Since 2015, the Visegrad Group (V4) has acquired the image of irritants and trouble makers in European politics and the media, and there are three key sources for this distancing of the V4.
Firstly, Czechia, Hungary, Slovakia and, after the 2015 general elections, Poland have been very critical of the way the so-called refugee crisis in the EU was tackled. They rejected the compulsory relocation scheme for asylum seekers and argued that Angela Merkel had made a mistake in deciding Germany would accept migrants expelled from Hungary in September 2015.
Moreover, some leading politicians from the Visegrad Group also rejected the very idea of Western European multiculturalism and argued that such policies would not be acceptable in their countries. Furthermore, the Visegrad Group adopted its own policies to manage migration – for example, closing the Balkan Route in spring 2016 – which undermined the EU’s common efforts.
In sum, the way the V4 dealt with the so-called refugee crises of 2015–2016 has been perceived in terms of a lack of solidarity with refugees and other European Union member states.
Secondly, the image of the V4 as a group of young democracies with a firm grip on their political, social and economic transformation has been undermined by rule of law inadequacies in Hungary and Poland.
As soon as the Law and Justice party came to power in Poland, worries about the future political direction were no longer limited to one country (i.e. Hungary) but embraced the whole region. Moreover, the erosion of the rule of law in Poland and political pluralism in Hungary has introduced a new division in the region with Poland and Hungary on the one side, and Czechia and Slovakia – with their still relatively stable political environments – on the other.
Thirdly, Budapest and Warsaw have adopted a more confrontational rhetoric vis-à-vis the EU institutions and Western European countries. They used the Brexit momentum to demand profound EU reform that would empower member states at the expense of supranational institutions.
Furthermore, Polish and Hungarian leaders share the view that they represent true European values and that a new conservative avant-garde should lead a cultural counter-revolution in Europe.
Czech Central European Escapism
Prague has stood slightly to the side as these divisions surfaced. Although the Czech Republic rejected the binding quotas and decided not to accept a single person via the relocation scheme, it did not join the Hungarian and Slovak governments in taking legal action against the Council’s decision.
While it is true that leading Czech politicians are sometimes quite vocal in expressing their rejection of the multicultural model, criticism of Western Europe has not been a dominant feature. Nor was there any indication of the Czech Republic joining the Polish–Hungarian “cultural counterrevolution” under the leadership of the social democratic Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.
Visegrad cooperation was perceived to be a valuable and very important tool for pursing Czech interests. However, it was only one of three components of Czech Central European policy.
The other two were relations with Germany, cemented in 2015 by the establishment of the Czech–German Strategic Dialogue, and the Czech–Slovak–Austrian trilateral Slavkov format of cooperation set up in 2016. One of the goals behind this latter was to create a more structured Central European policy and not to be dependent only on the V4.
Although Czech political leaders did not share all the views voiced by their Hungarian and Polish counterparts, they were reluctant to openly dispute them or criticise internal domestic developments. Czech officials stuck to showing solidarity with their Visegrad counterparts.
Apart from that, the Czech public started developing more sympathy for Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico, politicians who had earned respect among the Czechs for their hard stance against migrants, refugees and Muslims. Moreover, after 2015 Czechs began to distrust Angela Merkel, who had previously been viewed as a respected international politician. This attitude mirrored the public disapproval of accepting migrants and the fact that the issue of migration shaped the public attitude vis-à-vis international topics.
With stricter domestic policies limiting the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, the debates on the new EU asylum and migration package and the radicalisation of Viktor Orbán’s rhetoric prior to the Hungarian general elections in spring 2018, events had reached the point where a decision had to be made as to which side the Czech Central European policy should take. There were three options.
It could fully embrace the positions of Hungary and Poland. That would mean not only adopting the same attitude towards the refugees, but also supporting Polish and Hungarian domestic developments in front of other European partners.
The second scenario was for the Czech Republic to act as a bridge between Western European member states and the European institutions on the one side and Poland and Hungary on the other. However, that would first require a willingness to make trade-offs in, for instance, Czech migration policy, so it could become a dealmaker on this most controversial issue. Also, this presupposes that Warsaw and Budapest, or Brussels and Berlin, were seeking a mediator. Although the Czech Republic flirted with that position, in the end it came down to the fact that the Czech leaders were not ready to modify the stance on asylum and migration policy, nor were any of Europe’s capitals interested in offering Prague the role of moderator.
As the general election approached in autumn 2017, almost the whole of the political spectrum in the Czech Republic was united in its anti-refugee policy, in which the key element was the rejection of a European relocation scheme.
In Central European affairs, the Czech Republic chose a policy of free-riding, de-activisation and inertia. The Visegrad consensus on the EU asylum and migration policy reform became a key priority of Czech European policy, in practice enabling Czech leaders not to address other aspects, like the quality of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.
Compared with the relocation scheme, these issues were seen as less important to Czech interests.
Context of Czech Foreign Policy
The general elections in October 2017 changed Czech politics. I will argue in the final section of the article that Czech Central European policy has been transformed since Andrej Babiš became prime minister and that he will opt for the first of the scenarios outlined above.
He will – mainly due to domestic political scene – set a more confrontational policy vis-à-vis the European institutions and Western European member states, using some of the ideas from the toolkit developed by Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland. He will also strengthen Visegrad’s internal solidarity but will not introduce any new, more positive, topics.
To understand how this will fit together, we have to look closer at the current V4 position in the EU, the domestic context of Czech foreign policy and the motivations for Andrej Babiš’s international activities.
The political atmosphere in European politics seems unlikely to calm down in the coming months. There is as yet no agreement on reforming EU asylum and migration policy. Moreover, finding a compromise acceptable to all member states and the European Parliament will be very difficult.
