Narrowing Perceptions Meet Sustained Disunity – Part 2

As the refugee and migration crisis has been overtaking the security agenda of the Visegrad Group, all other issues have been relegated to lower importance

Zsuzsanna Végh
30 August 2017

This paper was written for the ‘V4 for Europe — Developing positive scenarios for Europe’s future’ workshop, organised by the Hungarian Europe Society in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Budapest on 16 May 2017.

The Visegrad countries’ approach to the crisis led to the prioritization of matters of internal security, justice and home affairs in the discourse and activities of the Visegrad Group in which framework they emphasized the need for fighting organized crime, human trafficking and terrorism – in partnership with the countries along the Balkan route. As a tangible contribution, in 2016, the V4 even sent police to help Macedonia in controlling its border with Greece, which again underscores where Visegrad priorities lie.

While cooperation among the internal ministries has not been without precedent, in the current context it also led to the re-interpretation of the role of the Western Balkans in the foreign policy dimension of the Visegrad Cooperation. As the Visegrad countries’ – in reality, primarily Hungary’s – main concern in terms of migration routes is the one through the Western Balkans, the stability and security of the region has gained additional importance as it stands as the last buffer ahead of the EU’s external borders. The Visegrad countries have repeatedly called for more (financial and technical) support from the European Union to help the countries along the transit route, and acknowledged the European commitment of those “affected by the refugee crisis they did not cause.”[1]

Following from the developments during 2015-16, and not independently from the discourse and political campaigns run in the Visegrad countries, immigration was seen in this period by the public as an important issue facing the respective countries and especially the EU. After a surge in autumn 2015 in the number of those who consider immigration as one of the two most important issues facing the EU or their countries, proportions started to decrease again in 2016, but have not returned to the level of 2014.

Q: “What do you think are the two most important issues facing (OUR COUNTRY) at the moment?”

A: Immigration (percentage of respondents)[2]

  Spring 2014 Autumn 2014 Spring 2015 Autumn 2015 Spring 2016 Autumn 2016
EU-28 15 18 23 36 28 26
Czech R. 7 8 18 47 32 25
Hungary 3 3 13 34 28 30
Poland 7 7 9 17 16 11
Slovakia 2 1 4 19 17 10


Q: “What do you think are the two most important issues facing the EU at the moment?”

A: Immigration (percentage of respondents)[3]

  Spring 2014 Autumn 2014 Spring 2015 Autumn 2015 Spring 2016 Autumn 2016
EU-28 21 24 38 58 48 45
Czech R. 21 26 44 76 67 63
Hungary 19 18 43 68 67 65
Poland 15 15 24 54 51 50
Slovakia 9 11 35 72 59 51

The perceived importance of immigration for the future of the EU and for the countries in question can be, of course, explained by the fact that the crisis and its causes are far from being resolved, but keeping it on the top of the Visegrad agenda undoubtedly strengthens such perceptions in the region, too. Furthermore, the recent announcement of the V4 concerning the launch of a so-called Migration Crisis Response Mechanism, the details of which should have already been developed by the end of March 2017, indicates that the topic will remain dominant on the agenda in the foreseeable future, as well.[4]

On Russia: Ignorance is bliss?

As the refugee and migration crisis has been overtaking the security agenda of the Visegrad Group, all other issues have been relegated to lower importance, including even energy security which topic is otherwise listed by decision- and opinion-makers from the V4 among the five most important areas the cooperation should focus on. No such desire is present, however, when it comes to drafting a joint policy on Russia, given the fundamental and visibly irreconcilable dissonance of positions on how to perceive and deal with the country’s influence in the region. In fact, the diverging policies on Russia were considered by the expert community to be the third most important difficulty preventing successful cooperation among the Visegrad countries, as of 2015.[5]

Following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, the Visegrad countries were on the same page in continuing to support Ukraine’s European aspirations, even putting forth some tangible initiative either together or individually, and on the level of official politics all of them expressed their support for the country’s territorial integrity. They were, however, already divided on how to address Russia’s aggression and whether it constitutes a threat to the EU, as well. Apart from Poland, none of them expressed unequivocal support for the EU’s sanctions regime against Moscow with the Hungarian government being one of the loudest advocates of abandoning the policy in the EU ever since the third round, the economic sanctions were introduced in June 2015.

Threat perceptions concerning Russia diverge significantly with the two extremes being Poland and Hungary. Warsaw views Russia an existential threat and in this regard its attitude is much closer to that of the Baltic countries, whereas members of the Hungarian government repeatedly expressed – most recently Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó in Warsaw, of all places[6] – that Hungary has no historical reason to consider Russia a threat to its security. The Paks deal, which indebts Hungary to Russia for decades to come and in fact increases the country’s energy dependence on Russian technology and know-how, also signifies that there is no clear Hungarian commitment to counter Russian influence in the country. Slovakia, which is similarly dependent in terms of energy supply on Russia, has pragmatic relations with Moscow with public attitudes being generally friendlier toward Russia than in the rest of the V4. Finally, the leadership of the Czech Republic has been divided between President Zeman being outright Russia-friendly and the Sobotka government rather falling in line with the EU mainstream.[7]

Despite the disunity of its political elite, when it comes to countering Russian influence the Czech Republic has been the most pro-active in the region by setting up a Center against Terrorism and Hybrid Threat under the Ministry of Interior, which addresses also security challenges originating from Russia.[8] Nothing could be further from the realities of Hungary where the government avoids even talking about potential Russian influence,[9] and where political will is seemingly lacking to prosecute illicit Russian activities in the country.[10] With such extremes in threat perceptions and security concerns, coordinating substantial joint action on Russia is essentially impossible.

