25 years of Visegrad

Who would have thought

Matthew Kaminski
9 December 2016

 25 years of Visegrad. Who would have thought.

Who would have thought that Europe’s margins – places that always, as Czeslaw Milosz wrote, knew far more about the West than the West ever knew or cared about the East – could change the world. They remade the continent, brought down an empire of tyranny and rekindled the dream of a free, liberal and whole Europe. Those who were lucky to see their creation come to life were Walesa, Michnik, Havel and Orban.

Who would have thought that these four countries – never before a single block, divided as they were by mutual distrusts and not a few historical grievances, not minor ones at that – could come together and force the West to take their insistent demands to become part of the “European family” seriously. It is too easy to forget now that the then seemingly quixotic entreaties to join the EU and NATO came from them. Kohl in Germany as well as Bush and Clinton in Washington were all lukewarm about it, sometimes patronizing and above all worried about offending Russia. Despite all that, the Visegrad group forced their way in through the front door.

Or who would have thought that once in, these upstarts could play a role far beyond their financial muscle or military capabilities. Within weeks of joining NATO, Hungary was on the frontlines of the alliance’s first war over Kosovo. The Poles harnessed their long track record of democratic stability and economic growth to become a power in the EU – both the leaders of the East and Berlin’s junior coalition partner in Brussels. As a Brussels mandarin recently told me, fifteen years ago, who would have thought Poland, that fractious, rural country, would one day wield more power in the EU than Spain.

And, now in the second decade of the 21st century, who would have thought that having led the liberal charge into Europe, the East would now be leading the illiberal brigades. Orban the former Budapest student leader who headed the Liberal International has turned into a champion for national sovereignty, Hungarian nationalism and the outright rejection of liberalism. Criticism of his shift in political leaning is not of import for this discussion; the more significant point is that Orban has shaped and driven this new mood through his country and the broader region.

Whether the issues concentrate on migrants, trade, the trans-Atlantic alliance, open borders or fuzzier notions like “solidarity,” “democracy,” “free speech” and the “ever deeper union,” scepticism is the new norm in the East and the West. It is the force behind the British campaign to “Leave” the EU and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn atop Labour. It is propelling the far-right in France and the far-left in Spain to unprecedented electoral gains. And the Visegrad Four – with Kaczynski reigning supreme in Warsaw, Fico in Bratislava and the revolving cast of pro-Putin, Eurosceptics inside Prague Castle (Havel, presumably, has turned a few times by now in his grave) – are the trendsetters.

Putin’s aggressions, even in the midst of his revanchist kick right next door in Ukraine, and America’s waning interest in Europe are real threats to Central Europe. Yet, today the source of the most evident danger to what the Visegrad club struggled so hard to build in the nineties comes from the inside.

The greatest achievements of the past twenty-five years from a Visegrad point of view are security, provided by NATO; open borders, thanks to Schengen; and being part of a prosperous bloc that trades freely and searches for common solutions as no other group of nations anywhere in the world do.

Of course, if you ask them, the last thing the Visegrad leaders want is to undercut any of those achievements. When I posed a similar question to Orban, in a long interview in Budapest last November, he said that Hungary’s national interest was to reinforce Schengen, NATO and the EU. The new Polish government desperately wants NATO, preferably American, boots on its soil, and for all Easterners of a certain age, a world without visas and border checks is rather utopian.

Yet, this world – a world with a reunified Berlin and the stronger, expanding alliances of NATO, the EU and Schengen zone – is in jeopardy. Forces have been unleashed on Europe in this decade that, in no small way, were either born or reinforced in the Visegrad countries. And these forces pose an imminent and existential threat to them. Who would have thought.

Matthew Kaminski is Executive Editor of POLITICO Europe.

This article is taken from the book “V4 – 25 YEARS. THE CONTINUING STORY OF THE VISEGRÁD GROUP 1991 – 2016

*This article has been modified from an earlier version published on December 9, 2016; its current phrasing reflects more accurately the author’s opinion.