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The Visegrad Group: from the 25th to the 50th birthday

15.12.2016 | By Szabó Dávid

On  August 29th  2016, Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs of Trade held his annual briefing at the conference of Hungary’s Heads of Mission, who travel back to Budapest from the capitals all around the globe to attend this meeting every year. This time, however, something was very different from the regular setting of these meetings. While Mr. Szijjártó was delivering his speech on the podium, there was a panel of important people sitting on his right: the foreign ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.[1] Not only did the heads of diplomacy of all four Visegrad countries attend  the meeting, but each of them addressed the audience of top-level Hungarian diplomats, too.

As extraordinary as it may have seemed at first, such powerful symbolic gestures of high-level political cooperation among V4 members have become the rule, not the exception. Only a few days before the diplomatic congress in Budapest, the heads of government of the four Visegrad countries gathered in Warsaw for a joint summit, widely covered by mainstream international press[2], with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful politician and the initiator of most of EU’s common policies since 2007.

The recent in the significance of the Visegrad Group at the European political arena, clearly illustrated by the above events, has been caused by several external and internal factors. The Group has a series of choices to make and these choices will play a key role in the prevalence or vanishing of its clout among Europe’s powers.

How has the Visegrad Group made it so far?

25 years have passed since the first contemporary Visegrad Summit and the most prominent initial aims and desires the member countries shared have become a reality: by the year 2004 the V4 joined both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, thus completing a glorious journey back to the Western World after more than 40 years of forced existence in the Communist or Eastern Bloc.

Size matters

Inter-governmental political coordination has become extremely complicated over time. The higher the number of participating sovereign countries, the more complex decision making gets. If we add to this the ever-changing domestic political landscapes of the four highly competitive Visegrad democracies, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a consensus. If we take a closer look at the long, colorful and mostly troubled history of the region, especially with regard to the 18th-20th centuries, we may even wonder that those four states anyhow manage to keep dialogue going on at all times. The key of survival here is finding and keeping the right proportion between various aspects.

In spite of early and ever-recurring calls and impulses to increase the number of participating states (“enlargement”), the Visegrad Group has managed to keep its core mechanisms limited to its original members. While a number of varying-geometry regional alliances, organizations and mechanisms appeared in the past 30 years (from the Central European Initiative in 1989 to the Austrelrlitz (Slavkov) Declaration in 2015), the V4 has remained focused on the founding members’ cooperation and proved to be a lasting alliance. While extending, improving and intensifying the external relations of the Visegrad Group with various countries (e.g. Croatia, Slovenia and Ukraine) and regional alliances (e.g. the Baltic Council) is a highly encouraged policy direction, the alliance can best serve its members’ interests if it remains geographically limited.

Size matters in terms of both the scope of ambitions and areas of joint policies. The Visegrad mechanism has never aimed at resolving bilateral tensions, conflicts of interest and disputes between its member states once and for all. The format is suitable for facilitating dialogue and managing such situations and problems but the Visegrad cooperation’s role remains limited in both bilateral problems and domestic issues of the individual member states. In other words, as simple as it sounds, the V4 cooperation focuses on matters which connect us rather than those which divide us which contributes to a long-term health. This factor proved to be essential at times when national governments in member states  differed fundamentally in their approaches to ideological questions.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but keeping (or at least not dramatically extending) the size of the institutional design in the Visegrad Group has proved to be another factor in making it to a 25th birthday for the organization. While it is time to consider introducing new institutional mechanisms to the V4 cooperation, and the idea may even enjoy political support[3], avoiding the bureaucratization of our relations and respecting national sovereignty of the members states was a factor that has kept internal opposition to the Visegrad cooperation at minimum levels and increased the attractiveness of our model in the eyes of other regional groupings standing at the doorstep of institutionalization.

Towards a 50th birthday

Since 2007 Europe and its neighborhood has been experiencing  something that Hungarians would call “condensed times”. We have faced the biggest economic crisis of a generation and its  consequences,  which most of Europe still suffers,  are still not completely understood. Meanwhile the intensifying dynamics of a shifting global power distribution in the international system (together with the consequences of climate change) has been producing conflicts, instability and an unprecedented-in-modern-times migration wave in the immediate neighborhood of the European Union (Georgia, 2008; Syria since 2010; Ukraine since 2014; the current level of migration crisis since 2015), creating serious foreign and security policy challenges for Europe. Last but not least, the European Union itself is in an institutional and political crisis, mostly due to its misperception of its role and the member states’ interests and the consequent mismanagement of the above challenges.

Recurring waves of economic crisis characterized by reports  from  countries in danger (from Greece and Iceland to Portugal, Spain and Ireland to Italy); the failure of the EU to facilitate a stable and peaceful solution in Ukraine; the complete failure of the Brussels elites to mitigate a widely supported policy for the management of the migration crisis; and most recently, the decision of UK voters to leave the European Union – these are all telling symptoms of the above.