Concluding thoughts

The past two years have certainly brought the prioritization of migration as the key security concern of the Visegrad countries, the approach to which has become a dubious trademark of the regional cooperation. Meanwhile other traditionally important issues for the V4 like energy security, or strong and effective advocacy for EU enlargement and deepening Eastern relations, which all have important security implications have received considerably less joint attention. Positions did not move any closer on Russia, which has long been burdening Visegrad relations. In fact, dividing lines are clearer than before. These trends show that regardless of the strong platform on the individual issue of migration, the four countries’ security perceptions continue to be fairly divergent, on the one hand, and their joint actions remain limited, on the other.

While the overall unity on migration has certainly influenced the EU-wide debate, it is doubtful whether the position made a real contribution to the security of the Union as such. The fence erected on the Hungarian-Serbian border might have closed one route, but what really held up refugees and migrants taking this path was the EU-Turkey deal. At the same time, the xenophobic and nationalist discourse adopted by these countries have shifted public attitudes and fed fear in order to achieve short term domestic political gains. Increasing tension and normalizing intolerance are actions which undermine solidarity among the member states and weaken the European Union’s capabilities to face external challenges from the inside. Whereas Visegrad’s united position on the refugee and migration crisis did not contribute to the strengthening of the European Union, its disunity on Russia actually brought similar results. Questioning the joint position on the sanctions, even if not vetoing, undermines trust and weakens the EU’s leverage. Not taking the risks of Russian influence seriously and failing to develop strong state and societal resilience against it, especially in the context of growing nationalism and populism in the region, render the countries, and through them the EU, vulnerable to interference. Essentially, on two of the key challenges the European Union faced in the past two years, the Visegrad Group did not present constructive inputs that would have strengthened the EU’s overall security.

The first part of the article was published on 28th of August.

Zsuzsanna Végh is vice-chair of the Hungarian Europe Society. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Hungarian Europe Society or its members.


[1] V4 Ministers in Joint Article: We Offer You Our Helping Hand on the EU Path. Visegrad Group. November 11, 2015. Accessed at http://www.visegradgroup.eu/calendar/2015/v4-ministers-in-joint

[2] Source: Standard Eurobarometer Nr. 82, Nr. 84 and Nr. 86.

[3] op.cit.

[4] Joint Statement of Ministers on establishment of the Migration Crisis Response Mechanism. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland. November 21, 2016. Accessed at http://www.msz.gov.pl/resource/12d5f115-0fe9-42b6-b73d-8deeea23983d:JCR

[5] Trends of Visegrad Foreign Policy 2015. Association of International Affairs (AMO). On key areas of the V4 cooperation: http://trendyv4.amo.cz/en/visualizations?group=all&ques=13. On difficulties ahead of the V4 cooperation: http://trendyv4.amo.cz/en/visualizations?group=all&ques=15.

[6] Janke, Igor. “Szef MSZ Węgier dla Salon24: Musimy pracować z Putinem”. Salon24. April 24, 2017. Accessed at http://jankepost.salon24.pl/773678,szef-msz-wegier-dla-salon24-musimy-pracowac-z-putinem

[7] For an overview of Visegrad positions concerning Russia, see: “Amiben biztosan nem értenek egyet a V4-ek: Oroszország”. Political Capital. March 3, 2017. Accessed at http://www.politicalcapital.hu/hireink.php?article_read=1&article_id=421

[8] “Czech Republic to fight ‘fake news’ with specialist unit”. The Guardian. December 28, 2016. Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/dec/28/czech-republic-to-fight-fake-news-with-specialist-unit

[9] After it transpired that the government used Yandex and a code that can transfer sensitive data to third parties on its “Let’s Stop Brussels!” national consultation website, members of the governing Fidesz party refused to discuss the case at the National Security Committee meeting in the Parliament, which has so far been unprecedented (“Fidesz delegates to National Security Committee walk out of Monday session”. Budapest Beacon. April 10, 2017. Accessed at http://budapestbeacon.com/news-in-brief/fidesz-delegates-national-security-committee-walk-monday-session/45813).

[10] Such a case is, for example, the one of Jobbik MEP Béla Kovács who was accused of spying and active influencing in the EU for Russia already in 2014, but whose case is still pending. Despite documented meetings with Russian diplomats, no Russians were expelled from Hungary in the aftermath of the accusations (Dezső, András. “A nagy Kovács Béla-rejtély”. Index.hu. April 17, 2015. Accessed at http://index.hu/belfold/2015/04/17/a_nagy_kovacs_bela-rejtely/).

Another, more recent example is the case of István Győrkös and his Hungarian National Front which allegedly had frequent contacts with the Russian military intelligence, GRU, known by the Hungarian secret services, who on the other hand did not act upon the information (Higgins, Andrew. “Intent on Unsettling the E.U., Russia Taps Foot Soldiers From the Fringe”. The New York Times. December 24, 2016. Accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/24/world/europe/intent-on-unsettling-eu-russia-taps-foot-soldiers-from-the-fringe.html?_r=0) – likely due to the lack of political will, which allegedly blocks the effective work of the Hungarian services (Panyi, Szabolcs. “Hungarian Secret Agent Reveals in Detail How Serious the Russian Threat Is”. Index.hu. March 21, 2017. Accessed at http://index.hu/belfold/2017/03/21/hungarian_secret_agent_reveals_how_serious_the_russian_threat_is/).

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