It is difficult to remain optimistic when it comes to Central Europe and the problems of the Visegrad Group. The non-existence of influential cooperation is clearer than the sky on a sunny afternoon, but from time to time politicians and experts believe otherwise. We try to believe in it rather than let it rest in peace, but sooner or later we need to accept the fact that, in its current form, it is just not working properly.
The common initial goals, like democratic transition and Western integration, are far behind us, but we still tend to believe that we share some basic foundations on which we can build our special, VIP-only partnership. All these declared common interests could easily be blown away by a small wind. We come together to save Ukraine or our “common” interests in the European Union, but at the end of the day, each country faces its own challenges and pursues its own well-being. We try not to position ourselves in sharp contrast to one another, but our different positions – the Czech Republic as a stagnant Eurosceptic, Hungary as a cheated-upon wife demanding respect, Slovakia as a good euro-student haunted by its past, and Poland as the diva of defense spending – will eventually turn us against each other.
Hungary as the new English patient
Hungary is considered the new black sheep of the European Union. Most of Viktor Orbán’s initiatives merely question the healthy development of a prospering European democracy. Most politicians of the country still cannot get over the break-up trauma of Trianon; they still dream of the ghosts of the past. For instance, Gábor Vona, the leader of the far-right party Jobbik, announced many times that they will not give up the fight against the Treaty of Trianon. Nevertheless, without accepting facts and the current geopolitical environment, the cooperation in the V4 framework is merely a perfect acting job, with everybody vying for the Oscar.
Hungary is teetering and trying to balance between getting European funds and earning the title of sovereign and strong country. This is exemplified perfectly by the Fidesz campaign before the European Parliamentary elections, when the only message of the governing party was “respect for Hungary. On the other hand, the more the merrier: we cooperate with each other when it comes to the Multiannual Financial Framework or Schengen accession, but we are not ready to sit together when it comes to the question of the Eurozone, migration or reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. The V4 is trying to cooperate in the question of Ukraine, because we are all scared of the results of stricter sanctions against Russia, but without a common foreign policy, we have no chance of influencing events.
The supposed openness of Hungary toward Russia came at a very bad time. No one who wants to be politically acceptable in the European political scene can take the side of Ukraine’s aggressor. Nevertheless, Hungarian leaders still stick to the agreement between the two countries regarding the nuclear power plant in Paks. Hungary needs to reduce the price of energy, but not for the sake of the people, but to favor its big companies. Attracting more foreign investment and gaining happy voters thanks to reduced energy prices may have been a good strategy, but not in the current political environment. The private passenger policy of Hungary is pushing the country further from the EU and the V4 countries. Getting in bed with Russia may bring monetary gain, but it will definitely end badly.
Hungary cannot hold onto both of these roles, and needs to choose in the near future. Meanwhile, the list of the criticized measures is growing longer; since the new media law and constitution, the country is implementing a new public administration system, the content of the education system is drastically different, the status of churches have also changed, as has the historical memory of Hungary. Everything is changing except that which is the most important, more complicated issues like the healthcare system or the issue of homelessness. These questions are becoming ever more present in the public sphere; the number of scandals in the health sector is growing significantly, not to mention the anti-homeless laws aimed at driving the homeless from the city center. If we do not see them every day, these problems do not exist – that is the policy of the mayors.
Change was meant to happen and was really needed in Hungary, but its radical and accelerated nature is scaring intellectuals. Unfortunately, most Hungarian citizens do not see this as a problem. They only see the reduced energy and transport ticket prices, not the centralizing purpose of the initiatives. Where is Hungary going at this crazy speed? Nothing good ever came of a rush of law-making. If Orbán is acting such in a hurry because he thinks his time is running out, then he needs to think through his steps carefully.
V4 as the blind spot of extremism
Less than a few decades after the Second World War, Europe is living in a renaissance of extremism. We have the Front National in France, with Jean Marie Le Pen proclaiming “Monseigneur Ebola” as the solution to migration; the German neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, which considers Europe a “continent of white people;” the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, which thinks of Islam as the “Trojan horse of Europe;” and the UK Independence Party, which is clearly against Brussels and migrants seeking work in the UK.
