This year we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of democratic transformations in Central and Eastern Europe, the Autumn of Nations. Looking back at the early 90’s – it was a time when the Visegrad countries established CEFTA and entered on the road to the EU, but it was also a time of civil war in former Yugoslavia. As a matter of fact, as a region we were walking completely different paths. Fortunately now, 2014, after 25 years, most of our countries are united again in the EU structures. But does it mean, that we are so close to each other as we were in 1989?
International Visegrad Fund (IVF), established in 2002, a few years ago issued a summary of 20 years of Visegrad cooperation. The title of this publication sounds really figurative – “Arrival, survival, revival”. At least in the northern part of Central Europe, we faced three stages of cooperation. The beginnings were very promising, but the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993 turned in fact to the suspension of mutual cooperation. Only the common interest connected with EU accession and the finalization of negotiation process brought the V4 member states together again. The period after 1998 by the IVF was called as a revival of V4 cooperation. But how long has this revival lasted? Does it still last?
Last Friday I participated in the expert seminar aimed at the future of Ukraine, or being more precise, at the question: what Europe can do in such a complex situation in the east? I have been listening to the voices of politicians, diplomats and academics with growing concern. Such statements as “This is the high time for EU to use force”, “The V4 cooperation within the EU is effective and the voice of Central Europe in listened in the EU” or on the other hand “We Europeans are responsible for Putin’s actions”, “Russia will experience a bottom-up revolution” or “The Central European elites are too romantic to be effective” sounded to me at least naïve if not completely far from the reality.
As the last speaker, I tried to present my point of view in following points:
- Russia is not a European state, but historically is a country deeply rooted in Asian tradition that had European aspirations in some moments of its history; therefore, it is naïve to believe in civil society and the bottom-up political change there.
- Russia is economically and politically weak and the use of military force is the best evidence of its weakness; the weaker they become the less predictable, for EU and US, their actions will be.
- On the Kremlin there are two competing narratives – offensive imperialism (revisionism towards Central Europe) and defensive imperialism (revisionism towards former USSR); in both of them Ukraine lies on the bad side of the boarding line.
- Due to the geopolitical shifts, in line with their national defense strategy, since 2012 US has been withdrawing from Europe; Americans are irritated that EU is not able to solve the Ukrainian crisis but are not willing to act directly (on the contrary – they are doing it in the Middle East).
- EU doesn’t have foreign and security policy, and thus is completely unable to take military actions; economics sanctions are important, but they might lead to further aggression (the weaker Russia will be, the more aggressive) that we as EU simply cannot restrain.
- French and Italian elites are historically and traditionally pro-Russian and unable to defy Putin (see Mistral case); on the other hand Germany are already aware that their Ostpolitik for the last 30 years (based on the assumption that Germany has historical mission of bringing democratization to Russia through economic cooperation: see Nordstream case and importing Russian oil and gas since the 80’s) completely failed, but Germans are not willing to admit it and prefer to bury the head in the sand.
- The role of Germany, France and Italy (see Federica Mogherini as the High Representative) in the EU is so decisive that only a close cooperation between Central European countries, and such partners as Sweden and UK, might (!) lead to any reform
- The Ukraine crisis shows that in fact the V4 cooperation does not exist – it is broken by the national short-sighted interests. The Eastern Partnership does not exist as well.
As a conclusion, I pointed out that at the end of the day nobody will die for Ukraine. If we are dreaming of EU policy effectiveness towards Russia, we need to create within the EU a Central European Union of countries that extends the form of V4 cooperation (which is already dead). Unless we create a semi-formal political body, consisting of: V4, Baltic States, Eastern (Romania, Bulgaria) and Western Balkans, who understand Russia, we as common Europe will be helpless in relations with Russia under Putin or any his successor.
I realize that my proposal might have been a little bit provocative, but I hardly expected the storm I had caused. I was accused of damaging the unity of Europe, underestimating the success of V4 cooperation and political & academic naivety (note these people previously were discussing seriously the likelihood of EU military operation in the eastern Ukraine).
Ok, I am aware that the idea of Central European Union within the EU might sound naïve. But on the other hand, after this seminar and many talks and discussions I had in the last year I realized that there is a taboo of Visegrad cooperation, even in the IVF narrative. We can talk about the past experiences, but not about the future. “How to promote V4 past successes to the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries” seems to be a figure of this type of thinking.
But when was the successful past? The so-called “revival”? When you look at the facts, it ended in 2004. The story of V4 cooperation at the EU level since that time is not too bright. Besides the negotiations on Multiannual Financial Perspective (EU budget), we failed – the best example for that might be negotiations on the Treaty of Lisbon, especially the new rule for qualified majority voting in the Council. The Polish-Czech-Lithuanian proposal that gives our region justifiable proportion of votes was bulldozed by the Old Europe who insisted on other Central European countries (also Hungary and Slovakia) to reject it. The case of common European energy security is another example. The V4 were played out by the partners from the East and from the West, because the strong cooperation between Central European countries is simply and naturally not in their interest. It is not a conspiracy theory at all. But as a matter of fact, we are becoming (have already become?) not political actors, but rather object that might be by-passed.
Concluding, the V4 does not have present; it even does not have a close past. Does it have future? Please note that V4 is not recognized by any single EU document, in contrary to Danube Region Strategy (which is dead as well, but at least exists, without Poland). As a result, from the Brussels perspective V4 does not exist. Thus, maybe it will be better to admit officially that Visegrad Group has gone and it is high time to build a new one, Visegrad 2.0, in the extended formula with e.g. Romania and Baltic States? If there are so many advocates claiming this idea is nonsense, maybe before we face a new challenge of dying for Latvia or Estonia, we should consider it even harder?
In coming days we are going to publish interviews with politicians, diplomats and experts. We will ask them about the death of Visegrad group. Please stay tuned!