All Quiet on the Eastern Front

The Silent Death of the Visegrad Vision for EU Reform

Lukasz Janulewicz, Igor Merheim-Eyre
15 December 2016

When the result of the Brexit referendum became clear in the morning of 24 June, shockwaves went around Europe. Amidst the confusion and uncertainty, it appeared as if the Visegrad Group (V4) emerged as an unlikely centre of vitality and initiative with a series of announcements on their joint vision for the future of the EU. In a series of top-level meetings, the leaders of Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic provided glimpses of a reform programme for the Bratislava Summit, prompting numerous observers to believe in the emergence of the V4 as a unified illiberal bloc.

Flanked by anti-Brussels rhetoric, they floated several policy ideas around the familiar theme of ‘taking back control’:

‘We need to bring the European idea closer to the citizens and narrow the existing gap between the European institutions and the expectation of the people. We need to conduct a deeper reflection on current challenges the Union is facing.’

More specifically, the V4 advocated tilting the balance of power back towards the Council and national capitals, reigning in the Commission’s right for policy initiatives, marginalising the European Parliament and giving national parliaments formal veto rights in EU decision-making. At the same time, they voiced strong support for completing of the single market and strengthening the CSDP while avoiding any form of two-tier Europe. This agenda was as ambitious as it was diverse, presenting a bizarre mixture of Gaullist and Thatcherite inspirations.

However, when it came to much anticipated meeting of EU leaders in the Slovak capital, the V4 failed to deliver. Rather than presenting an ambitious new vision, they barely managed to scrape together three pages of generalised statements. Some more concrete steps were limited to better cooperation in the area of security. In subsequent months we have heard little to suggest that the great vision was merely delayed. That might have been all the V4 had up their sleeves. How has it come to this?

Trouble in paradise?

To observers of the V4, the group is like Britain’s famous yeast-extract spread Marmite: You either love it or hate it. V4 enthusiasts see it as the next Benelux Group or Nordic Council, while V4 sceptics dismiss the group as ineffectual and disorganised. Both views fail to grasp that the V4 format is all about national interest. When it suits their governments and they find common language, the V4 cooperate; when they disagree, they simply move to the next list on the agenda. This is exactly what deflated the initially impressive V4 soufflé.

In 2015, brought together by the miscalculated Commission proposal on mandatory refugee relocation, each government had something to gain from a joint V4 stance against Brussels. It helped fuel the struggling re-election campaign of Robert Fico in Slovakia, increased the dithering poll numbers of Viktor Orban’s FIDESZ party and offered Poland’s Law and Justice party another battleground in its national revolution. This momentum carried over into the distinctly anti-Brussels stance on EU reform. True to its form, the V4’s unified front was not long-lasting.

In the build-up towards the Bratislava summit, a political bromance was developing between the leaders of Poland and Hungary. Most prominently, Kaczynski and Orban announced a cultural counter-revolution in the EU, something akin to their controversial domestic policy programmes. This has been viewed with increased suspicion in Prague and Bratislava. Despite Milos Zeman’s expletive laden tirades and Robert Fico’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, both countries have a far more pragmatic relationship with Brussels. The Czech Republic has from the beginning been somewhat of an odd man out in the presumed illiberal quartet and most prone to break ranks. Slovakia has also found that, as its Presidency progressed, keeping too close company with what Brussels perceives as troublemakers in Warsaw and Budapest is an increasingly awkward and uncomfortable arrangement.

Why is this important? Simply, European leaders and commentators misjudged the nature of the beast. When the EU-friendly government in Warsaw fell in autumn of 2015, it seemed to many that the V4 were now a solid block of illiberal populists looking for trouble with Brussels. The vision of the V4 as a coherent regional bloc is strongest in the minds of Polish policy-makers and analysts seeing Poland as a future regional power. This vision in not widely reciprocated in the three other countries, however. This year has not changed this. Unity against migrant quotas merely emerged from coinciding national interests, allowed themselves to be duped into believing unity that was at best opportunistic.

Ultimately, despite best rhetorical efforts over the last couple of months, it is business as usual for the V4. It is not an emerging bloc, nor is it likely to be one anytime soon. To paraphrase, the news of its birth have been greatly exaggerated.

Western pundits, and some from the East, need to take the Group for what it is: a loose framework for the pursuit of national interest. New initiatives do not hail the dawn of a new era of regional cooperation. Failed attempts do not signal impending doom for the V4 format either. It is alive and well, as its usual pragmatic self: active where there’s joint interest, silent where there is none. The V4 as a bloc is neither illiberal, counter-revolutionary nor united. It is, however, a pragmatic vehicle for four awkward partners.

Lukasz Janulewicz is a researcher at the University of Kent (UK)

Igor Merheim-Eyre is a researcher at the University of Kent (UK), and a visiting scholar at KU Leuven (Belgium)