The sudden window of opportunity

27.12.2016 | By Daniel Kaiser

There was an unexpected revival of the Visegrád- Group last autumn, when the four countries found themselves facing pressure from Berlin and Brussels to accept a quota-system for the refugess, and, something rather understated, also for very many economic migrants. If only for this reason, the quota-plan did not make sense. Visegrád-politicians stated openly that it was not in accord with reality, given the comparatively poor living standards in the Visegrád region – and were proven right.  One year later, on the EU meeting in Bratislava, everybody, including M Merkel, seemed to have understood.

In the Czech Republic, this last year proved to be a rather amusing show show: Visegrád was now being endorsed by some people (like the former president Václav Klaus), who used to be rather suspicious of V-4 back in the Nineties. On the other hand, some life-long, enthusiastic supporters now started to warn against bealonging to a group of allegedly anitliberal, reactionary Easterners. This school of thought usually proposes to get as close to Germany as possible instead. The horror from this quarter has reached its zenith as Norbert Hofer, the hopeful of the Austrian populist right, mentioned that Austria, long-time true fellow of Germany, might join V-4 in the future. Hofer said this during visit to the Czech President Miloš Zeman in the Prague Castle. The old social democrat, but also social conservative Zeman is of course a hate-figure for Czech progressives and the chattering class.



But does the Visegrád Group really have common ground in the new  EU, ‘new’ meaning being the EU without Great Britain? Opposition towards the dominant asylum policy is a very important matter and is likely to remain a binding factor. But there are many points of contention. One of the four, Slovakia, (and with Austria the score would be two to five) is inside the eurozone. Two of the four, the Czech Republic and Hungary, have recently suggested the creation of a European army. I understand that the Polish PiS is not enthusiastic. The Poles rightly fear that this talk could undermine future of NATO, since it already is giving justification to those in the United States who would rather get rid of their obligations in Europe.

And on we go. A different view on the urgency of the so-called Russian threat divides even the two natural allies, Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczyński. Until now, the Czechs echo having been the intimidating noises from Warszaw and Bratislava directed at the UK (no single market without freedom of movement!), but don´t bet on us in this: the number of Czechs who would be affected because they want to look for work in Britain is rather small and British diplomats in Prague are sure the Czech government will prove pragmatic at the end of the day.

And Polish Conservatives now in power should not rely on the leftist government in Prague to be loyal to Visegrád when talking to, say, Germany. Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka belongs, or imagines himself to belong, to a largely non-existent progressive wing of the Czech Social Democratic Party(ČSSD). To build a left for the youth and thus ensure that the graying ČSSD has a future, seems to be THE plan of Sobotka´s close circle. Beeing in permanent opposition to the greeny, progressive, post-national Germany, to his key advisers, is anathema. On the other hand, Sobotka is limited by the facts of life. EU´s policies have become unpopular among Czechs, and double so among ČSSD´s own voters. He must steer his ship between two rocks. Which does not look like a reliable part of the Visegrad chain.


„The last bastion of common sense“

But still, I think the scope for cooperation is huge, if not always on the governmental level. Visegrád fierce opposition to the mandatory “refugee-quotas” is past now, but it has shown our politicians that saying no to Brussels and Berlin can be useful, and that it definitely is not the end of the world. Berlin used to think of “Ostmitteleuropa” as its own backyard, a group of states forever grateful for being anchored in the West. Diplomats recall how in the past, every time a Visegrád meeting was approaching, German diplomats would call and ask with a frosty, not amused voice what the common position on this or that would be. He who thinks that obediency pays off does not understand foreign policy. So the first advantage would be: to find a counterbalace to Berlin, Brussels (or Paris, etc., depending on circumstances) among each other.

The second advantage is more subtle. Last year the argument about the migration crisis has brought an image of Yesterday men from the East. To some this must sound terrible, to others like music in paradise. But this image certainly does not mean the whole West looks down on us with nothing but disdain. Some countries (Britain, Denmark, increasingly France) also refuse any substantial Muslim immigration. Secondly, we underestimate the fragility of the current establishment in the remaining Western countries.

I have been following the debate in Germany on a daily basis since last summer and my impression is clear: “we” have become unlikely heroes to many ordinary Germans. The supporters for someif socially conservative views is considerable and, so far, not catered for. Every soundbite pronounced by President Zeman or President Klaus has provoked hundreds of comments on those German mainstream media who outlets have had the courage not to close down internet discussions on their pages. “Excellent, finally a statesman”.  “Ten years ago, I would not have thought that the East Europeans will be the last bastion of common sense.” “If this madness goes on any longer, I will apply for asylum in Prague” – etc.

Poland has been a similar story with although the Poland-bashing after PiS came to power in Western European journals has limited the surge of sympathy among alienated readers a little. Anyway, when a German public-TV NDR satirical programme broadcast a song about Polish Catholics (Po, Po, Po, Polen, bigotte Katholen – etc.), in which one moment you see a picture of the two Kaczynskis and the next a broken egg on the floor (!), the reactions I came across were furious. “These cowards who do not dare to say one word against Islamists, are brave enough to take on the Poles.” One senior politician of the AfD, whom I met, mocked the German mainstream media as follows: „You get the feeling that Kaczynski is only sligthly better than Erdogan the Evil.” He claimed that such an propaganda did not work with people any more. There are a lot of conservative-minded people in some European countries who might or might not vote for the AfD, Le Pen or Strache – but whose concerns are not taken seriously by the politicians anyway. It is likely that they will effect the politics of their countries in the future and that Europe will turn more conservative again. Visegrád-Group is well situated for this future.


Counter-cultural revolution – what does it a mount to

In the last months and weeks, the press in Germany has been criticising „Poland“ or „Hungary“ speaking rather about „Visegrád” instead. At the informal summit in Brussels where the four Visegrád-leaders went after meeting together first many were surprised with their talk (assumedly the talk was made by Orbán and Szydlo): there are no taboos in the EU after Brexit, we can even open up the EU Treaties (which the elites in Western capitals understand as opening up Pandora´s Box). It will probably not come to this, but the sheer radicality of such talk surprised many insiders, given that until recently, the V-4 mood was a „survival attitude“ (Ryszard Legutko).

Roughly at the same time, in Krynica, Viktor Orbán spoke about the counter-cultural revolution that Visegrád countries should launch in th EU. I think, it has some great potential abroad (Western Europe) and inside. In the Czech Republic, for example, the polls were consistently at least 70:30 in favour of joining the eurozone up until 2009. But since then, it is the exact opposite, 30:70, or even 20:80. More general EU-skepsis follows.

In Krynica Orbán mentioned the deliberate assault in Brussels on any particular national identity in Europe. That would probably not be such an hot issue for the Czechs. Nor would my countrymen agree with the strict, Polish-style policy on abortion. Poles seem to have been caught by the Hungarian disease to appropriate foreign-owned banks. In this, the Czechs will not follow (I hope). A common denominator is purely defensive: to turn down or indeed ridicule the never-ending „progressive“ proposals coming from Brussels. To show that another opinion is still possible. Every future high-ranking politican from this corner of Europe will have it much more easy, after the V-4 prime-ministers have opposed the EU-policies in the migration crisis. For the foreseeable future, we all are seen as „Visegráders“ anyway.