Brand New Central Europe

Elections in Austria and the Czech Republic will shrink options for the V4 countries outside the mainstream

Wojciech Przybylski
20 October 2017

The predictable victory of the Czech oligarch in Prague is likely to further undermine the Visegrad alliance. The success of Sebastian Kurz and a future coalition with far-right with their new ambition to lead in the region will only speed up the process. Anticipating that, Poland should present a constructive position in the debate on the future of the EU and to start making intensive efforts to take an undeveloped place at the EU decision-makers’ table.

The current Christian Democrat leader, Sebastian Kurz, is in favour of delaying further integration of Central and Eastern European countries. He opposes the adoption of euro currency by new EU members due to the level of economic development and advocates to limit the competitiveness of the EU labor market.

The only few of his ideas which would appeal to the current Polish government would include promotion of traditional Christian values and restrictions on the power of the EU commission – Kurz wants to reduce the number of commissioners and limit immigration from outside Europe.

His coalition partner will almost certainly be the FPÖ – the far right – whose leader even announced his ambition to join the Visegrad Group, naturally not to comfort Polish leaders. Austrian right-wing parties want to join forces to compete for influence on the regional agenda from the perspective of Austrian complexes, including fears of foreigners (including EU citizens) and building a strong cultural identity of Austrian Heimat.

Former coalition from social democrats buried not only the chance to recreate a pre-election dinner in which they were the biggest partner but also their own credibility by involving into a dirty campaign against Kurz.

However, even the foreign policy of the Austrian left has favoured the weakening of Poland’s position in the region. It is not a coincidence that Macron chose Austria for the position of his campaign against delegated workers, where he met also with Slovak and Czech partners, adversely affecting the interests of Poland.

Slavkov Triangle vs Visegrad Group

Meetings in the so-called Slavkov Triangle (Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia) were launched by the Prime Ministers of three Social Democrat parties, of which only Robert Fico remained in power. It will not be a surprise if this format survives and is going to be strengthened by the new heads of governments.

It would then become a serious competitor for the Visegrad Group in presenting interests of the countries of the region to the EU agenda.

The more Poland, for seven years an informal leader of the group, will be in conflict with the main line of the EU, the more V4 will be weakening. The Slovak Prime Minister was criticising the V4 political line dominated by the Hungarian and Polish rights.

In an interview this summer he said that if he were to choose either the V4 or the EU, he would have chosen a united Europe without any hesitation. Czech diplomats are also switching to such position. Their communication may also become radical with the new government, although it is not yet clear in which direction.

Next week or so in the Czech Republic we will expect new coalition talks between Andrej Babiš – most likely the new prime minister. Despite allegations of corruption and a confirmation that he was a secret associate of the communist security services, he and his party ANO 2011 are still favourites (25% of support) in the forthcoming elections.

Babiš himself, also known as the aggressive investor who owns the Czech media and the agricultural sector, masks his political appetites under the slogan: “I do business, not politics”, which is gaining sympathy for a large proportion of young voters disenchanted with previous parties.

This discouragement led to equal chances of the Communists, the now-ruling Social Democrats, the Czech Pirate Party or the radical right-wing party the Dawn of the Direct Democracy to become a potential new coalition partner. All these groups compete for the second place, oscillating around 10% of support.

It’s not entirely unlikely that the current coalition would remain becoming a democratic anchor but it is less probable because of scandals that surround the future prime minister. The other three parties are ready for the radical reconstruction of Czech politics. Expected changes may include electoral law, the liquidation of the Senate and strengthening of the office of the president. The latter held currently by Miloš Zeman, often described as a Russian Trojan Horse.

Polish position in the region undermined

Polish foreign policy is quickly losing grounds. This could be reversed but not without some major changes and some may come rather soon.

According to leaks from within the party, in the following months PiS government is expected to change its foreign minister – Witold Waszczykowski. That would be a slight opportunity to gain some ground against many odds, some of which actually relate to the regional cooperation.

One of the obvious would be to get involved in the preparations of the upcoming Austrian EU presidency that starts in July 2018. Kurz has set ambitious goals of reforms in the EU and Poland should at least closely monitor those, if not get involved to find common grounds with Austrians.

At the same time, it should be taken into account that many of Vienna’s and Warsaw’s foreign policy goals are divergent – just this week President Duda has hosted Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and encouraged Turkey’s accession to the EU. A move Austria strongly opposes.

Polish position would certainly be strengthened was it to set a date for the adoption of the euro. This would require enough courage from the government to cross its own party lines. Without plans to join the main circle of integration the divergence in the group will only increase.

There is but a little chance, since deputy finance minister Leszek Skiba announced last week that the government is ready to consider adoption of euro after eurozone reforms.

This signals a change while other V4 countries might be simply way ahead on the same track, especially after elections this week in the Czech Republic and in spring 2018 in Hungary.

Wojciech Przybylski – Editor-in-Chief of Visegrad Insight, President of Res Publica Foundation in Warsaw