These Western European trends are also present in the Central European region. Hungary has the well organized and strong Jobbik Party, whose clear aim is the reclamation of Great Hungary. Poland has Ruch Narodowy – an umbrella organization for far-right movements – whose sympathizers chanted “Gypsies out!” less than twenty miles from historically haunted Auschwitz. Slovakia has the nationalist and racist rhetoric of the Slovak National Party and the ultra-nationalist Our Slovakia – People’s Party, whose leader, Marian Kotleba, described the Roma community as “Gypsy parasites.” The Czech Republic has the Dawn of Direct Democracy, with Tomio Okamura fighting against “inadaptable immigrants, gypsy blood and religious fanatics.” These parties generally follow an anti-Roma, anti-Semitic, anti-migrant, and anti-European policy.
The extreme-right, populist political parties are not interested in further European integration, and basically they know nothing of V4 cooperation – this may have something to do with the fact that the Visegrad Group does not have a strong voice in international politics.
In the rhetoric of the far-right parties, regional cooperation is a blind spot; the main enemies are the “others,” the migrants, the Roma, and the Jews, and generally the EU and the Western world. For example, Jobbik sees the probable inclusion of Ukraine in the Visegrad Battle Group as a way to manipulation and control by Western forces. These politics are part of a much bigger play in which Russia and the Western world are the main actors, and the V4 is a powerless puppy that needs to be dismissed by Polish-Hungarian-Croatian cooperation – as Gábor Vona stated in one of his essays.
How to fight Visegradscepticism?
After all this negativity, the question remains: what do we need to do with V4 cooperation? Should we fight for its future with further institutionalization and by strengthening ties, or just let it die out like the other extinct species of the world? It is clear that the V4 is not an accepted actor on the continent’s political landscape in its current form. How may this be changed? We need to modify our policy toward cooperation, because it is unequivocally clear that we need this additional platform.
Today’s challenges, such hot topics as energy dependence, the economic potential of the region, and the lack of transport infrastructure, show that we still share a great deal in the wake of 2004. How to counter those who highlight the impotence of the V4 due to the divergent goals and interests of its members? Can a few common goals move cooperation forward?
A possible escape from this trap is the enlargement of cooperation. Czech President Miloš Zeman has said that Slovenia should be the fifth member of V4, but Czech Foreign Minister, Karel Schwarzenberg positioned himself against this idea at the GLOBSEC International Conference in May 2014. Another possible volunteer could be Romania, but the majority of the V4 population and its political leaders are entirely against the idea of expanding regional cooperation. They prefer the joint V4+ formula, although this cannot significantly increase the influence of the Central European region in the European Union.
Internal cohesion was too weak after EU accession and, without a clear mission, the cooperation was just a well-acted, empty, play at solidarity. As circumstances changed with the Ukrainian crisis, the V4 gained potential and became quite relevant. The problem was that Hungary took a pro-Russian lead, Róbert Fico compared the possible new NATO forces on the Slovak territories with the 1968 Soviet invasion, and the Czech Republic was not very keen to introduce strict sanctions against Russian companies. The little Central and Eastern European countries are not interested in sanctions, as János Martonyi, ex-foreign minister of Hungary, has stated many times, the sanctions would significantly harm the economies of the region. However, Poland remained on the other side of this issue – the country spends more and more on defense and cooperates with the Baltic states and non-NATO members like Sweden.
The case of Ukraine is a typical example of the struggles of the V4. Here was a chance sit at the same side of the table and be a coherent and strong actor, but differing interests and goals again prevented cooperation from moving forward. Ukraine could be a chance to show the EU that this regional cooperation is functional, but internal cohesion still has not been reached by the members. Without this, the meetings and the joint declarations are just empty acts of solidarity to no political effect. The visibility of the group is growing, but it is still just mimetic cooperation without significant weight. Believing that we are cooperating together to constitute a strong actor – which in reality is not the case – could be the biggest mistake yet of the region.
This essay was the winning entry of the Visegrad Insight essay competition and was first published in Visegrad Insight 2 (6) 2014.
Eszter Hajdú holds an MA in international relations from Corvinus University in Budapest.