Europe needs Visegrad. Let’s not bury it!
This article comes from the new issue of Visegrad Insight: Raising Innovators, where you can read more about the prospects for the Visegrad Group. Buy your copy here.
Following the January 29 Slavkov summit of the prime ministers of Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, one may question how this new regional format relates to Visegrad cooperation. Some pundits rushed to declare Visegrad dead, noticing wittily that while this time France was absent in Austerlitz, it was Russia who won a group of friends.
One may certainly worry about the future of Visegrad cooperation, but it would be premature to bury it. A format of Slavkov will not bring an alternative to Visegrad cooperation. Its agenda is either identical or compatible with that of the V4 (or could be eventually incorporated in into the V4+ format).
From the Czech perspective, it just serves the purpose of creating a cooperative framework with our southern neighbor. An attempt by the Czech government to mend fences with Austria is rather commendable, although it should have been done bilaterally in order to avoid sending the wrong signals to Warsaw and Budapest.
I am convinced that Visegrad cooperation is here to stay. Taking into account the multiple layers of Visegrad cooperation in government, in private and NGO sectors, its dense web of connections between stakeholders, the Slavkov format should not pose a real challenge. In more than two decades, the V4 has developed solid grounds and it has become a brand and a point of reference for Central European cooperation. At times it created high expectations, having pretended more than it could have delivered. Periodically, the V4 underwent political cycles of enthusiasm and a lack thereof.
Having achieved EU and NATO membership, Visegrad stopped aiming high. It is based on common interests and serves for less spectacular multilayer regional cooperation among various branches of governments, often on working level, among universities, NGOs, etc. In Brussels, the V4 governments do not miss any opportunity to seek their peers’ endorsement in various agendas and thus to amplify their voice. Sometimes it works.
Let’s face it: the interests of the Czech, Hungarian, Slovak, and Polish governments do not always coincide. In 2007, an ECFR paper labeled differences among the V4 states’ attitude towards Russia: Poland got “New Cold-Warrior,” Hungary and Slovakia as “friendly pragmatists,” and the Czech Republic as “frosty pragmatists.” Today’s labels may vary but differences persist. After our accession to the European Union, I assumed that the policy towards Eastern neighbors (including Russia) might have become one of the crystallization points of potential convergence of interests among the V4 countries, and even of possible convergence of interests within the whole EU. I have to admit that I was wrong.
Nevertheless, these disagreements did not prevent or inhibit our cooperation in other areas as recent analysis by the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) rightly points out: “Difference of opinions on Russia within the V4 has not halted cooperation on the implementation of important Visegrad projects such as those in the area of energy security or preparations for the establishment of the Visegrad Battle Group in 2016.”
What is to be expected from Slavkov format? First of all, it serves the political and electoral purposes of social democratic prime ministers Faymann, Fico, and Sobotka. It has been formed as a regional caucus of the Party of European Socialists (PES). In addition, the venue was not chosen by accident: Slavkov is not only midway from Prague, Vienna, and Bratislava, but more importantly it is the Czech prime minister’s hometown and local constituency.
The Slavkov Declaration does not unveil much about this “new framework for enhanced cooperation in neighborhood and European affairs,” but states rather vaguely that it should contribute to “increased public awareness about common interests, trust in regional cooperation and European integration.”
The working plan agreed at Slavkov mentions an agenda for growth and employment with special focus on youth employment (sharing best practice in dual training and education), and the final point regarding the social dimension of European integration reveals the political motivation of three prime ministers: long-term common interests in the social dimension of EU policies. Other points of the agenda include rather obvious topics related to transport and energy infrastructure. These are substantial areas for neighborly cooperation, but to large extent overlap or coincide with projects already under way within the V4 (e.g., gas market integration). It remains to be seen whether common interest in railroad connections between Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia will not shrink only to a controversial project of a broad-gauge rail connection through Slovakia (Košice) to Vienna.
In general, the projects included in the working plan seem to be either useful or benign. Top Czech officials keep assuring that Slavkov will not divert attention and resources from Visegrad cooperation. There is no reason to worry that the prime ministers of the Czech Republic and Slovakia would “face the dilemma as to whether cooperation with Austria is more important to them than the Visegrad Group.” Their trilateral consultations before the European Council could be easily part of PES coordination in the same way as Prime Minister Orbán attends European People’s Party (EPP) coordination. If there is a will of V4 prime ministers to meet, there would be no scheduling conflict. Visegrad coordination in Brussels is far more valuable than becoming a victim of political cleavage between EPP and PES.
In this respect, more attention than to the Slavkov Declaration should be given to the recently amended Czech Security Strategy, which explicitly states that “cooperation with Visegrad Group countries has a specific role to play in regional … cooperation projects (that) lead to more efficient maintenance and strengthening of capabilities development, and enhance military interoperability as well as political solidarity.” In the light of the repeated commitment “that the Czech Republic’s defense budget is gradually increased to reach 1.4% of GDP by 2020 … the Czech Republic will seek to move towards the 2% of GDP defense spending guideline,” this strategy provides some hope that the upcoming Czech and Polish V4 presidency might boost the defense dimension of Visegrad cooperation.
We should not take Visegrad cooperation for granted, but it is already established as a format of consultation within the EU. We should avoid unrealistic expectations and steadily invest in mutual trust and partnership between bigger and smaller states so that it brings more valuable results. Strategic guidance should be underpinned by practical steps.
The North-South connection in energy and transport infrastructure across Central Europe would be impossible without Visegrad. By the same token, Visegrad plays an important role in geographically connecting frontline states from Estonia to Bulgaria. The North-South vector becomes strategically important for Central Europe to strengthen its competitiveness and resilience vis-à-vis external shocks. We also should not forget about societal and institutional infrastructure, which is equally important as roads and grids. Europe needs Visegrad. Let’s not bury it!
Jiří Schneider (@JiriSchneider) is a senior fellow at Prague Security Studies Institute.
 See Memorandum on Cooperation and Integration of Russian and Slovak Railways signed in October 2011 in St. Petersburg.
THIS ARTICLE COMES FROM THE NEW ISSUE OF VISEGRAD INSIGHT: RAISING INNOVATORS, WHERE YOU CAN READ MORE ABOUT THE PROSPECTS FOR THE VISEGRAD GROUP. BUY YOUR COPY HERE.