Challenge or an opportunity waiting to be discovered?
Brexit provides an opportunity for the V4 to shape the debate on the future direction of the EU. The V4 only cooperate where their national interests converge and are, therefore, unlikely to present a grandiose new vision. They can, however, have a significant impact on issues of deepening the Single Market the four freedoms of movement.
Britain’s departure from the European Union poses two challenges for the Visegrad countries. First, it deprives them of a potential sceptical ally against federalists and those pushing for an ever-closer union. Second, Brexit changes the balance of power among member states. This means the V4 could obtain a more prominent role within the EU, but the loss of a traditional ally may also lead to further marginalisation. The question is, are the Visegrád countries up to the challenges ahead, and can they turn them into an opportunity?
Britain has often been described as an awkward partner within the EU, a label that is also increasingly being attached to the Central European states like Kaczynski’s Poland and Orban’s Hungary. Indeed, before the Brexit referendum, the Polish government designated Britain as a strategic partner in Europe with a similarly sceptical view of further European integration. The V4, having turned from poster-children of transition to the EU’s troubled teenagers, it might appear that an ally like the UK would have come in handy.
Yet, even in the current situation, the loss of the UK as an ally is not as substantial as it might seem. On one hand, both Britain and the V4 have regularly been at odds with Brussels, and equally fierce in responding to perceived encroachment on national sovereignty. On the other hand, British and Central European brands of scepticism towards Brussels have significant differences. Britain has been content with opting-out from unwelcome new integration initiatives. In contrast, while the V4 are opposed to an-ever closer union, the V4’s March Summit also highlighted that the four states are also extremely concerned about being left behind in a two speed EU.
In this respect, one of Britain’s main grievances with the EU has been the free movement of people, which London sought to increasingly decouple from the free movement of goods, capital and services. With sizeable diasporas across the EU (especially in the case of Poland), the V4 have strongly objected to any curtailing of the free movement of people. As a result, the past year has shown that despite the anti-Brussels rhetoric from Warsaw and Budapest, the group’s stake in EU membership is stronger than ever. Unintentionally, the uncertainty over Brexit’s impact on the freedom of movement has brought the V4 together and in line with other EU member states, putting the UK at odds with these key allies that London has been trying to court as part of its effort to ensure a more amicable departure.
Independently from such considerations, the V4 itself has often been invested with hopes of enabling the four countries to punch above their weight in Brussels. While the group has often disappointed in this regard, a realistic assessment means dropping both excessive euphoria and excessive fatalism so common in debates on the V4 format. The group can be quite effective, if the interests of the four countries align or overlap. Their opposition to the EU’s response to the refugee crisis was a case in point, particularly when the V4 closed ranks to resist the implementation of the mandatory relocation of refugees. The current outcry about food safety standards may prove to be another such rallying point. However, as the case of defence cooperation demonstrates, the group has a more a sketchy record on specific projects. For example, the much-heralded issue of defence procurement was particularly short-lived. Moreover, the V4 countries didn’t support Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, Poland’s choice to replace Donald Tusk as the EU Council President, and went with the EU mainstream.
Similarly, when it comes to big questions about the reform of the EU, the V4 have struggled to form a stable and effective front. This became clear once more in their attempt to put forward a joint vision for post-Brexit EU reform, which amounted to a superficially vague list of reform proposals tabled at the Bratislava Summit in September 2016. With Warsaw and Budapest increasingly being seen as awkward partners by Prague and Bratislava, it is unlikely the V4 can deliver a coherent vision for a post-Brexit EU beyond slogans of ‘intergovernmentalism’ and ‘national sovereignty’.
The Visegrad format has potential to enhance the four countries role and status within the EU; however, not every day, and not on every issue. Once again, on issues where their national interests converge, such as the Single Market, the V4 will continue to cooperate, and stick with other EU member states.
Visegrad enthusiasts need to acknowledge these limitations. No one can deny that a united voice would empower the V4 within the EU. However, empowerment remains futile considering the group’s often divergent interests – a paradox at the core of the V4. Inevitably, their cooperation will (as in the past) hit regular road blocks. But V4 sceptics, too, should refrain from dooming the whole format because of this. When their interests coincide, the four countries can punch above their weight.
Brexit offers such opportunity. A push towards an Energy Union and defence of the freedom of movement offers the V4 a positive agenda with which they can make their voices heard, build consensus among member states, and shape the Union’s future even without their traditional ally. To what extent they can discover opportunity at the heart of the Brexit challenge, however, remains open.
Lukasz Janulewicz is a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University (United Kingdom)
Igor Merheim-Eyre is a researcher at the University of Kent (United Kingdom)