Reject Visegrad?

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With launching the infringement procedure against the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland for non-compliance with their obligations related to the refugee relocation scheme, the Visegrad Group (V4) hits the headlines of main news portals. What is the shape of the Visegrad Group nearly two years after it has started its fight against the binding relocations? Why it cannot (or does not want to) get rid of the trouble maker’s label and why we should keep it, despite its poor image?

The chat between V4 foreign ministers at Bratislava Globsec conference (minus Czech foreign minister Zaorálek, who sent his deputy) offered a picture which says a lot about the current shape of the regional grouping. The first half of the conversation was full of ministers’ complaints on how the perception of the V4 as the EU’s main trouble maker is inaccurate and exaggerated. Ministers stressed that it was rather the Netherlands (which blocked the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine), or Greece (which caused serious problems in Eurozone), and not the Visegrad Group countries. Their only “sin”, they argued, had been that the four object to the binding relocation scheme.

Later, during a Q&A session, the audience attempted to test the unity of the V4. Conference participants tried to trick the ministers and find an issue on which the Visegrad Group would show some kind of internal division; be it the future form of the EU or the stance of individual countries vis-à-vis Russia. Then, former foreign minister of Bosnia and Hercegovina posed a question: “The enlargement of the EU has always been on the top of V4’s agenda. Is it still your priority?” He was reassured that it was. However, if it was such priority, why had they not  noticed it in the very beginning?

The dynamics of the Globsec foreign ministers’ talk is very telling. It seems that the Visegrad Group has adjusted to the role of a naughty child; the status which they at the same time stubbornly refuse to acknowledge. The Visegrad cooperation – a unique network of multi-level interactions among bureaucracies and non-governmental actors dealing with various policies or single initiatives – has not changed in its nature. It is more or less the same as it was five or ten years ago. However, the rhetoric of the Visegrad Group has altered whereas the ability to achieve something on the EU level has decreased. As it happened in Bratislava, currently, V4 politicians are, indeed, vocal with their complaints but the four countries are less visible when important topics are discussed – contrary to the period of 2008-2012, when they enjoyed a rather good reputation. At that time, Visegrad Group was able to lobby successfully for its interests in Brussels. It sponsored the Eastern Partnership project, pushed for energy security agenda, and led a number of cohesion policy initiatives.

As Strong (or Weak) as Its Members: Three Problems of V4 Today

What we need to understand when looking at today’s V4 is that its foreign or European policy cannot be better (i.e. more inspirational or more respectful) than the foreign and European policies of its members. Here lies the first problem: frankly, none of the V4 countries has currently a very strong profile in the EU. Even Warsaw – dragged into a strife with the EU institutions with regard to the violations of the rule of law in Poland – has lost much credibility among Western European countries.

Secondly, V4 acts together only when there is a consensus of its members. If there is none, the lack of unity does not necessarily mean there has to be a clash between the respective states. This “art-of-disagreement” attitude used to be V4’s strength, since it enabled the group to be known for pushing for positive agenda. Nevertheless, now it is the second problem of the Visegrad Group. The consensus in traditional areas of EU policies is shirking. It has almost died out with energy security issues and we can expect diverging interests during the next multi-annual budgetary framework negotiations.

In addition – the third problem – it is hard to push through V4 priorities even if there is still a consensus. On the one hand, it is the fault of challenging external circumstances, which make the niche policies of the V4 (such as the EU enlargement or the European Neighbourhood Policy, to name but a few) less attractive on the European level. On the other hand, the problem lies in the fact that V4 political leaders are obsessed with the abovementioned attempts to show how unjustly are their countries perceived in the EU. Needless to say, this attitude is also very convenient. It is always easier to show unity on what we do not like (e.g. the relocation quota scheme or more broadly Western European approach towards migration) than to develop a strong common innovative and cooperative position.

Alhough  Problematic, V4 Shall Continue

If we acknowledge the notion that there is little hope to make the V4 on the EU level useful once more, a logical question must follow: do we still need it? Although it could be tempting to abandon the idea altogether or leave the Visegrad Group by some member states, it would be a wrong move. We have to ask ourselves two questions.

First, what would we have instead of V4? Central Europe is destined either for perpetual conflicts or for cultural and economic cooperation. The Visegrad Group, if nothing else, provides a fertile ground for the latter. Being a part of the gradually integrating EU, Visegrad states need as many instruments as possible (most importantly, political ones) to be able to cope with the increasing mutual interdependence. Trade exchange among V4 countries grows as a result of the EU membership, but this asset alone would be very fragile without the established communication among political and bureaucratic actors, which could – if necessary – solve any sudden crisis. The quarrels about an inferior quality of food imports, which had not escalated to the level they could have, are a lesson to be remembered. Mainly in Central Europe.

Thus, the Visegrad cooperation – developed gradually over the last twenty five years – cannot be easily replaced. Although there were some experiments in this respect, they failed to deliver anything substantial. Such was the case of the “Slavkov Triangle” created in 2015 in order to connect the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria. Further attempts will surely follow. Next is the “Three Seas Initiative”, which is now being orchestrated by the Polish and Croatian presidents. Although Donald Trump is to come to the July summit in Warsaw (what is, undoubtedly, a great achievement of Polish diplomacy), it cannot make up for the fact that the project lacks new tangible content and genuine attractiveness for further ten participating countries of the Central and Eastern Europe.

All this can be summarized in the second key question related to what the Visegrad Group represents at the moment: How would have the Central Europe looked like right now should the V4 never had been created? And furthermore, what will the Central Europe be like in 25 years, if we dismantled the V4 right now? Despite various reservations related to the V4’s current chief narrative (“Do not send us any refugees”), the quarter-century-long cooperation in this part of Europe is a highly valuable asset in itself.

No Improvement on the Horizon

One Western European Globsec participant called the V4 the “European refuseniks” as he was singling out its persistent objections against the binding relocation scheme. Of course, this is a very harsh and inadequate exaggeration (as it was pointed out by another discussant at this particular roundtable), yet – to be fair – Western European observers are not very skillful in examining all the details of our regions’ European policies. The first thing they notice is simply what we put in forefront, which is not surprising at all.

As the Hungarian V4 Presidency is approaching (starting from July 1), many are concerned with its overlap with the election campaign before the Hungarian general election planned for spring 2018. This, in turn, could make the anti-Brussels rhetoric even harsher. None of the other governments will try to soften it very much. Slovakia and Poland play the same card and there is little hope that the outcome of the Czech parliamentary election in October will bring a government with a fine-tuned foreign policy and an excellent vision on how to revive the V4. Therefore, the current course of the Visegrad Group will probably continue and the image of “refuseniks” will not go away easily.

Vit Dostal