By Christian Schweiger, Chemnitz University of Technology
Although the V4 continue to be regarded in the EU as part of the economic, social and increasingly also political periphery, these countries are presented with a big opportunity due to Brexit.
“Big, bad Visegrád” – this is how The Economist labelled the semi-institutionalised cooperation between the four Central-Eastern countries Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia in 2016 in the wake of the migration crisis that had occurred the summer before.
The four countries, who had in the past struggled to maintain their cooperation due to strongly varying domestic politics and strategic interests, had closed ranks to firmly oppose Germany’s attempts to implement binding refugee quotas in the EU. This was enough reason for the Western media to consider the V4 as the symbol of what they consider as the increasingly ‘illiberal’ central European region, which is moving ever further away from the political mainstream in the EU. Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán used the term in 2014 to distinguish not just Hungary but the wider Central-Eastern European region from Western Europe.
From Orbán’s perspective the ‘illiberal’ states in Central-Eastern Europe were applying a ‘specific national’ approach in their development which would basically respect liberal values but not particularly embrace them. More recently Orbán characterised the Hungarian approach as ‘to replace the shipwreck of liberal democracy by building 21st-century Christian democracy’. Orbán ’s domestic political fortunes have increasingly been grounded in his adoption of the role of defender of national sovereignty against what he characterises as the ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ attempts to create an ‘open society’, where ‘borders become blurred, national cultures dissolve’.
Initially Hungary had been relatively isolated in the CEE region. The liberal and pro-European Civic Platform government under prime ministers Donald Tusk and Eva Kopacz in Poland were opposed to Orbán’s illiberal stance. The same applied to Robert Fico’s social democratic government in Slovakia, which kept highlighting its ambition to act as a constructive partner in the EU and the Eurozone. Even the traditionally eurosceptic Czech Republic was governed by the progressive Social Democrat Bohuslav Sobotka between 2014 and 2017, who aspired to engage constructively in the EU.
Hungary not alone any more
The initial scepticism in the CEE region towards Orbán’s approach however has started to evaporate under the conditions of the migration crisis. German chancellor Angela Merkel’s increasingly uncompromising leadership during the migration crisis, has united the V4 in opposition to Germany’s European diplomacy. At their joint summit in Prague on 4 September 2015 the V4 government emphasised their joint determination that ‘any proposal leading to introduction of mandatory and permanent quota for solidarity measures would be unacceptable’. The dispute over migration with the EU has contributed to a new wave of anti-EU populism in the Visegrád countries. The first victim of this was the Kopacz government which lost the October 2015 national elections to the Law and Justice Party of Jarosław Kaczyński. The EU refugee quotas played a major role in the election campaign and support for Kopacz weakened because she had announced that Poland would accept a quota of 7,000 refugees between 2015 and 2017. The new government, first led by Beata Szydlo and now by Mateusz Morawiecki, is firmly in Viktor Orbán’s camp when it comes to embracing the concept of illiberal democracy and a restrictive migration policy. Party leader Kaczynski joined Orbán in 2016 to call for a ‘cultural counter-revolution’ in the EU and has since been a firm supporter of constitutional reform and an opponent of EU migration quotas.
The Czech Republic has taken a political right-wing turn after the 2017 national elections from which the ANO party of billionaire entrepreneur Andrej Babiš emerged as the strongest political force with 29.6 per cent of the vote. Babiš had campaigned on a eurosceptic anti-immigration ticket. He warned Czech voters about the dangers of a ‘multicultural society’ promoted by Germany. He has since taken office as prime minister, first as the head of a minority government and soon possibly under a new coalition with the support of the Social Democrats and the Communist Party.
Even in Slovakia the political tide has been turning under the conditions of the migration crisis. Fico positioned himself as in stark opposition to Merkel’s migration policy during the March 2016 national elections. Fico’s SMER adopted the slogan ‘we protect Slovakia’ with reference to the potential terrorist threat emerging from uncontrolled migration in the EU. Fico nevertheless emerged weakened from the election and struggled to form a new government. In October 2017 Fico emphasised that Slovakia would remain the only ‘pro-European’ island in an increasingly eurosceptic region. Fico nevertheless maintained his profound scepticism towards the distribution of migrants in the EU. This is likely to continue under his successor and former deputy prime minister Peter Pellegrini. The latter took over from Fico after the SMER government came under increasing pressure following reports that linked the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak with ties between the Slovak government and organised crime.
