The Visegrad Group and the Cynic Reality
Visegrad Insight in partnership with Eastern Europe Network of Fellows of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation is pleased to present articles by Jörg Winterbauer, Zsuzsanna Végh and Vít Dostál created on the occasion of ‘Germany and the Visegrad States: Potentials and Challenges of Cooperation’ conference in Warsaw, 25-27 November 2016.
When the new government led by the social democrats assumed the office in the Czech Republic in January 2014, among its foreign policy priorities was a deepening of cooperation with its neighbours, in particular with Germany and Austria. Unfortunately, the past three years were anything but calm, and the situation made long-term planning an onerous, if not impossible, task.
Several events have had an effect on the Czech Central-European policy: the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the refugee crisis and the new Law and Justice-led government in Poland. Mainly, the two latter events have had greater influence on the image of the region. One can easily get the impression that the Czech centre-left government would now turn westwards, enhance its relationship with Germany and loosen its ties with the “nationally conservative” Visegrad Group.
Though, this is far from what has materialised. Any grumbling about the Visegrad Group can only be heard in the corridors of Czernin Palace, the seat of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is not shared by other political actors including important social democrats.
The Czech Redefinition of Central Europe
Petr Drulák, who was then the first Czech deputy foreign minister, said in one interview in June 2014, a few months after he assumed the office, that our conception of Central Europe was still constrained by the post-communist thinking and that we needed some definition which could overcome the Cold War divisions. He also developed the idea of Central European cooperation which would have included the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia.
This happened during the so-called crisis of the Visegrad Group after the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea and outbreak of the war in Eastern Ukraine. The Visegrad Group has been often criticized for its inability to act, when the four countries held divergent positions vis-à-vis important international affairs. Edwards Lucas wrote at that time that the Visegrad Group is “grappling with irrelevance” and enlisted a number of V4’s disagreements.
He, and many other commentators, was right that the Visegrad Group was not able to form a strong position on the Ukrainian conflict. However, the Czechs perceived the Russian behaviour less nervously than the Poles. Prime Minister Sobotka said that he was not calling for enhanced NATO presence in Europe; on the other hand, an enhanced presence of the alliance was exactly what Warsaw urged for. Petr Drulák, in October 2014 during the lecture at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said that the Visegrad Group does not hold any geopolitical role. It seemed that the Czech Republic was actually departing from NATO’s eastern flank, which was broadly calling for a reassurance of its security.
New Opening towards Berlin and Vienna
In the meantime, the Czech Republic was strengthening contacts with Austria and Germany. The former relationship resulted in the Slavkov (Austerlitz) Declaration constituting a new forum of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria. In the recent past, the links between the Czech Republic and Austria were definitely underdeveloped, and this was a good opportunity for them to gain momentum for improving their relations. The historical issues were marginalized: both Vienna and Prague were governed by coalitions of Social and Christian democrats, there was no nuclear power plant under construction in the Czech Republic and the transition periods for the free movement of workers in the EU had been over since 2011. So there were little constrains for bilateral rapprochement. Moreover, Hungary – the traditional Austrian partner in post-communist Europe – was becoming less and less attractive.
The trilateral forum aimed at discussing cross-border, regional as well as European issues. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that although the Czechs did not believe in the geopolitical role of the V4, the cultural ties shared between the Visegrad Group was definitely missing with neutral Austria. Therefore, the cooperation now focuses predominantly on cross-border and sectoral bilateral issues.
The relationship with Germany was marked by the launch of the Czech-German Strategic Dialogue in July 2015. Within this Dialogue was the establishment of several bilateral working groups, which cover multiple sectoral agendas and according the Czech MFA make the communication between the Czech and the German administration easier.
“Visegradization” of the Czech Central-European Policy during the Refugee Crisis
As the refugee crisis broke out in the summer of 2015, the Czech Republic took over its presidency of the Visegrad Group. Thus, it was obligation of the Czechs to negotiate a common position of the V4 and organize meetings with other partners in the EU. Although the rhetoric of Prime Minister Sobotka was not as harsh towards refugees as that of his Slovak or Hungarian counterparts, Czech policies were not much milder. It opposed relocation quotas and did not treat refugees according to the international obligations and standards they were bound to uphold.
