Announced at the Bratislava EU Summit on September 16th, the Visegrad Group join declaration fell short behind expectations of a major reform proposal. Instead of a fundamental input to the European project it merely legitimised current status quo by inventing a new convenient term of „flexible solidarity“. For once V4 governments may be praised for an effective political communication tactics, but hardly for strategic problem solving on the EU level. Bigger ambitions will need to be fulfilled at least for the sake of both keeping EU and V4 together. Yet, the announced document indicates the goal is to loosen rather than strengthen the Union.
The cost of a PR trick
For the time being V4 did the best it could to save its damaged reputation and some sense of common position with the rest of European partners. V4 has learnt Slovakia’s lessons of 2009-2011 battles over Greek bailout when the country leadership went down while directly opposing other Eurozone members proposal. This time V4’s tactics to avoid direct condemnation for shutting down Commission’s proposal was more about deflecting than about blocking.
Both Beata Szydło and Viktor Orban declared that they would like to see the EU stronger which met with general disbelief knowing that they both praise the strengthening of national sovereignty at the expense of Lisbon treaty arrangements. Yet the disguise worked.
Facing strong and united opposition from V4 governments to the proposition of the EU Commission concerning the relocation, other EU members prefer to embrace this idea rather than extending a stall. It provides an effective short term response but creates more problems than solutions in the long run.
Geopolitics dictate unconditional solidarity
Nevertheless by downgrading the founding principle of the EU sooner or later V4 will see its tactics backfire if extended to other areas. Term of solidarity, ambiguous even without additional adjectives, has usually been a call for from those in weaker position to those who have resources. For V4 countries this has been the bottom line for demanding financial support from wealthier EU members or energy security not to mention defense. It was a solidarity without additional adjectives.
The new term does not advance geopolitical interest of the V4 countries. Instead it merely conceals an ideological surge of sovereignty language that has been so often used by theproponents of separatism. Because of that, it plays into the hands of Russian strategic interest – that of a divided Europe. The V4 real strategic interest is the opposite of the recent direction, the EU that is less driven by nation states’ particular short term interests and more by principles of unconditional European solidarity.
It is no accident that a few weeks after Bratislava summit, Moscow hosted a second global separatist congress amassing representatives of movements from around the world, except for those within Russian dominium. It’s an old truth that divisions enable rule of the one that divides. Neither it is a secret that Sovetskoye Shampanskoye bottles were opened at least two times this year to celebrate – first in April when the Dutch brought humiliation upon themselves and the Union by voting against the association agreement with Ukraine in a referendum, and second time in June after Brexit referendum. A few bottles more chill down awaiting results of the US presidential elections in November.
The foundations of Visegrad cooperation have always been geopolitical. The rationale for its existence was first to join NATO and later the EU and then to fulfil treaty obligations. The group’s name – coming from 14th century treaty between regional kings – represents a long standing ambition to advance the cause of peace based on solidarity enhanced by economic cooperation shaped in the same direction as the EU and perhaps with similar disabilities.
It was never an economic treaty, nor a military alliance. EU membership wasn’t therefore motivated in such a degree by a mid-term economic rationale as by an ambition to become inseparable from the rest of the European pack through policy, economy and social interaction. In fact, the race for EU membership individual negotiations already undermined short term unity within V4 block – an original sin of the group. While communication channels were open there was no place for group strategy but only individual tactics.
V4 needs the EU to exist
To put it more bluntly, V4 would not exist if there was no united Europe, nor it may exist separately. What binds it together, is a similar and, sometimes, joint effort to get the most of what the EU has to offer. But integrity and cohesion of V4 is often questioned. Indeed, the block has entered the EU together, but rather at the same time than on a group deal. Since 2004, it experienced a crisis of purpose just like its individual members lacked new ambitious goals – with the exception of Slovakia that joined Eurozone in 2009.
A breakthrough came in 2008, when due to Russian-Ukraine dispute, gas transit has been disrupted and CEE countries were the most exposed. The solidarity principle within the EU helped to create the EU aid program for economic recovery in the field of energy. Visegrad played an important role in this, with some of the EU emergency funds allocated for projects of the V4 countries and it would not have been able to cope with the crisis had they not referred to the solidarity principle as EU members.
In that light, an overzealous „Visegradism“ expressed recently by Polish and Hungarian governments may as well limit its manoeuvres in Europe when it would aim at answering to strategic or emergency goals. Apart from the 2008, we are in fact short of examples of an effective joint cooperation of V4 in Europe and if it had not been for the recent migration crisis the integrity of V4 would have been in question.
