This article comes from The Buzz Around the Ballot edition of Visegrad Insight 2/2017 devoted do media landscapes and disinformation in Central Europe. Read full contents page here.
Even the seating arrangements had a symbolic significance during the first meeting of the V4 and Emmanuel Macron: the recently elected French president was followed by Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico and then his Czech counterpart Bohuslav Sobotka, while Viktor Orban and Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło were seated together on the other side of the table.
Macron’s win does not bode well for the Hungarian and Polish leaderships because, among other reasons, the new French premier believes the Central European (CE) countries are failing to comply with EU regulations and should face political consequences; this is not to mention Macron’s plan of further developing the two-speed model of Europe by deepening cooperation within the eurozone.
Then, in August, Macron only met with Fico and Sobotka (excluding their Polish and Hungarian counterparts) to raise another sensitive issue affecting the CE countries, namely the posted workers directive dating back to 1996 which allows for European companies to send employees to work in other EU member states while continuing to pay benefits and taxes in their own home country. Although Hungary and Poland had previously objected to the idea rather loudly, in this meeting the Slovak and Czech leadership proved to be open to discuss the reform.
Macron’s meeting with the Slavkov Triangle also signalled that the leftist Austrian government might want to try and weaken the Visegrad Group themselves. The French president did not necessarily sit down with Fico and Sobotka because he could not garner the qualified majority’s support for the reform of the EU directive on posted workers in the council (16 member states) without any Central or Eastern members. It was rather a message to the Hungarian and Polish leaderships who are unwilling to cooperate, and, at the same time, it is an effort to detach Bratislava and Prague from their renitent neighbours.
THE CURRENT V4 CONUNDRUM
The fact that Fico clearly declared, early in 2017, that Slovakia’s interests coincide with those of the eurozone is indicative of the current state of the V4. The EU has been overwhelmed by an integrational paradox for more than two decades: while there is an increased stress on member states to find community-level solutions for migration issues as well as general job creation, they would like to refrain from handing over new competences to Brussels.
The comprehensive economic-political crisis of the EU and Brexit has turned the questions of multi-speed integration and the subsequent transfer of sovereignty into a practical affair. In this changing situation, Slovakia does not only want to belong to the core Europe aiming for closer integration, but it is showing more and more willingness to agree to Brussels taking further competences away from eurozone members.
Similarly, the traditionally Eurosceptic Czech Republic announced that Prague wants to get an “observer seat” in the Eurogroup, even though it does not aim to join the eurozone. They obviously wished to have a say at one of the most important fora, unless, to paraphrase Viktor Orban, “they want to be served for dinner”.
While Viktor Orban successfully channelled the frustration of anti-establishment voters towards international actors and the EU, the Hungarian government seems to be unprepared for changes to the macropolitical environment or tothe EU’s transformation with the associated political and economic challenges there in.
Unlike the Czech social democrats, the Hungarian conservative Fidesz government even declared that it does not want to try to get an observer seat in the Eurogroup, which could lead to the conclusion that Budapest is simply not interested in the economic and monetary union. This is especially short-sighted behaviour in light of the fact that there is a large number of economic regulations that could be important for non-eurozone member states, and most of these are decided on in the Eurogroup meetings preceding ECOFIN sittings. The most important questions affecting the Eurozone will be decided on at this intergovernmental platform, and it is unknown what effects such decisions will have on non-eurozone members in terms of taxes, the banking sector, the investment fund, etc.
Despite all this, the Orban government seems to be solely focused on the “stopping Brussels” campaign; the Hungarian PM alleges that the EU is trying to gain strength at the expense of member states through legislation. Moreover, Orban said that the issue of migration is the main reason for the attacks on Hungary, and “everything else is irrelevant”.
However, Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski missed their window of opportunity for their “cultural revolution”. On the contrary, the recent decision regarding migration quotas taken by the EU’s court gave impetus for the Hungarian government’s anti-EU campaign, which shifted into high gear with the national consultation entitled “Let’s stop Brussels,” and even more so after the resolution approved by the European Parliament on the preparations for the Article 7 procedure against Hungary. As a sign of this, the Hungarian government will shift into an even higher gear by launching a new National Consultation in autumn 2017, which claims that if Fidesz wins for a third time in next year’s general election, “Brussels won’t be able to beat Hungary and the Soros-plan will fail”.
