Relative prosperity and stability in Central Europe are heavily indebted to the security order underwritten by the West. Subregional cooperation formats such as the V4, or the Three Seas Initiative, can never be alternatives to the EU, but only complementary formats.
Since its origins in the early 1990s, the Visegrád Group has progressed from being an initiative of post-Communist states whose imperative was to “return to the West” by joining the EU and NATO, to a much more ambiguous grouping who, at times, acted as a “dissident bloc” inside the EU. Some of its members came to be seen in controversial light because of the Western criticism of the state of democracy and the rule of law.
Despite these developments, however, the V4 has remained plugged into the Western liberal order, on which it heavily depended for security and stability.
In fact, it is only the presence of the EU and NATO which makes sustaining the V4 – together with its “dissident” demarches – possible in the first place.
Changing raison d’être
The history of the Visegrád Group so far could be divided into three main periods. Starting from the group formation in 1991, then still as V3, and until the 2004 accession the European Union, its raison d’être was coordinating efforts in Central Europe’s “return to the West”.
With the goal fulfilled, the format was preserved as a regional forum, meant to be complementary to and supportive of European integration.
The 2015 European migration crisis marks the beginning of the third period when the V4 rebranded itself as an ‘opposition bloc’ to the EU’s migration policies. Mats Braun cleverly dubs this the V4’s “post-functionalist moment”, when the group suddenly turned from compliance to criticism.
In accordance with the idea of a “moment”, this regional consensus did indeed retrospectively seem to be a one-time event. Following the crisis, some V4 member states tried to distance themselves from the group which was perceived as increasingly controversial because of the bad image Hungary and Poland were acquiring in the EU. (In Slovakia, for instance, as Tomáš Strážay points out in his recent analysis, some of the radical critics called for leaving the group).
As the COVID-19 crisis generates new initiatives such as the “Little Schengen” between Central European Countries, local regional formats may again enjoy increased attention. But seen from the broader historical perspective, the V4 seems to correspond rather well to the notion (originally coined by Milan Nič) of an “ad hoc coalition” or cooperation.
In other words, while certain triggers like the 2015 migration crisis can give it a new life (and a somewhat new, even if controversial, identity), it does not respond in the same visible way to other crises.
At least part of this probably has to do with the fact that, as a subregional format, the V4 has been plugged into broader institutions of European and Transatlantic cooperation. In other words, the EU and NATO, with their presence, have solved a number of actual and potential problems in the region which otherwise would have made cooperation difficult or even impossible.
In international relations theories, a hegemon is described as a powerful global or regional player which invests its power and influence into crafting and maintaining an international order, based on a system of rules and institutions.
The V4’s post-1989 “return to Europe” meant being locked into the Western liberal order, of which the EU and NATO were two pillars, and which was underwritten by Western Europe and, ultimately, the United States.
No paradise on Earth
Central Europe’s membership in the Western liberal order certainly did not turn it into a paradise on Earth. Notable economic inequalities have persisted both between Western and Eastern parts of the EU and between unevenly developed geographical areas in individual post-Communist member states. Hence, thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, feelings of disappointment and betrayed expectations have clearly crept in.
These feelings contributed to the growth of Euroskeptic attitudes as well as to dangerous democratic backsliding in the region which seems to have only increased its momentum with the arrival of COVID-19.
What is discussed much less in this context shaped largely by pessimistic moods, is the fact that Western presence in Central Europe has actually been a success in multiple ways in terms of underwriting regional security and stability.
In fact, as I would argue, the very existence of V4 cooperation is underwritten by it – even in cases when this cooperation is about lambasting Brussels for its unfortunate migration policies.
To begin with, one way that NATO has guaranteed regional peace and stability, is by providing a “security umbrella”, i.e. shielding Central European states from foreign interventions. In 2020, as opposed to 1968, inhabitants of Prague do not have to worry about Russian tanks rolling in. By comparison, for people in Kyiv, Minsk, or Tbilisi, this is far from being a given.
At present, the only vision that probably requires more imagination than Russian tanks in Prague is Slovak tanks in Budapest. Yet, in the past, this idea has, on some occasions, been enthusiastically voiced by local national populists – which to us should signal that some historical issues remain unresolved and could be quickly excavated in a different political climate.
Therefore, a security order that is underwritten by the West not only shields from Western intervention but makes sure that Central European countries are also permanently locked into an alliance, and that regional skeletons remain safely in their regional cabinets – at least for now. This is, however, where NATO alone may be insufficient.
Here, the EU comes into play as a major factor in restraining authoritarianism and its typical bedfellows, nationalism and irredentism – which have been the seeds of so many regional conflicts. Though unable to check authoritarian backsliding, the EU slows it down considerably.
By setting a minimum standard of political decency, it forces wannabe dictators to perform their “peacock dances” with Brussels, or, to paraphrase Vladimir Lenin, to take two steps forward, one step back.
A different scenario
An alternative history of a Central Europe that did not “return to the West” but – like much of the post-Soviet world – stayed in a geopolitical limbo between the West and Russia, is not too difficult to imagine. Chances are it would be ridden with crises, unpredictability, and conflict.
To some, this scenario may sound like empty speculation or even a “securitising” exercise in fear-mongering. But to find supporting historical examples, one needs to look no further than Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s.
Poorly consolidated democracies established after World War I collapsed quickly (Czechoslovakia being a remarkable exception), and mutual grievances prevented CEE from establishing a working system of regional security. (Piłsudski’s Intermarium was a stillborn project, and other arrangements were clearly insufficient).
Instead, CEE nations allowed their differences to be manipulated by an irredentist great power (Nazi Germany) who preyed on them, one by one, eventually leading Europe into a devastating world war.
Those in the V4 and beyond it, who call for a “Europe of sovereign nation-states” or for leaving the EU altogether may underestimate the extent to which the circumstances that led to the disaster of the 1930s could actually still be here.
Recent democratic backsliding indicates that at least some democracies were not as consolidated as we had deemed them to be in the wake of the 1989 transition. There are presently no open territorial claims in CEE, and the structure of ethnic minorities was changed profoundly after 1945.
However, minority issues per se are far from absent, and old grievance narratives could be easily reactivated in more than one CEE country.
Finally, present-day Germany is about as far from being the interbellum irredentist predator as any country could be but, unfortunately, we have another power next door, whose attitude can look oddly familiar, and who, when given the opportunity, is happy to manipulate European discords to its own advantage.
No true alternatives
In sum, relative prosperity and stability in Central Europe are heavily indebted to the security order underwritten by the West. Subregional cooperation formats such as the V4, or the Three Seas Initiative, can never be alternatives to the EU, but only complementary formats.
In fact, their very possibility depends on the stabilising Western presence. The outsourcing of so many problems and policy areas to the EU and NATO creates an environment for cooperation which would under alternative circumstances probably not be there.
An interesting paradox here is that this also allows the V4 to sometimes come forward as a group of “dissidents” who question the value of some of the Western norms and policy choices. Central Europe, some argue is tired of blindly emulating the West, and, perhaps, now it even fancies being a model itself, Europe’s new future.
If that is so, this is a form of revisionism – but revisionism which is at the same time deeply embedded in the very structures it is trying to challenge.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. A Slovak version is available on SME.sk. For a more detailed analysis, read the journal article An ad hoc Regionalism? The Visegrád Four in the “Post-Liberal” Age.