The V4’s vision for the future of the European Union
Where is the European Union (EU) heading regarding the badly needed reform of the Union as a whole, and the Eurozone in particular? This debate gained more traction before the summer break with Chancellor Merkel’s extensive interview with a German daily on the topic. Earlier this year, a group of ‘Northern’ EU member states, led by the Netherlands, declared their standpoint, stressing that any deepening of the European Monetary Union (EMU) must be based on “real value-added, not far-reaching transfers of competence to the European level” – a view re-emphasised by the Dutch PM Mark Rutte during his speech on the future of Europe at the European Parliament in June 2018.
Both Merkel’s interview and the position of the Northern countries are ultimately reactions to proposals put forward by French President Macron, most prominently in his Sorbonne speech in September 2017, and followed up at the European Parliament plenary in April 2018. Macron is currently setting the agenda, speaking against “national selfishness”, calling for “European sovereignty” and even a Eurozone budget, while dividing Europe between those he considers pro-European and anti-European (in practice meaning those supporting or opposing him).
Those missing at the table
Notably absent from this process have been the Central-Eastern European countries of the Visegrad Group (V4), despite having taken some of the earliest initiatives in the post-Brexit referendum debates on the future of the EU. In the months following Britain’s 2016 referendum, we witnessed numerous V4 declarations on EU reform although a rather disappointing pattern emerged; at each subsequent EU or V4 summit, the same slogans were recycled without adding substance or creating a new narrative on the future of the EU.
And so, if one thinks back to the noisy – but in hindsight of little value – love fest between Jarosław Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán in Krynica in September 2016 announcing a “cultural counter-revolution” in Brussels, one cannot help but think of Samuel Beckett’s famous play: two men on a stage announcing a crucial event that never materializes. In this regard, the V4 have, at best, become a group of part-time reactionaries, rather than a united “conservative alliance“ with a vision .
The first real departure from this pattern could have been the speech of the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at the EP plenary in Brussels in July 2018. Despite the difficult odds, this provided an excellent opportunity for the self-proclaimed defender of the region’s interests to develop the Visegrad slogans into more substantiated proposals.
In several regards this was the most specific outline of something that could be labelled a “Central European view” on the future of the EU, and one that focused on where more Europe is needed rather than only on where it isn’t.
Despite brief references to De Gaulle’s Europe of nation-states and democratic legitimacy, the core of the speech focused on substantial proposals to combat tax evasion, deepen the single market for services, develop electro-mobility and clean tech, re-industrialise Europe, create a permanent investment tool along the lines of the Juncker Plan, invest in human capital, and increase efforts to support African development in order to reduce migration pressures. While tactfully acknowledging differing views on the state of the EU, Morawiecki’s speech was topped off with references to a joint European identity and the presentation of the European project as a win-win. Anyone expecting attacks on “Brussels bureaucrats” or references to the degeneracy of Western European liberalism was sorely disappointed.
A mistimed monologue
Separated from such aggressive elements, these proposals put forward by V4 leaders could, with clear and strategic thinking, gain traction beyond the four countries. This includes past suggestions, such as the inclusivity of all EU-27 on decisions about the future of the EMU, strong fiscal compliance, or stricter application of the Schengen acquis.
Moreover, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS) strongly emphasised a reform of EU structures and decision-making to return powers to the member states and the preservation of national sovereignty and Polish identity. There is a clear connection with the concept of subsidiarity (originally found in the social teaching of the Catholic Church), and the need to bring questions of political decision-making as close to the local level as possible. This could resonate not only with PiS allies in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), but also with the conservative segments of the European People’s Party (EPP), or even parts of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) not enthusiastic about Guy Verhofstadt’s federalist visions.
For example, the Dutch-led response to Macron’s proposals showcased the appetite for a different EU that re-embraces the principle of subsidiarity and bottom-up decision-making. Rutte, notably an ALDE Prime Minister, although welcoming Macron’s Sorbonne speech and backing the Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans on the issue of Article 7 and the rule of law (an obvious snub to Poland), also called on European leaders to stop pushing “symbols” such as the European Army and focus on delivering the “original promise of Europe” which is that of “sovereign member states working together to help each other achieve greater prosperity, security and stability”.
This notion was very much expressed throughout Morawiecki’s speech showing that, at least on the issue of the single market, state sovereignty and burying the idea of “an ever-closer union”, the V4 are not that different to other member states; what the V4 dislike about the EU is more universal.
Nevertheless, the like-mindedness with Northern states on EU reform does not stretch to other issues (especially on the divisive issues of rule of law), which is likely to make any broader coalition-building a long shot at best.
The debate that followed Morawiecki’s EP speech clearly demonstrated that the controversy around judicial reform and the rule of law in Poland is not going anywhere. This was even more emphasised by the timing of the speech at the very moment that the early retirement of Supreme Court judges came into effect, and which overshadowed his proposals almost instantly. Faced by criticism from the MEPs, Morawiecki left behind his carefully-scripted diplomatic offensive and retreated to the V4’s reactionary default line, refusing all criticism, placing the blame elsewhere and invoking Polish history.
The increasing inability to build a wider European coalition is further complicated by internal divisions within the group (traditionally, between the more reserved Czech Republic and Slovakia on one hand, and Poland and Hungary on the other), and even the Polish-Hungarian duo is currently looking less solid with Victor Orbán more recently strengthening Hungary’s position bilaterally by cosying up to Italy’s new government and Slovenia’s election winner Janez Janša. Moreover, Orbán’s annual lecture at the Bálványos Open University offered neither the V4 nor other EU member states anything of substance, other than his well-rehearsed talking points about a “Soros Plan” and accusing the European Commission of building “European socialism”.
Therefore, despite Morawiecki’s efforts, having in regard the past quarter of a century of the Visegrad Group as an amplifier of national interests as well as current EU-wide divisions on the question of the rule of law, a concrete joint V4 proposal (let alone one that would be supported by a broader coalition of member states) would constitute a qualitative shift among a group that only really works effectively as a part-time reactionary alliance of interests. The notion of an ideological, let alone a conservative alliance with a clear vision on the EU’s future, is a myth that is both unhelpful for understanding the group’s functioning, as well as for managing expectations.
Therefore, in waiting for a V4 vision for EU reform, we might be waiting for Godot. Perhaps, instead of merely asking whether the V4 can offer an alternative vision, we should more importantly consider whether they actually want to change the EU at all, or whether they are simply satisfied to be a part-time reactionary alliance shouting from the sidelines?
Dr Igor Merheim-Eyre is a Research Fellow at the Global Europe Centre, University of Kent
Dr Łukasz Janulewicz is a Research Fellow at the Centre for European Neighbourhood Studies, Central European University