The V4 region – sometimes extended to ‘Intermarium’, i.e. the zone between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas – in Poland is now being considered as a basis for permanent political coalition or even some new ‘geopolitical’ or ‘geo-economical’ entity in Europe, at least by (mostly) right–wing political commentators and analysts. Others, (mostly) liberals or leftists claim that it makes no sense, because there is a need to strengthen and revitalize the EU rather, than integrate within some new regional framework. For both approaches – with a wide spectrum of halfway ideas and proposals – the context is a multidimensional crisis of European integration and recent geopolitical shocks in Middle East and Eastern Europe. Whether federalist-European or nationalist-EU-sceptical – we all are aware, that political business as usual is something, that makes no sense, for sure.
In order to think of anything more than just an immediate coalition in the region, you’d need to share common interests, aspirations and imagination. All of them, actually. The problem of our “V4 and more” company is that the interests are often competing with each other, aspirations are often shared but without consensus as to the way of achieving them and, last but not least, imaginations are in many respects contradictory.
Let’s start with the last one, namely imagination, as it determines the shape of the other factors. Imagination within some geopolitical space refers most of all to the sense of belonging and perceived threats – as seen by political elite, but surely not out of touch with popular notions and sentiments as well.
Czechs – would prefer to be some sort of Slavonic, more relaxed and liberal kind of Germany, with Russia kept at a distance. Hungarians yearn for their ‘two thirds’ lost in Trianon, and feel threatened by immigrants and liberals; Slovaks just want to set the cars together without being disturbed, living in peace with everybody – fearing, most of all, some Hungarian claims. On the other hand, Baltic states, especially the two northern ones think of themselves as ‘little Scandinavia’, scared of Russia, with the exception of Lithuania, which tends more to be afraid of Polish dominance. Poland, which is mostly afraid of Russia and dreams of some ‘benevolent hegemony’ over the region, cannot stand the fact, that most of the region does not share its view on the big eastern neighbor and definitely cannot accept its leadership among them. Romania tries hard to become more Western-American that the West and America (which makes it a bit caricature of Poland fifteen years ago), finally, Bulgaria feels somewhat disappointed with the EU and has a very good, also sentimental relationship with Russia… Uff, it is hard to think of any coherent, common imagination here, isn’t it?
Aspirations are much more similar between these countries – all would like to be an unquestionable part of the West, economically and politically. With some exceptions, of course, as Hungary, which would prefer even closer ties in economy (especially with Germany and Austria), but can flirt with Russia as the counterweight to Berlin and energy supplier, and Bulgaria, recently even more Eastern-leaning. Apart from Orban’s Hungary, Poland and Slovakia would prefer Brussels to interfere less in their internal affairs, in Polish case including its industrial and energy policies. Opposition against refugee policies proposed by Angela Merkel were probably the most important common denominator for the region (except for Baltic states, trying to swim in the ‘mainstream’ of European politics).
Specific interests – at least as defined by their political and economic elites, very often contradict one another. In economic terms, the V4 countries compete over scarce German Foreign Direct Investment; in energy policy they sometimes cooperate (both Poland and Hungary want to oppose the Nord Stream II, but for different reasons; the former wants to block the next gas connection between Russia and the West, the latter – replace it with the southern pipeline via Hungary), sometimes compete (i.e. coal industries of Poland and Czech Republic), but – again – their common denominator is rather negative, i.e. skepticism (on different scale) against renewable energies and climate change-mitigating policy.
This (very general) overview shows, that these nation-states – beyond their declarations of proximity of interests, expressed especially in times of refugee crisis – have in fact little in common. Even the historical experience of the post-war era can be hardly seen as a unifying factor – even between Czechs and Slovaks the collective memory of communism seems very different, not to mention Poland and Bulgaria, whose sentiment towards Russia, as successor of the Soviet empire, are exactly the opposite.
