Visegrad has run through various stages since its existence, and the region will certainly change its action plans and its self-perception in the future
This article is part of a V4-Germany analytical series initiated after a conference ‘Visegrad Group and the future of European Union’ organised by the Visegrad Insight and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation, that took place in Warsaw on 15-16th March, 2017.
Visegrad has become a visible and, for many, a controversial factor in European affairs. The strong and restrictive position of the group with regards to the EU migration crisis has drawn considerable attention to the four countries. In a similar vein, developments in domestic affairs, notably far-reaching reforms in Hungary and Poland have sparked discussions about the state of democracy in the region. Of course, there has been a Visegrad group before the squabbles around asylum and migration policies – and it is worthwhile to envision the different and changing image and self-perceptions of the Central European quartet. With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to distinguish four unique stages of Visegrad.
First, there was a highly value-driven, a sort of “idealistic” Visegrad. Of course, the initial meetings of the (then) three states had a manifest political component. But the essential message was to show that in a situation of change and uncertainty these countries want to decouple from the disintegrating East and want to rejoin the West, to which they felt a belonging – according to their traditions and identity. The Visegrad countries, their political leaders backed by their societies, then translated this idealistic and normative yearning for the West into political and economic reforms. Apart from Slovakia’s detour between 1993 and 1998, the Visegrad countries became the paradigm of post-communist transformation.
With the enlargement of the EU in 2004, the old members – especially Germany – witnessed a new, unexpected version of Visegrad. The Central European “reform states”, which hitherto had always adapted to European laws and principles and which appeared to take German leadership for granted, now started saying “no”. For example, still standing at the doorsteps of the Union, the countries of the region sided with the US during the Iraq war. Poland tried to block Germany and others in their attempt to introduce a new system of voting for the EU council – a project that was regarded by Berlin as a key institutional change to make the EU suitable for the accession of new members.
However, after these first disagreements, Visegrad continued its successful pre-2004 path of reforms and modernisation. A huge and continuous influx of foreign direct investments and EU funding made the region an economic power house. In the EU, the Visegrad countries deepened and completed their accession, and as a testament to their integration, Slovakia joined the eurozone in 2009.
Each successful turn at EU council presidencies – the Czech Republic (2009), Hungary (2011) and Poland (2011) – proved that the countries were de jure members of the European community and not just de facto affiliates. More importantly, after the financial and sovereign debt crises had severely hit many EU countries (including Hungary), the V4 supported Germany’s approach of fiscal conservatism and tough economic adjustments. In the eyes of many Western European observers and also reflecting a change in their own self-image, Visegrad moved away from the old East and became part of the new North in the EU during this period of development.
Finally, the refugee crisis of 2015 brought about a restive and restrictive Visegrad. The four countries have been adamant about rejecting the idea of obligatory mechanisms for the redistribution of asylum-seekers in the EU. According to their concept of “flexible solidarity”, migration and asylum are common challenges for the EU; however, it should not be solved by distributing refugees among member states but by improving border security and assistance on the hotspots in crisis regions. At the same time, the governments in power in Hungary (since 2010) and in Poland (since 2015) have stressed their willingness to push through domestic agendas of fundamental change and to defend national sovereignty consistently. Budapest and Warsaw have also signalled that they would not allow the EU to interfere in matters which they regard to be the core of their statehood (i.e. the political system or the control of migration from non-EU countries).
In sum, Visegrad has run through various stages since its existence, and the region will certainly change its action plans and its self-perception in the future. In any case, Visegrad will remain multi-facetted. Its partners in the EU will encounter a denying and defying Visegrad as well as a cooperative and innovative Visegrad. For Germany as the closest and most important neighbour of the V4 and the country which is burdened to keep the Union together, the varying faces of Visegrad mean both a chance to intensify contact as well as accept the inherent differences within the region.
Kai-Olaf Lang is the Research fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs – Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), Berlin, Germany. Head of research unit on European Integration; previously research fellow of the Federal Institute for Eastern and International Studies (Bundesinstitut für os internationale und ostwissenschaftliche Studien, BIOst), Cologne, Germany.