Whether it is the coronavirus, judiciary reforms, Russia or jihadism, Central Europe has different ideas about what constitutes important regional or global threats. The Czech cabinet decision to deploy soldiers in West Africa, contrary to Poland's reluctance to engage in the south, shows the lack of a common frame of assessment.
Buying time through dialogue
In the latest chapter of the ongoing dispute over the Polish judiciary reforms, EU Commissioner for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová visited Warsaw this week, in an attempt to break the deadlock using face-to-face-diplomacy. The current government perceives Jourová as an easier interlocutor – than Frans Timmermans – in finding a possible compromise, although her meeting with Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro did not produce any concrete results.
Thank you, Poland, for your hospitality. EU needs strong Polska, Polska needs strong EU 🇵🇱🇪🇺 pic.twitter.com/CCsfoA4ruR
— Věra Jourová (@VeraJourova) January 28, 2020
While Minister Ziobrio made mention of the possibility to find some middle ground regarding the changes to the judicial system, Jourová indicated that no progress was made on bridging differences and identifying solutions. Meanwhile, the European Commission awaits a decision by the ECJ on the adoption of interim measures concerning a disciplinary law, which restricts the independence of Polish judges.
When it comes to Hungary, the European People’s Party (EPP) decided not to take any new steps concerning the present suspension of Fidesz. This was announced by EPP President Donald Tusk a couple of days ago, after speculation about the contents of the ‘wise men’ report and a possible departure of the Hungarian party. Nevertheless, Hungary’s democratic track record is sure to be a talking point at EPP’s Political Assembly meeting taking place next week.
The search for satisfaction
Researchers from the University of Cambridge have concluded that dissatisfaction with democracy is at its highest level in 25 years. While the data in the report mostly concerns the developed world, the relevant data for the V4 region shows a more mixed picture.
The study acknowledges “with the notable exception of Romania, the major new democracies of central and eastern Europe have seen a gradual strengthening of civic confidence in their political institutions since the “dual transition” to democracy and the market economy in the 1990s.” Especially since the global financial crisis, there has even been an increase in satisfaction.
However, the last couple of years indicate a downward trend for most of the V4 countries, possibly “due to congruence of between popular sentiment and the attitudes expressed by the political class.”
Anxieties concerning the coronavirus are hard to overlook when perusing the regional media this week. Slovakia took steps at airports and border crossings to limit the spread of the disease, originating in China, while Czech citizens were buying facial masks and pharmaceuticals despite the absence of any confirmed cases.
The Transport Ministry will carry out an exercise at M. R. Štefánik Airport in #Bratislava to learn if a #coronavirus-infected patient can be detected right after their arrival to #Slovakia.https://t.co/cnC9rtdx4z
— The Slovak Spectator (@slovakspectator) January 29, 2020
The heightened risk of Chinese tourists bringing the virus coincides with a deterioration of China’s relationship with the region – as a minor spat between the Prague mayor and Beijing has become a growing bilateral issue. Two Chinese airlines have already reduced regular flights to the Czech capital.
As the Asian Review reports this week, there is a general cooldown between China and the region: while Xi Jinping has confirmed he will personally host the next 17+1 summit in April, the appetite for Chinese investments has diminished. Whether it concerns human rights, the threat of cyberespionage or the recognition of Taiwan, antipathy towards China is on the rise.
This week, the Czech government gave the green light to send soldiers to West Africa in support of counter-terrorist activities. While the decision is yet to be confirmed by the parliament, it comes in addition to a contingent of Czech armed services stationed in Mali (as part of an EU mission).
The cabinet decision came as a consequence of a French request to participate in its ongoing counter-terrorist operation (named Barkhane) in the Sahel. France is looking to Central Europe, in particular, for additional support against the jihadist threat. Yet, not all of the Visegrad Group countries may be eager to lend military staff and services to what is perceived as a less pressing issue than preserving stability in the eastern neighbourhood.
Należy na poważnie traktować francuską persepktywę zagrożeń i nie wykluczać wiekszego udziału w misjach na Południu. Paryż nie może jednak podważać uzgodnień w NATO co do wschodniej flanki i Rosji, a francuska obecność wojskowa w regionie mogłaby zostać wzmocniona. https://t.co/3JyMpeTMWF
— Justyna Gotkowska (@jgotkowska) January 28, 2020
An upcoming visit of President Macron to Warsaw may pilot the discussion towards Polish support for Sahel operations, although Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz has recently stated that the country prefers to focus on the Middle East. In choosing between American and French strategic priorities, some countries of the V4 have made their minds up. Absent a shared approach to assessing regional and global threats, it is improbable that the current situation will improve common European defence and security capabilities.