Policy Brief: EU Migration and Enlargement Ambitions Fall on Deaf Ears in CEE

Democratic Security Brief in V4: July - September 2023

6 October 2023

The events in CEE countries impact the EU’s overall democratic security developments, amplified due to the ongoing war. As the new EU Strategic Agenda is in preparation, the Visegrad Insight expert group scans for weak signals across multiple scenarios and recommends a relevant course of action.

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  • EU and member states must prepare civic education plans to address social anxieties and real challenges of accepting an increasing number of migrants into the EU democracies.
  • More EU countries may be at risk of staged anti-migration referenda, should the referendum in Poland be successfully used to win popularity by the incumbent government.
  • Belgium 2024 EU presidency must address the migration package in the context of Democracy Action Plan objectives as eventually, the plan will reshape the civic space in all domains of democracy.
  • The rule-of-law conditionality must differentiate from negotiations on sanctions, aid to Ukraine and other common foreign and security topics.
  • The EU must address the future of enlargement by making sure to include CEE voices. The region has been supportive of this policy direction overall but needs to address critical questions about its future standing, or the topic will fall prey to nationalists.
  • The areas for improvement for the V4 outlined in the 2023 Rule of Law Report need to be addressed in public through direct outreach and sponsored content to reach further segments of the societies. Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have significant issues related to media freedoms which are systemically under attack. All V4 countries need to address the growing instances of prosecutorial corruption and mismanagement to meet EU standards.

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Key facts

  • Migration is primarily framed as a security issue despite the increased need for economic migrants.
  • New governments to be formed in Slovakia and Poland with unsure outcome for weeks even after the vote.
  • CEE voices not catching up so far in the discussion on EU enlargement.


  • In case of PiS victory, Poland will stiffen its position on EU joint action on Ukraine.
  • Should Robert Fico form or participate in the next Slovak government, it will undermine the country’s track record in delivering aid to Ukraine.
  • Hungary may want to make nice with Ukraine and negotiate funds with the EU EC ahead of a decisive change of government in Poland.


The following overview of specific areas has been prepared on the basis of our weekly outlooks that monitor democratic security developments in the CEE and a survey by a panel of experts – Visegrad Insight fellows from CEE countries. 

Migration – an overarching theme

Migration is again on top of the European agenda in preparation for the new EU migration pact. How does the country in question frame the public and policy debate on this subject? Our Visegrad Insight expert survey July-September 2023 scanned for signals of change in the societal moods and political agendas in CEE.

The common tendency within the V4 is to portray the migration situation more within the security realm than the humanitarian or economic. This is irrespective of actual government policy which – in cases like Poland and Hungary – might actively encourage migration.

Quotes from the panel

“Migration continues to be a long-term polarising issue in Czech society. While the government attempts crisis management, the opposition tries to bring the topic closer to the attention, but in relations with Germany (partially closed borders) and Ukraine, from which Czechia accepted the highest per capita number of refugees,” says Pavel Havlicek from the AMO think tank.

Migration is being again spun by politicians in Poland ahead of the October elections. “It’s one of the most engaging topics among public opinion. PiS (the ruling party) has an official anti-immigrant stance; at the same time, it conducts an ultraliberal and pro-business migration policy. The main change is that the liberal opposition changed its narrative on the issue, which results in a generally anti-immigrant, xenophobic sentiment prevailing among the vast majority of the political actors, wrote Filip Konopczynski from the Fundacja Kaleckiego.

At the same time, “the current government is positioning itself as an effective defender against an influx of migrants who threaten Poland,” says Ewa Moncure, Res Publica Supervisory Board Member. The government’s lie is migrants “will bring terror and diseases, and they are Muslim, which will threaten our way of life.”

In Slovakia, where elections just saw the populist Smer party take first position, the “public debate is dominantly built around securitisation. Some (few) policy voices raise it also as a question of the necessary labour force,” added Matej Kandrik from the Adapt Institute.

