Consistently Inconsistent

The sinusoidal V4 Presidency struggles to find areas of cooperation which will unite the region’s priorities

Peter Stepper
20 June 2017

The Corvinus Society for Foreign Affairs and Culture (CS4FAC) had the opportunity to organize a semester-long training program for university students which ran parallel in all four of the Visegrad countries, namely in the cities of Prague, Brno, Bratislava, Banska Bystrica, Kraków and Warsaw. The project ended with a conference called “Assessment of Polish 2016/2017 V4 Presidency” at the Polish Institute in Budapest, where experts analysed the on-going cooperation in the fields like security and stability, a strong V4 voice in Europe and energy policy. The project was supported by the International Visegrad Fund and the Embassy of Poland to Hungary.

As one of the speakers emphasized, “If there are presidential priorities, there is no such thing as a V4 priority.” The big question of V4 cooperation is to identify areas where the cooperation could survive from one presidency to the next.

Although security and stability in the immediate neighbourhood of the Visegrad Group is an imperative for each country, it is not currently possible that the V4 can play a principal or even a very active role either in NATO or in the European Union defence initiatives. This not only stems from the differences in security perceptions, but is also due to the various sizes and capabilities of the defence forces; essentially, the challenges facing the V4 countries today have a completely different form than those affecting their allies.

While PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) is the new buzzword in EU defence, it is at least doubtful how the V4 countries will be able to help dramatically with the initiative nor strengthen European defence overall. While the EU V4 Battlegroup is a significant sign of cooperation, it is still hard to foresee how the V4 BG could provide for security assistance missions in a radius of 6000 km from Brussels (i.e. in Congo or Kashmir) in real combat situations. Probably, this eventuality will never materialise because of the lack of political will to deploy the BG. How then can we increase its political support?

Deepening and solidifying the defence cooperation in the EU necessitates three prerequisites: capabilities, political motivation and social inclusion. In order to deliver something tangible and move beyond symbolic gestures, we need to pay attention to all of them, collectively and individually. Each V4 country should improve transparency in term of its military activities because secretive approaches alienate members of the military. Therefore, strategic communication must be of the utmost importance. Nonetheless, MoDs should talk about their specific challenges as well. Decorating veterans fighting in Afghanistan does not help in tackling the flaws of equipment supply, matters regarding modernization or military logistics support. Social inclusion with these military issues is essential because of the increasing (American) pressure to spend more on defence in Europe and in the V4 countries in particular. Politicians have the responsibility to convince their taxpayers about the necessity of increasing the defence budget spending to reach the 2% requirement. In the case of Hungary, it means doubling the defence budget in less than 10 years.

European electricity market integration is on its right track in terms of interconnectivity and some of the V4 countries were able to show considerable results, e.g. the Czech electricity network is capable of transferring the German production surplus and providing the opportunity of importing electricity. At least in terms of increasing interconnectivity, here we can say the V4 cooperation has a common voice.

However, there are other areas where the countries have their own concurring national interests in terms of energy supplies. Ensuring the natural gas supply is not as important as it was during 2009 when the gas crisis erupted in Ukraine as well as after the 2014 Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The European Union and its member states were firm in their stance to create gas interconnectors and to address the issue of pipeline capacity.

One of the most central results of the increasing interconnectivity is that markets can be supplied by short-term contracts. The use of this new tool is the most visible in the case of Ukraine, which is now able to buy natural gas from EU markets as well. Nevertheless, Russia is still the main gas supplier of the region, since it is competitive and was able to successfully adjust to the changes of the European energy market. That being said, EU member states and Russia had more than 30 long-term contracts a couple of years ago; today, almost every contract has been modified in order to plug the legal loopholes, thus the member-states have started to implement common European standards. Although gas prices used to be oil-indexed, we can see a significant change of pricing as well, which can be understood as a success of EU energy policy.

North Stream II is one of the most sensitive issues politically, which reveals the main problem of European energy union, the lack of trust among EU member-states. While Germany supports the project in order to have energy reserves necessary for their Energiewende, Poland has a negative attitude towards it because it sees it as a Russian tool to undermine the European community, and it should not be forgotten that the era of pipeline constructions is coming to an end soon.

The most recent issues are not pipelines anymore, rather the possibility of using the capabilities of LNG terminals. The future of natural gas is dark because of two particular reasons. Firstly, the European Commission has proposed halving all carbon emissions by 2050. Secondly, Europe’s gas production is decreasing, even the biggest suppliers in the North Sea region as well as in the Netherlands and Scotland have slowed down their production. Thus, if we want to use natural gas, we will have to import more, but it is still a question whether European member states are willing to and able to decrease carbon emissions and make a shift from fossil fuels to renewables.

Concerning the future of the European Union, the Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe and its five scenarios can be considered as a rather hot-topic. Although it is always good to consider scenarios, one thing is certain: the only scenario which will not happen is eventually the one you are prepared for. There will be some areas where the notion of the multispeed Europe applies to the format of cooperation. In terms of PESCO, it is probable that big players like France and Germany would like to and have the capacity to support such initiatives, while smaller countries will remain hesitant. We still cannot see the meaning of the expressions like flexible and/or effective solidarity in terms of the EU decision-making process. The Slovakian EU Presidency facilitated the implementation of this notion, which is in line with the statement of the V4 prime ministers. The V4 countries could project an alternative approach in the case of the EU asylum reform plans and successfully shift the discourse from the humanitarian to the security side of the issue, but it is still a question for the future if this agenda-setting activity could support positive initiatives. Harmonization of policy planning in the field of the Digital Single Market can be one particular field of a positive cooperation, but it is too soon to tell how Central European countries can find a common ground regarding Industry 4.0 as well as robotics, while the features of their economic structure differs significantly.

Peter Stepper works on the security and defense policy in the Visegrad cooperation, forced migration studies, and international refugee law. Most recently has been the Director of Corvinus Society for Foreign Affairs and Culture and research fellow of the Antall József Knowledge Centre.