While the two governments are running highly visible anti-EU campaigns, Polish and Hungarian societies are overwhelmingly pro-European. According to the Chatham House report, Warsaw and Budapest are aiming to transform the pro-EU public attitudes of their citizens.
UNFULFILLED EXPECTATIONS OF THE NOT SO YOUNG REBEL
The most important source of the Hungarian prime minister’s political capital was that he looked like a successful representative of the new wave of right-wing populists. In fact, his political stunt failed with the new wave of energy for mainstream politics. Although Germany has voiced its concerns and reservations numerous times about Hungarian processes negatively affecting the rule of law, it has refrained from intense, open criticism and diplomatic offensives. This behaviour is underpinned by rational economic and political reasons. Germany is fundamentally interested in political and economic stability in the region, and from the German perspective, Hungary currently seems to be stable: Fidesz must be seen as a safeguard against the far-right Jobbik, the country generally follows the German line in the EU and internationally and the image of economic stability is presumably mirroring the opinion of German companies.
But when Angela Merkel was asked what she thought about Macron’s metaphor of the EU not being a supermarket for CEE to freely pick-and-chose what components it wishes to include in its policy shopping cart, the German chancellor said she generally agrees with the French president, and she is happy that Brussels is exerting pressure on reluctant member states.
This is in line with a German position paper published in May which suggests that there should be a connection between the compliance with the rule of law and projects financed through the EU budget. This definitely shows a shift from Merkel’s previous, more cautious approach. As a point in fact, in just this past spring, the chancellor did not support the idea that reluctant member states should be disciplined by measures involving fiscal tools.
The governments of the V4 need to keep this in mind as the European Commission’s discussion paper published on June 28th confirmed that the EU, partly due to Brexit, is getting ready for the most comprehensive European Union budget reform ever, potentially involving setting tougher requirements for the distribution of EU funding.
The German government came up with a number of proposals unlikely to be supported by the Visegrad Group: for example, the German administration suggests that more developed regions should be allocated funding to meet new challenges such as the integration of refugees and solving demographic problems. Additionally, it was suggested that the country-specific recommendations issued within the framework of the European Semester should be tied even more closely to structural funds, which has since been confirmed by the German European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources, Gunter Oettinger.
Clearly Germany does not believe Hungary plays an important enough role on the European stage for Berlin to support the Article 7 procedure against the Orban regime, which was exemplified by the European Parliament’s vote on this issue where only two out of the 34 German EPP representatives voted for the resolution condemning Hungary, while five abstained.
What we have seen so far is that Brussels holds no effective legal tools to use against Hungary. The hearings and debates in the European Parliament, the infringement procedures, OLAF’s investigations, the temporary suspension of EU payments, the rule of law and Article 7 procedures do not work, and domestically they even play into the hands of Fidesz that has remained the most popular party in Hungary. Moreover, it remains to be seen if the EU will have tools to manage the situation in Poland in the long run. Merkel and Macron are among the Western EU leaders who have thrown their weight behind the European Commission in the dispute with Poland.
BERLIN BACK IN THE GAME
The real question is whether Berlin will show more willingness to discipline noncompliant member states with economic tools, or to explain the economic necessity derived from Brexit and the migration crisis for considering the interests of net contributors even more seriously at the expense of reluctant members during the budget negotiations.
It is telling that despite Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s previous objections, “enfant terrible” member states could for the first time feel the effect of their destructive approach on their pockets.
Berlin seems to be engaged in the debates on the possibilities of economic pressure, such as tying cohesion funds to requirements, and the post-2020 financial framework, focusing especially on actors urging to bind structural and cohesion funds to certain requirements. In relation to this, some actors might propose introducing a comprehensive set of considerations based on a combination of several criteria (e.g., respecting the rule of law and joining the EU Prosecutor’s Office).
In the end, the V4 (currently more of a V2+2) will not be able to represent their interests in a unified manner around a solidified position against the refugee quota system. The question is only when the cracks will become too obvious to ignore.
Edit Zgut is foreign policy analyst at Political Capital.
In cooperation with Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V., Office Prague. The opinions expressed in the contributions are those of the authors and do not reflect the positions of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.