With much despair I have spent the last few months following commentary on the so-called “crisis” of the Visegrad Group, with an increasing number of observers predicting the possible doom of the regional cooperation.
Admittedly, Build me up Buttercup, a song of disappointment and helpless love by the 1970s soul band the Foundations, could have easily played in the background as I watched with something of a broken heart the four leaders’ debate during the annual GLOBSEC Conference in Bratislava. The escalating crisis in Ukraine and the countries’ disagreements on what approach to take towards Russia, it seemed, was about to bring down twenty-three years of solid cooperation.
As always with international politics, however, it is perhaps worth taking a step back to reflect on the world around us. It is easy to lament on the disagreements and predict the day of doom, but isn’t it also worth twisting the narrative? What if the disagreements, highlighted in recent months, do not simply lie in the mouths of the V4 leaders? Can it be that the problem is in our very own interpretation and expectations of the Visegrad cooperation? Is it perhaps not the time to highlight the limitations of what the Visegrad countries can do together and, indeed, the very nature of cooperation established?
Perhaps my own reasoning can be criticized for its shortcomings, perhaps even be seen as an apology for them. None of that, however, is intended. In this short piece, I hope to contribute towards the emerging debate on the very nature of the Visegrad Four as a regional grouping – what we can expect from it, and what we should not. In particular, my aim is to answer those recent critics who over-exaggerate the nature of the cooperation, forget that the V4 is not a framework for a common foreign policy, and time and time again under-estimate the institutional and financial constraints placed on the V4.
Their problem lies in not only unjustifiably criticizing the V4 but, to be more precise, in expecting high ambitions, where it is neither an aim nor necessarily feasible. I do not wish to defend prime ministers’ Fico, Sobotka, and Orbán recently controversial remarks, but neither do I wish to lay the blame solely at their feet. Their recent criticism of the EU sanctions on Russia may be hard to justify to other EU partners (especially Poland), or fully explained when one takes into account their own turbulent histories. Nevertheless, they do highlight not only political opportunism (as some would like to claim), but also constraints within the very countries and within the regional cooperation framework respectively.
As an example, is it is worth noting that the total expenditure of the Slovak Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs was just under 133 million euros in 2013. In the significantly larger Poland, it was 423.9 million euros a year previously. In comparison, Germany’s total Foreign Ministry budget was 3.4 billion euros the same year. In other words, the Visegrad countries are limited as shapers on the international stage by sheer economic scale. The countries might be at times (to their own credit) punching above their weight but, as the exclusion of Poland from the Minsk talks on Ukraine showed, the countries are still very much foreign policy pygmies when compared to some of the larger and richer western European states.
Some argue that the sheer existence of the V4 is to amplify and, indeed, compensate, for the lack of more significant influence on European affairs or wider foreign policy issues by the individual states. This may be the case, but the rationality and the cooperation framework of the Visegrad Group is often ignored in these discussions. Back to basics, the very establishment of the V4 came about not to put in practice Piłsudski’s Międzymorze in order to protect Central and Eastern Europe from Russia. Instead, the very rationality came from a shared history of Soviet domination, to function as a loose framework for the sharing of know-how on transition, and towards the joint goal of accession into the European Union.
At no point did the V4 become a framework for a common foreign policy. There are common declarations and objectives, but these are either deliberately vague, or focused on specific policy issues (for example, visa liberalization in the Eastern Partnership). Each of the four members retains its ultimate sovereign decision-making on all aspects of external relations, and the crisis in Ukraine is no exception to this.
Thus, one may criticize the three other countries for not following Poland’s more critical line on Russia, but it should be remembered that Poland, too, when it came to the Eastern Partnership initiative, chose to partner with Sweden rather than the V4. The case of Poland is particularly important because Polish analysts are often frustrated with Visegrad cooperation and predict its demise, perhaps sub-consciously, as they equate common initiative with the other three countries largely following Polish leadership.
Perhaps, it is time we exercise more restraint. In the case of the crisis in Ukraine, it is still too early to determine whether the Polish stance towards Russia is the right one and it should be remembered that in numerous European circles, the Polish views raise as many eyebrows as do the views of PMs Fico and Orbán.
Irrespectively, our views of right and wrong should not cloud the real nature of Visegrad cooperation and lead to false hopes of one state’s leading role. The other three countries do not want to be led, and the rotating Presidency exists as an institutionalized framework for up-loading each country’s preferences for policy cooperation as deemed appropriate.
Therefore, I also take the stance that the Visegrad Group helps to amplify influence when possible, but this process happens neither at all times nor at all costs. Hence, the proposals to expand the V4 to include Slovenia and Austria are not unjustified, and highlight the V4 states’ desire to also cooperate (be it within, or outside the V4 framework) with other loose regional groupings and actors, including the Nordic Group, the Baltic states, Romania, and the Weimar Triangle.
It is simply one of multiple such amplifiers of individual states’ foreign policy interests, and part of a complex web of inter-woven relationships between European states. Despite the rhetoric, the V4’s existence does not make it any more or less important than the other such loose regional groupings.
This is not to suggest that we should ignore the V4’s solid achievements, but neither should we fall prey to unrealistic expectations nor, even more importantly, to false perceptions. We should therefore not criticize the regional framework for something that it is not, or expect it to behave as our own imaginations would like it to.
Finally, it is worth reminding the critics that the future of the Visegrad Group is far from doomed. As one Slovak diplomat put it in a private conversation a number of years ago, the future of European integration will rely on regional projects such as the V4; and, as Robert Schuman put it in his famous declaration: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”
The Visegrad Four, as the star pupils of the 2004 enlargement have a number of concrete achievements behind them. But, like the wider European project, it does not function according to a single plan, and neither was its framework designed to achieve this. Therefore, let us not get too gloomy; the V4 is here to stay, but it is perhaps time for us to assess our own expectations. As the “buttercup” in the Foundations’ famous hit, the four states still need Visegrad cooperation. It does not matter who is “idealistic” or who pretends “business as usual” with Russia. In reality, the V4 has not let anybody down; the rationality for future cooperation is still there, but it is perhaps different to what observers often imagine.
Igor Merheim-Eyre (@MerheimEyre) is a Programme Coordinator at the Global Europe Centre, University of Kent. His research focuses on the emergence of a European consular cooperation, visa diplomacy and the EU as an international actor. The Global Europe Centre is a multi-disciplinary cross-departmental research Centre based at the University of Kent, specializing on the study of the European Union, its role in the world and the wider Neighborhood.