This is all in order to “make society afraid of migrants, preparing to question allocation principles,” added Jaras Gwizdak from the Institute for Law and Society.


Between European Unity and Disunity

The two key electoral races in Poland and Slovakia entered their final stage. Slovakia’s parliamentary election on 30 September brought about a victory for the populist Smer (PES) Party led by former PM Robert Fico but also a high result for the Progressive Slovakia (RENEW) Party led by EU Parliament VP Michal Šimečka. The third political force, Hlas (PES) of another former PM, Peter Pellegrini, is expected to moderate internal polarisation and result in a continuation in the EU mainstream. However, a coalition between Smer and the anti-EU and pro-Russian nationalist party SNS could produce a new rift in the European Council.

While migration is becoming a hot issue for the EU again, Poland and Hungary – the EU’s most migration-hawkish governments – were discovered to have operated fraudulent visa schemes to bring hundreds of thousands of non-EU workers from Asia and the Middle East into the bloc. The EU Commission announced to investigate such practices in the light of potential breach of EU visa regulations.

Poland’s election race tightened, with surveys showing both the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) and the main opposition Civic Coalition (KO) may lead the next coalition government after the 15 October vote. The PiS campaign focused heavily on security and identity politics, which involved a U-turn on its pro-Ukrainian stance as well as accusing the opposition of  being un-patriotic and following orders from the EU and Germany. The opposition argues PiS is isolating Poland internationally while deepening state capture, undermining the rule of law and abusing power to enrich its cadres and thwart dissent.

“More right-wing circles have started to openly advocate for Poland’s EU non-membership. Meanwhile, the government continues to oppose EC’s policies and place the conflict with the EU agenda at the centre of the political debate,” noted Filip Konopczyński from the Kalecki Foundation.

In one more attempt to sway the vote in its favour, PiS enforced a controversial referendum to be held along with the elections. Following Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán’s tactics, this move is widely read as a bid to mobilise its voting base while boosting campaign funds outside of strict electoral regulations.

Visegrad Insight’s expert panel notes a slight decrease of internal divisions by 0.3 in comparison to April-June 2023, which can be explained by the summer-time retreat period.


Collective Defence or Unilateral Action

Romania agreed to buy 32 F-35s for $6.5 billion. The jets would be operational by 2032. At the same time, the Czechs finalised their purchase procedure of the same 24 fighter jets for $5.6 billion to be completed within 10 years.

Over the summer, illegal border crossings over the Hungarian-Serb border were increasing. Germany prepared to impose border controls with Poland and the Czech Republic, following earlier such measures by Austria and Czechia on the border with Slovakia. Poland also announced border checks on the Slovak border, and Slovakia sent 500 soldiers to assist in curbing the activity of smuggler groups operating on the Balkan route and through CEE to other EU states.

Budapest has continued its block of Ukrainian defence spending, which the EU now wishes to increase to 50 billion euros. The Fidesz government is using its veto in order to get the commission to release funding for Hungary that has been frozen due to numerous rule of law violations. While the Commission seems set to negotiate, the EU Parliament will fight any RRF going to Budapest without meaningful reforms.

The NATO summit advanced Ukraine’s bid to join with the establishment of a new platform of cooperation while stopping short of Ukraine’s expectations. It also agreed to bolster Baltic countries’ defence.

Hungary continued to block the ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession, while Turkey vowed to pass it through parliament in October.

While the EU and NATO focused on helping sustain Ukraine’s war effort, both faced renewed security challenges on the European periphery. Azerbaijan invaded and conquered Nagorno-Karabakh, causing an exodus of thousands of Armenians from their ancestral land.

Violence in the predominantly Serbian province in North Kosovo resulted in severe injuries to Hungarian KFOR soldiers (two of them lost legs in an explosion), but Budapest has kept silent about the incident. The late September militants attack on a monastery had a policeman and three attackers die. Serbia began mobilising forces on the border with Kosovo, prompting a warning from the US.