In addition, negotiations have begun on the Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021–2027; eurozone reform is another important item on the EU agenda, but reaching a deal will be hard as even the Franco-German position faces opposition from eurozone countries in the north and south.
These issues won’t be solved by the end of May 2019, when the European Parliament elections take place and the current European Commission loses its mandate. In addition, the EU27 and the United Kingdom have to agree the conditions of Brexit by March 29, 2019.
The Visegrad Group’s role does not seem to be one of appeasement in these EU-wide quarrels because the political stakes are very high.
The V4 position on the EU asylum and migration package is tough and well known. It will also strive for as beneficial an outcome as possible from the budgetary debate. Moreover, the European Parliament elections will introduce more tension into domestic politics.
In these circumstances, V4 leaders will probably be motivated to adopt harsher rhetoric against the EU’s supranational institutions because all four countries oppose the position of the European Commission and the European Parliament on the most important issues, like the future of the EU budget or migration policy. Thus, the so-called East–West divide within the EU will probably deepen, and the V4 will contribute to that.
Secondly, it is important to understand the domestic political context of Czech foreign policy.
The new government was created in June 2018 after many months of negotiations. It comprises ANO, the winner of the autumn 2017 elections and led by Andrej Babiš, and the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), which has had to digest its large electoral defeat.
The proposed government won the necessary vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies in July 2018, but only thanks to the parliamentary support of the Communist Party since ANO and the Social Democrats represent only a minority.
Social Democrats were supposed to nominate the minister of foreign affairs. However, their first candidate was repeatedly rejected by President Zeman. Then, Jan Hamáček, the ČSSD chairman and interior minister, was given responsibility for the foreign ministry until a new candidate – Tomáš Petříček was found, accepted and assumed his post in the middle of October.
This situation strengthened the position of the prime minister and his office in international affairs and placed foreign policymaking in Babiš’s hands. Babiš himself is keen to underline that it is primarily the prime minister who conducts foreign policy. The “interregnum” at the ministry of foreign affairs was therefore rather convenient for him and he continues to undermine Petříček’s authority with speculations about his replacement.
Prime minister Babiš’s intentions
Andrej Babiš does not have a well-developed foreign policy strategy. He is not bound by a coherent political ideology; instead his approach is pragmatic and transactional.
The fact that he has never articulated a clear vision of Czech foreign policy nevertheless allows him to use it instrumentally and change his views. As he lacks tangible priorities, his only objective is to conduct such foreign policy that reflects a positive public self-image.
This is not specific to foreign policy but is a general axiom of his rule. His well-developed public relations and personal presentation are both a symptom and a source of his success. But what does this mean for Czech foreign policy?
Firstly, as Babiš follows the public mood, his aggressive attitude to refugees and migrants will continue. Czechs fear refugees and migrants as recent public opinion polls have revealed. Babiš talks favourably of sovereignty, which he understands as the ability to veto any proposals stemming from the EU level. He also argues that the multicultural model has failed, and that Western Europe is committing suicide. Moreover, this reactive and negative tone is not balanced by a positive proactive foreign policy as that would probably do little to increase his public popularity.
Secondly, Babiš seeks recognition from his international partners. He often criticised his predecessor, Sobotka, for not speaking foreign languages. He argued that without these skills, Sobotka was not able to protect Czech interests.
Babiš, therefore, needs to show off to other EU leaders. He presents himself as practical doer who is used to brokering business deals. Thus, since assuming the post of prime minister, he has aimed at meeting Europe’s political heavy weights – Macron, Merkel and Kurz, and he has shown particular respect to Viktor Orbán. Even at the beginning of his political career, Babiš had wanted to get closer to him (not publicly), and a warm atmosphere and mutual respect were visible after their first meeting as prime ministers on the margins of the V4 summit in January 2018 as well as during Orbán’s official visit to Prague in October of the same year.
Conclusion: Following in Big Viktor’s Footsteps
What shape will Czech Central European policy take? As pointed out, the high stakes for Babiš are to be found at home and he will need to strengthen his domestic political position before the May 2019 European Parliament elections.
ANO voters are neither clearly pro-EU or anti-EU. The EU is not a major voting motivation for his electorate. He will find little additional support among pro-EU citizens as there are a couple of parties that have already adopted this ground.
Babiš’s opportunity is to be found among Eurosceptics, and he may compete with the Civic Democratic Party or the xenophobic Sovereignty and Direct Democracy for these. His message on the EU will therefore probably be motivated by these factors and will turn even more negative and radical.
He declared that he wants to be one of the frontrunners of the movement, which would oust so-called “European elites” after the next European Parliament elections. Alignment with Western European leaders or being prepared to do trade-offs would not help this political strategy. Therefore, Babiš will join Orbán and Kaczyński and follow their rhetoric.
One of the implications of this is that the Czech–Slovak tandem will not serve as a balance to Polish–Hungarian views on the EU within the V4 as much as it did in 2016–2017 during the Polish and Hungarian V4 presidencies.
Slovakia will be at the helm of the V4 until the end of June 2019 and will be unable to rely on the Czech prime minister to help improve the V4’s image in the EU. Babiš is not politically motivated to restore its good reputation, and he lacks positive policy proposals while the current focus on migration serves his domestic political interests.
As Viktor Orbán is more of a source of inspiration than a generator of problems, he will let himself be navigated by his influence. It is also doubtful that the Czech Republic’s V4 presidency in 2019–2020, starting just after the European Parliament elections, will attempt to revise the current V4 narrative on EU affairs.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project series run by Visegrad/Insight and the Res Publica Foundation in cooperation with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as well as editors of leading newspapers across Central Europe. The article was originally published in International Issues & Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs 1-2/2018