Historical experience proves, how contingent and temporary our sense of belonging together in the region was. In the prewar period, it existed only in the heads of a few statesmen, but without political substance. A poor substitute of Intermarium – Polish-Romanian military alliance – gave refuge to our political elite, but had practically no impact on the main course of events in those terrible times. Something changed almost four decades later, in mid-70’s, when Polish, Czechoslovak and Hungarian dissidents started collaborating in common fight for freedom, human rights and dignity – writing for samizdat, organizing independent society and becoming ambassadors for their case in the West. Although their struggle was somehow ‘culturalized’ in famous Milan Kundera’s essay on Central Europe as historical part of the West, but captured by the USSR into Eastern bloc – excluding Slovaks – a new concept, openly distancing “V3” from the Soviet Union and implicitly from the Balkans, served as an efficient Kampfbegriff. It helped to de-essentialize East vs. West divide in people’s minds, paving the way for the Autumn of Nations ’89 and then for common preparation to join the political structures of the West. Despite different turbulences, sometimes even hidden competition in the race towards EU accession, at least at its beginning, a “V3-V4” formula made a lot of sense, giving weight to a region determined to move from one geopolitical bloc to another. After 2004 we could find some cases of cooperation between the countries of the region – within and beyond the V4 – but particular, often competing efforts of the states to establish itself in the EU, attract FDI from the core countries’ or co-shape common EU policies (i.e. against Russia or climate policy) made no room and no sense for a closer integration on a regional basis. At least until the refugee crisis joint positions of V4 with Bulgaria and ‘illiberal’ shift in Poland started following the Hungarian pattern.
If we speak about something more than just coalitions aimed at achieving some political goals, i.e. identity- and alliance-building in relation to the rest of the world – V4 and the Balkans are not the best platform for the nation-states with their interests and idiosyncrasies. Or, I would say, it’s even worse. The abovementioned, very small and rather ‘negative’ common denominator – reluctance or clear resistance against common migrant policy of the EU, skepticism about the idea of ‘ever closer union’ – cannot lead, despite of what Kaczyński and Orban claim – to any sort of the EU’s reform or ‘rejuvenation’ of European integration project. After ‘Brexit’ , which made the project of multi-level EU (with UK plus „V4 and more” as the ‘looser circle’ of integration) almost unthinkable, the ‘anti-Brussels’ or ‘anti-Merkel’ approach leads, instead of reforming EU according to a more conservative view, towards the disintegration of the European project. Either in the form of some closer union in a much narrower circle (‘Charlemagne’s empire and friends’) with the rest just left outside or, in extreme course of events, by reshaping of Europe into neo-realist ‘concert of powers’. Both with dire consequences for the region, mostly for Poland and the Baltic states, if confronted with Russia’s new ambitions to participate in some new European order.
So much about the nation states – societies and their networks are a different story. These were Central European intellectuals and dissidents in 70s and 80s, who confronted Western imagination with their heroic democratic practice and brilliant ideas for undermining the post-Yalta order. And these were dozens of thousands of ‘ordinary people’ of the region ranging from Estonia to Hungary and further, who – thanks to their travelling, trading, smuggling, visiting each other, all of that, what Karl Schlögel calls Kriechströme – created a common zone of friendliness, social ties and even sometimes a feeling of historical togetherness.
What we, as the region have to contribute to the integrated Europe, are very specific experiences, that should be articulated by networks of NGO’s, experts and intellectuals, social activists; all ‘internationales‘, which connect citizens to create an empowered ‘political societies’. And what are these experiences actually? Firstly, in all our nations being a semi-periphery, we’re oscillating between the task of bringing our nations closer to capitalist ‘core’ and contributing to change the capitalism itself. Secondly, as the latecomers to the EU, we permanently hesitate between establishing ourselves in some imagined West at all cost and becoming some ‘new axis’, finding its place beyond our present horizon. Thirdly, we are confronted with the dilemma, whether to coalesce with the forces of the old liberal order, or rather try to build up on its ruins – much more starkly and vividly than in western Europe or US. What’s more, we’re stretched between conviction, that we face truly existential threats – war included – and suspicion, that we can do actually nothing about it, cause the real determinants of our situations are defined somewhere else.
In order to save ourselves from a historical catastrophe and to contribute something to the great task of rethinking Europe, all these abovementioned subtleties and complexities of our condition can be inspiring – this is, actually, why the EU and why we ourselves, need „V4 and more” at all. But this will be the case only if we overcome the curse of ‘small Central European nations’, famously defined by Istvan Bibo, as creating politics not in reference to reality, but rather to our cultural and literary images of that.
Michał Sutowski is a political scientist, journalist and the co-ordinator of Krytyka Polityczna’s Institute for Advanced Studies.