Visegrad Insight expert panel recorded a 0.2 drop in defence alignment in comparison to April-June 2023. Earlier expectations discounted negative developments over the summer.


Enlarged EU or the Ivory-Tower

Poland’s U-turn on Ukraine over grain exposes the risk that Kyiv’s EU membership ambitions may become hostage to bilateral tensions with its neighbours. This comes just as Western member states seem increasingly determined to bring Ukraine in, with Germany redefining EU membership for the first time as a security issue and not just economic and legal integration.

At the same time, Charles Michel and later Ursula von der Leyen laid out an ambitious vision for an enlarged EU.

The United States, EU allies, India and Saudi Arabia agreed to launch the “India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor”, a project to boost trading and energy infrastructure at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe. The plan, forged at the sidelines of the G20 summit in India, may increase infrastructure investment and connectivity in CEE.

Visegrad Insight expert panel recorded a 0.3 increase in rigidity over the conditions for prospective EU members in comparison to April-June 2023. Polish shift of sentiments over Ukraine has been one indicator.


Between Dependence and Interdependence

After securing 100M cubic meters from Azerbaijan in early June, Hungary signed new bilateral gas transit deals with Serbia and is expected to sign one with Slovenia.

Poland’s biggest power generation group, state-owned PGE, was forced by the government to abandon its plan to stop burning coal by 2030. The move is seen as a pre-election bow to the powerful coal mining lobby. Meanwhile, Senator Krzysztof Brejza discovered that 1.5 mln tonnes of Russian coal was secretly delivered to a Polish port in Szczecin last year, and this logistical line is still operating.

Romania decided to invest €1.6 billion in new off-shore gas drilling.

Canada announced a $2.2 billion financing for two new Candu reactors at Cernavodă. Candu-6 reactors could supply 36 percent of Romania’s total electricity needs.

Visegrad Insight expert panel did not record a major shift in the assessment of efforts to reduce energy poverty, and more policy initiative is expected later this year ahead of the winter.


Prosperity for All or the Few

V4 countries’ economies stagnated in the third quarter, illustrating the absence of new sources of growth.

Ukrainian bonds have gained 50 percent since June, trading at 30 cents to the dollar as investors bet on a smaller reduction than was seen at the beginning of the war. Kyiv has amassed nearly $40 billion in currency reserves.

Europe’s largest lithium deposits may be in the Czech Republic, potentially solving the EU’s EV battery supply issues.

Poland and other V4 countries need to refocus their energy transition policies to pay greater attention to reducing energy poverty. Read more in Visegrad Insight’s policy brief

China’s Tencent invested $1.5 billion in a Polish company. This is the most significant foreign direct investment from China in Poland.

The EU accused Elon Musk of allowing indiscriminate Russian misinformation on X, formerly Twitter.

The Czech Republic introduced the Digital Nomad Programme, a new residence visa initiative, allowing citizens from Australia, Japan, Canada, South Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan, the UK and the US to work remotely in the country.

The EU countries issued 3.7 million visas to non-EU nationals in 2022, a 26 percent increase from 2021, according to Eurostat. Over 40 percent of such visas were work-related. Poland was Europe’s leading visa provider.

Visegrad Insight expert panel found a tiny shift of 0.2 points up towards efforts to build prosperity for all. Respondents indicated more superficial efforts and declarations than substantive policy implementation on that front.


Plurality of Sources

Polish public television and other government-affiliated media intensified their biased reporting to vilify the opposition and the EU while heaping praise on PiS. Over the summer, PiS refused to enter any election debates with the opposition, but the main opposition decided to start appearing on public TV, even if mistreated by hosts, to fight for the attention of the voters.

The impact of prolific Russian disinformation in various mediaspheres across the EU (and especially before elections in Slovakia and Poland) raises a broader discussion on whether the EU requires a foreign agents bill to combat malign propaganda. Some proponents suggest a policy akin to the US model, which focuses on transparency of ownership and not on banning or strict censorship.