In fact, the Czech Republic has held the same position as Hungary, Slovakia and from November 2015 Poland as well. Prague was repeating that the binding relation quotas are meaningless, that the EU has to focus on the control of the borders and assist in the regions where most of the refugees are trapped. It supported the closure of the Balkan route for refugees before the deal between the EU and Turkey was reached, thus leaving their fellow member state Greece in a dire situation.
Moreover, despite the newly opened Czech-German Dialogue, Germany – the broker of the EU-wide solutions during the refugee crises – was viewed by the Czech public and in political discourse as a problem or a potential threat. Germany was criticized for its “Welcome culture” and many politicians, including the vice-Prime Minister Andrej Babiš from the junior coalition ANO Movement and social democratic Minister of Interior Milan Chovanec. Even the Foreign Minister Zaorálek often spoke about the Western European countries inability to “integrate” immigrants, and so defended the Czech (or V4) stance. The popularity of Germany and Angela Merkel significantly dropped among the Czech population, according to polls. This did not lead to freezing of Czech-German relations and the mutual dialogue continued, yet it harmed the Czech image in Germany as the Czech Republic was not different to any other V4 country.
Problems with the New Poland
The refugee crisis did not bring any discomfort with being part of the V4 for the Czech Republic, as it in fact shares the same view as Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. However, what made Czechs nervous were Polish plans for the new integration formats in the Central Europe. The visions of “Intermarium” or more specific plans for A-B-C forum have not been attractive for Prague, as their main tasks were to push out Russia and counterbalance Germany. The latter goal has been unacceptable for the Czech Republic.
As the Polish unintended conflict with the European institutions broke out and the Venice Commission as well as the European Commission started to investigate the constitutional order in Poland, the attractiveness of Warsaw’s plans was close to zero. Czechs were aware of the fact that the refugee crisis harmed their image and did not want to be pulled into the “Polish problems” from which it could not politically benefit. As Poland was about to take over the Presidency of the V4 from Czechs in July 2016, Czech diplomacy became uncertain. The unpleasant atmosphere was marred further by the fact that Poland delivered the draft programme of their year at the helm to their partners unprecedentedly late – in May.
Yet, the final programme did not include any catastrophic scenario, and it was essentially a follow-up to the Czech V4 Presidency, with more stress on the development of infrastructural interconnectivity among the V4 countries and in the broader region. Poland also gave up the plans for the A-B-C forum and embraced the parallel Croatian Three Seas Initiative. Zagreb’s project seems to be very similar to the Polish one, with the notable exception that the Polish proposal has never actually been put on paper and presented. However, there are a few additional differences. The Dubrovnik Declaration specifically aims at infrastructure—among the supporters are not only countries of the Eastern EU enlargements but also Austria—and it refers to European values.
Still, the Czech Republic has a different approach towards the future of the EU. Its position is close to the one of Bratislava and distant to the views of “cultural counterrevolutionaries” from Poland and Hungary. This was visible during the preparation of the joint V4 position before the Bratislava summit, which in September started the EU’s reflection process, as all hard-liners’ paragraphs were removed from the V4’s document. Thus, one can hardly expect that the V4 would contribute to the debate on the future of the EU with any strong common position.
The Results: Versatile Central-European Policy of the Czech Republic
Will the Czech position change in the near future and will Prague distance itself from the rest of the V4? Such development is very improbable. Neither Prime Minister Sobotka nor Foreign Minister Zaorálek are willing to change the Czech policy towards the refugee crisis, which is now the main angle under which V4 is perceived. The general elections will take place in less than a year and social democrats are simply not willing to vehemently fight xenophobic moods in the society and risk a landslide defeat. The Czech Social Democratic Party is getting rid of “liberals” within its ranks. Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier representing the “idealistic” stream among social democrats was sacked in November 2016.
As there is no pressure from Germany and the negotiations of the post 2021 EU budget are far from opening, the Czech Republic feels no need to change its position. It will pragmatically combine the use of softer rhetoric in front of its Western partners, and so introducing itself as the white sheep among many black ones, emphasizing its membership in the V4 to its domestic public. Because of that behaviour, Prague is also unable to play a role of an interlocutor between the V4 and the Western Europe, since it does not hold a very firm and well-grounded stance.
The Czech Republic will therefore continue with its versatile Central-European policy, which is in reality is less a “policy” but more an unclear strategy they will have to muddle through until the next elections.
Vít Dostál is Research Director of Association for International Affairs (AMO).
The publication of the article was possible thanks to financial support from the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.