At such times, a strategy aiming merely at survival will bring ultimate failure. Nowadays there is no stability in influence or power projection: those who are not on the rise are logically in decline. Those who aim at merely “maintaining” their position will end up insignificant. And vice versa: those who set ambitious but realistic goals and tirelessly work toward them, shall see their position improved.

Therefore, if the Visegrad members intend to keep the Visegrad Group as a powerful instrument in projecting their joint national interests, they must further empower it. At the same time, one must not forget about the essential limitations which are pre-conditions to the healthy functioning of this cooperation. These two statements combined produce a number of conclusions.

Project power and influence at European level in strategic areas

The EU reform

Use V4 best practices of limited scope and the dominance of intergovernmental decision making in the debate on the future of the EU. Brussels elites’ inability to manage the recent strategic challenges calls for meaningful reform, including a review of areas of deeper integration. During the current migration crisis, the Visegrad Group took initiative and successfully stood its ground in giving priority to the issues of safety, security and fundamental rights of European citizens. As a result, these crucial matters won popular support  in many Western European societies[4]. This phenomenon shed light on the need and potential of re-aligning the focus of integration to matters which are of fundamental concern to European citizens, such as security, culture, national identity and economic opportunities.

Security

The creation of a V4 battle Group[5] shows a good example of taking greater responsibility in European security by strengthening  European defensive identity.[6] The joint effort of the four Visegrad countries in defending the EU’s external borders in Hungary and further to the South[7] stands as a clear statement in arguing for a strengthened joint European border patrol cooperation.

Identity

One must not forget that Europe is constituted by more than a few dozen allied countries: Europe means shared identity, religious and intellectual traditions as well as mutually connected national interests. The V4 must carry the torch of European identity and values at times when they have become so self-evident in the old member states that politicians and experts completely forget about them. If this means a long overdue goodbye to political correctness and cultural relativism, be it.

Economy

Poland is the only economy in the EU which maneuvered through the 2007-2008 global economic crisis with a steadily positive economic growth record, completely avoiding falling into recession. Between 2010 and 2016 Hungary produced a comeback from a Greece-like rock bottom position to a combination of stable growth, low deficits, decreasing external debt and relatively low unemployment rate. The Visegrad Four has shown an extraordinary performance in attracting FDI to the region, which contributed to job creation and technology transfer. In the light of the performance of the Mediterranean region, the V4 economies look healthy and promising, steadily producing above EU-average growth rates for years. Based on these results and the often out-of-the-box economic policy thinking behind them, promoting competitiveness, economic growth and job creation at European level is an adequate role for the Visegrad Group.

Keep the V4 up to date, smart and flexible

Building on the results of 25 years, the Group needs to continuously monitor potential common areas of interest. When identified, there shall be a variety of tools and mechanisms to choose from, in order to advance the members’ interests in the EU structures or outside of them. If needed, the Group must stay open to designing new mechanisms and institutions to respond to upcoming challenges – but it also must be ready to let them go as soon as their goals are fulfilled or become outdated – keep in mind that we must keep V4 smart and limited.

Last but not least: do not neglect the human aspect. Keep Czechs, Polish, Slovaks and Hungarians should be involved as much as possible in what we call Visegrad.  A further development of the soft aspects of the cooperation (including the International Visegrad Fund, the Think Visegrad network etc.) must become a priority. No integration will be successful without a strong sense of belonging together.

 

 

[1] A report of the event: http://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-foreign-affairs-and-trade/news/the-v4-cooperation-is-the-closest-and-most-effective-alliance-in-europe. Accessed: 31 August 2016

[2] WSJ: http://www.wsj.com/articles/half-of-germans-oppose-fourth-term-for-angela-merkel-survey-finds-1472379679; Bloomberg: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-08-26/eu-has-no-brexit-strategy-needs-time-before-talks-hungary-says. Accessed: 31 August 2016.

[3] Hungarian PM Orbán supports the Polish proposal for establishment of a V4 parliamentary assembly. http://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/news/we-need-to-establish-a-european-army. Accessed: 31 August 2016.

[4] See the results of the Project28 survey in the category „Opinions on the EU”. http://project28.eu/results/ Accessed: 31 August 2016.

[5] Joint Declaration of the Visegrad Group Prime Ministers, Prague (2016). http://www.visegradgroup.eu/documents/official-statements/joint-declaration-of-the-160609. Accessed: 31 August 2016.

[6] Hungarian PM Orbán on the need to establish a joint EU army. http://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/news/eu-has-lost-its-ability-to-adapt. Accessed: 31 August 2016.

[7] https://euobserver.com/migration/130711. Accessed: 31 August 2016

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