Visegrad Insight expert panel reflected a negative sentiment in terms of media plurality and independence across the region.


State Capture or Independence

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party established a watered-down version of its  “Russian influence” investigation committee, which after a wave of criticism that it was a ploy to discredit the opposition, lost momentum and failed to play a role in the election campaign.

Slovak police detained and charged several current and former intelligence and security officials over alleged organised crime links.

This has been coordinated on the EU level, although Hungarian policies to decline asylum seekers over the pandemic were deemed illegal by the top EU court.

The United States tightened visa-free travel for Hungarian citizens after Budapest declined to share data on passports handed over to foreigners.

Visegrad Insight expert panel did not indicate major changes in this domain over the summer.


Polarisation or Cohesion

Hungary’s Fidesz plans to change the constitution and pass a “sovereignty protection law” to make it easier to gag foreign-funded NGOs from criticising the government.

In a language taken straight from Vladimir Putin’s playbook on suppressing civil society, Máté Kocsis, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary group, said the bill would “make things harder for those who are selling out our country abroad in exchange for dollars.”

Poland’s PiS launched a smear campaign against the Polish film director Agnieszka Holland in September for her latest movie “The Green Border”, a fictionalised account of the ordeal faced by migrants at the Polish-Belarusian border.

The attack on Holland formed part of the PiS election campaign portraying its critics and political opponents as Berlin-led traitors who would compromise the country’s  security and allow mass migration.

Poland registered 305,000 births in 2022, down 27,000 from the previous year and the lowest annual rate since the end of World War Two.

Over 3,500 Russian citizens will be asked to leave Latvia by the end of November after failing to apply or pass the statutory language test required to retain their residence permits.

“Also in the Czech Republic societal polarisation has increased, based on both the socio-economic tensions in the society as well as in the context of the Russian war against Ukraine and its impact on the Czech society,” said Pavel Havlicek.

The Romanian parliament will consider a draft law to recognise marriages between same-sex couples that are concluded in a European Union state, a move that leaves  Romanian LGBTIQ+ people deprived of equal rights.

Visegrad Insight expert panel indicated a slight change towards increased polarisation by 0.2 points.

About the Project

Visegrad Insight is the main Central European analysis and media platform. It generates future policy directions for Europe and transatlantic partners. Established in 2012 by the Res Publica Foundation.

Foresight on European Values and Democratic Security (FEVDS). This project engages CEE civil society leaders in a foresight-driven debate on the future EU policy developments to protect European values and freedoms.


Adam Jasser,
Wojciech Przybylski

Team: Galan Dall, Katarzyna Górska, Agnieszka Homańska,  Magda Jakubowska, Tomasz Kasprowicz, Piotr Obszarski, Magdalena Przedmojska, Dominika Rafalska, Kamila Szymańska, Albin Sybera Fellows:

Radu Albu-Comanescu (Romania), Merili Arjakas (Estonia), Nina Basok (Ukraine), Bohdan Bernatskyi (Ukraine), Spasimir Domaradzki (Poland/Bulgaria), Martin Ehl (Czechia), Jan Farfal (Poland), Jarosław Gwizdak (Poland), Pavel Havlicek (Czechia), Krzysztof Izdebski (Poland), Matej Kandrík (Slovakia), Christine Karelska (Ukraine), Aliaksei Kazharski (Belarus/Slovakia), Viktoryia Kolchyna (Belarus), Adam Leszczyński (Poland), Paweł Marczewski (Poland), Michał Matlak (Poland), Asya Metodieva (Bulgaria), Adrian Mihaltianu (Romania), Marta Musidłowska (Poland), Iván László Nagy (Hungary), Marco Nemeth (Slovakia), Jiří Schneider (Czechia), Luca Soltész (Hungary), Sigita Struberga (Latvia), Dorka Takacsy (Hungary) and Edit Zgut-Przybylska (Hungary).

Co-funded by the European Union

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