In fact, V4 demonstrates too little of common action and shares mostly fears resulting from common threat perceptions: energy dependency, defense modernisation, demographic gap, middle income trap etc. Whenever possible, individual countries seek alternatives to pursue their goals within other alliances – Poland with Baltics in terms of defense or Slovakia and Czech Republic exploring stronger connections with Austria in a so-called Slavkov format. In a crisis situation, V4 can still pursue veto powers through the European Council, but voting system within Lisbon treaty makes it harder and more costly to remain in opposition to other EU members as consensus voting has been limited and double majority voting does not provide enough blocking power to V4 alone, taking into consideration demographic decline.
Naturally a ‘flexible solidarity’ is the foremost a V4 governments response to Junker’s policy proposal on relocation of refugees and follows a general trend among European governments to complain on supposedly overpowered EU Commission. But it opens door for much more flexibility in Europe than V4 could possibly desire. Central Europe may soon find itself in a corner, when France proposes flexible sanctions on Russia, Germany calls Nord Stream 2 a flexible energy solidarity of the Union, and the Netherlands calls for flexible structural funds while Britain amid Brexit negotiations introduces a flexible free movement policy on economic migrants. This flexibility is a fait accompli – seem to suggest the V4 governments, especially Viktor Orban proud of his political incorrectness – and it merely calls things what they are. But in fact it is more. It opens door to less Europe in the V4 and less influence on Europe by the V4.
After Brexit, V4 has found itself left with one major ally less on many fields: common currency, digital single market, strong stance on Russia by EU or energy union. This was by no means an easy ally. Contrary to Mr Orban’s account of British referendum, UK debate on migrants was not related to refugees coming through Central Europe, but to economic migrants moving to Britain from Central Europe. This was exemplified by hostility in political language by former Prime Minister Cameron towards economic migrants – which evoked protests on behalf of V4, before Syrian refugees have caught all media attention – and especially in the streets of Britain – which even made Polish government ministers travel to UK to ‘inspect’ the situation, but clearly they can do less with Britain on the leave from Europe and are not likely to be pressured by the EU over this matter.
While the UK is preparing for its exit from the EU, Visegrad needs to find better alliances to advance their interest and not be lured by example of England, that is by far more powerful in economic, geopolitical and demography terms than the whole V4. The strategic interests of V4 are therefore to be more inside the EU than before and not more on its periphery.
Boosting the EU from within
Addressing real fears and building up potential within and not diminishing it outside of EU is the way to move forward – to build both strong EU and through this strong V4. That external institutional arrangement over last decades has helped increase the potential of national economies and fulfil many political ambitions – this is the lesson to learn from recent division lines. Not the opposite.
With the achieved short term goal of stopping the EU Commission from implementing quota systems on refugees, V4 cannot overlook much bigger challenges like Eurozone members problems, energy security or cyber security that will resurface sooner than later. In the Pew Research ranking of European fears published earlier this year ISIS popped up as the biggest fear factor across the continent shortly followed by climate change, economic instability, cyberattacks and a large number of refugees from Iraq and Syria was feared the least.
V4 should address those fears by actively committing either to the success in eliminating ISIS – by contributing either to joint policing or counterintelligence efforts (including borders protection), providing innovative solutions to cyber-defense (Czech and Slovak Republic have created in fact several global brands in antivirus that could potentially serve to that cause) and resolutely demonstrate commitment to European strategy on climate (for instance by setting up ambitious goals to bring in green car fleet – already announced by Polish minister of economy Mateusz Morawiecki and announcing plans of making energy in the region greener).
What would make V4 more powerful and more influential within Europe and yet the whole project more efficient, is exactly the opposite of flexible solidarity, a rather more effective solidarity demonstrated towards the needed. It seems little promising to recommend ‘more Europe’ to Polish or Hungarian leaders who today want a symbolic fight with the Commission just in order to prove their strength within small limits of a nation state.
Instead of petty economic nationalism, a return to a road towards Euro currency might be another example of solidarity commitment within Europe. It would increase internal cohesion of the group (Slovakia already is member of the Eurozone) and enable more influence on the European agenda. This would risk some burden-sharing in case of future bailouts, but with more influence on the agenda, the damage to national economy would not be severe.
Exactly by strengthening the institutional potential of the EU will the national potential of V4 be boosted not otherwise. Furthermore, if the V4 leadership had guts to do that, V4 should become main proponents of replacing Germany and France in dysfunctional Minsk agreements with a common EU position. For why Central Europeans should again tolerate Moscow’s old game of talking over their heads about its closest neighbourhood?
Sharing potential burdens and risks with other members instead of playing the outsiders role is the road for building up the power of V4. Elastic solidarity is merely a camouflage for opting out from European solidarity. And history provides enough examples of what happens if the trust in European solidarity is depleted.
Wojciech Przybylski is a founder and first editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and also chief editor in Res Publica Nova - journal of ideas on culture and politics published since 1979