V4 - the challenger
In their latest joint communique on the future of Europe the V4 governments remain firm in their commitment towards ensuring that ‘democratic control of Member States over legislative and political processes of the EU should follow the principle of subsidiarity’. Part of this remains ‘the principle of an effective, responsible and enforceable external border protection to avoid obligatory quotas to be applied’. The V4 consequently continue to pursue their efforts to emerge from the shadows of the passive policy-taker position they initially adopted when they joined the EU 14 years ago. More recently the V4 have been less concerned about maintaining the status of role model Europeans comply with an EU policy agenda that is determined by partners in the West. Instead the V4 have openly started to challenge their role as second class citizens and confidentially challenged the EU policy agenda, which has been substantially defined by a semi-hegemonial Germany in the past decade.
Voice not heard
The problem for the V4 cooperation in the EU in this respect is twofold. Firstly, the EU does not officially recognise cooperative alliances between groups member states. Statements issued by the V4 governments therefore have only limited impact beyond the region. The loose nature of the V4 cooperation, which lacks an institutional framework beyond joint summits and declarations, limits the scope of the V4’s potential joint impact on the EU’s agenda further. This was reflected by the lack of impact the V4 made on the domestic debate in the United Kingdom during the campaign leading up to the EU referendum on 23 June 2016. The joint statement issued by the V4 group in Prague on 8 June 2016, in which they emphasised the importance for the UK to remain a member of the EU and offered a partnership to the British government in working towards tackling the key challenges of the EU, was completely ignored during the campaign.
Secondly, the V4 are currently predominantly regarded as an obstructive force by the rest of the EU. The Economist headline quoted at the beginning of this article reflects the sentiment of the overall very limited coverage the Visegrád cooperation has received outside of the CEE region. The V4 have in recent years pushed forward crucial initiatives on regional cooperation in the areas of defence, security and external relations in the context of the Eastern partnership. The Western European perspective on the V4 nevertheless remains predominantly limited on their opposition to democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland and the opposition to the EU migration quotas. From the Western perspective the V4 and the wider CEE region hence continue to be regarded as not just part of the economic and social but also increasingly the political periphery of the EU.
Crucial to keep the CEE region in
Despite this the Visegrád countries are presented with a big opportunity due to Brexit, which makes it inevitable that the remaining 27 member states work closer together towards initiating a new purpose into the EU’s political agenda. Even a revived Franco-German leadership axis will not be able do this by themselves. The revival of the Weimar Triangle with Poland is therefore as much needed as a closer dialogue with the V4. The renewed grand coalition under Merkel in Berlin has already signalled its willingness to work more closely with the CEE countries in rebuilding the EU. The new German foreign minister Heiko Maas emphasised in this context that the he would aspire to avoid turning the recent political divisions into a permanent rift between the Western and Central-Eastern Europe. In a recent interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel Maas pointed out that ‘In this phase, which is decisive for the future of Europe, it is crucial to keep our Eastern European neighbours in the EU. We cannot give the impression that there are two classes in Europe in which some are left behind and no longer play a role.’ The V4 should use Germany’s openness towards a new dialogue with the CEE region as an opportunity to jointly contribute to the political reform of the EU. The V4 have also have the potential to widen their appeal in the region. The Austrian government of the recently elected prime minister Sebastian Kurz hinted that he may we willing to join the Visegrád Group and turn it into a permanent V4+ format.
With Brexit the CEE region loses an important ally that broadly shared focus on economic liberalism and their political vision of an EU of sovereign nation states, while the EU itself faces the unprecedented first instance of disintegration in its history.
Chancellor Merkel’s hesitant reaction towards French president Macron’s proposals for the deepening of political integration in the Eurozone shows that even Berlin is concerned about pushing towards political union too quickly and without the wider consultation of the European partners. The V4’s concerns about maintaining national sovereignty are therefore unlikely to fall on deaf ears. Moreover, the V4 have an important role to play in promoting the deepening of EU defence and security cooperation and the further enlargement towards the Balkan region after Brexit. This could be done most efficiently if Poland acts as mediator between the interests of France and Germany and the CEE region by engaging both constructively in the Weimar Triangle and the V4. The future of the EU will depend on a functional leadership axis that stretches from Paris to Berlin all the way to the Visegrád capitals.
Christian Schweiger is Visiting Professor at the Chair for Comparative European Governance Systems in the Institute for Political Science at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany. His research concentrates on the comparative study of political systems, economies and welfare states of the member states of the European Union (particularly the UK, Germany and transformation processes in Central-Eastern Europe), the political economy of the EU Single Market, economic globalisation and transatlantic relations. His most recent publications include the monograph Exploring the EU's Legitimacy Crisis: The Dark Heart of Europe (Edward Elgar, 2016) and the jointly edited collections with José M. Magone and Brigid Laffan Core-periphery Relations in the European Union: Power and conflict in a dualist political economy (Routledge, 2016) and with Anna Visvizi Central and Eastern Europe in the EU: Challenges and Perspectives Under Crisis Conditions (Routledge, 2018).
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