The Visegrád Four: a new European centre of power?


The events of the so-called refugee crisis of 2015 undeniably had a severe impact on the European Union and its member states. While Germany, Austria and Sweden took the spotlight as the main destination countries, the flow of migrants that year passed through several other European countries, especially in Central and South-Eastern Europe, leaving marks everywhere. In Greece, we have seen the (partial) implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, turning the country’s eastern islands into giant de-facto refugee shelters. Further north, Macedonia and others closed their borders to migrants in early 2016, thereby blocking the “Balkan route”.

Following these events, one group of countries soon emerged as the fiercest internal critic of the EU’s approach to migration: the Visegrád states Hungary, Slovakia, Czechia and Poland. While Hungary was only of these countries to be directly affected by the events of 2015, governments in all Visegrád states openly opposed Angela Merkel’s refugee policy from early 2016 on. The results of this dynamic are today impossible to overlook. Visegrád, led by Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński, Robert Fico and Miloš Zeman, firmly established itself as an alternative centre of power in Europe.

In this paper, I will set out to analyse this changing role of the Visegrád states within the EU and its implications on decision making in Europe. I will particularly look at their approach to migration called “effective solidarity”, which has recently been proposed by the Slovak EU-presidency. On this basis, I will argue that while Visegrád did manifest itself as a force to reckon with, they are not able to provide real solutions to the most pressing European problems.

1 | The Visegrád group and the European Union. A history

The establishment of the Visegrád group in 1991 is of course strongly linked to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain two years before that. It was this particular setting in which the then-Presidents of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland came together in the northern Hungarian castle town of Visegrád to agree on closer political and economic cooperation. The purpose was clear: this common group should help the three countries quickly establish a democratic, capitalist system and subsequently join NATO and the EU. Through cooperation, the initiators rightly thought they could achieve this goal quicker and easier.

One characteristic that has defined this group from the very beginning is that it did not form any institutional foundation – no joint council, no common agencies or offices. Instead, cooperation between the three – soon to be four – states took place in high-level meetings between Presidents, Prime Ministers and governments. The Visegrád group is, therefore – in contrast to many other international organisations – a very flexible and open institution. This fact also clearly reflects in the development of the group over the next 25 years.

The 1990s constitute the early, yet most influential phase in Visegrád’s development. This development until EU-accession in 2004 is often divided into three distinct phases. The first two years until late 1992 – often referred to as “Visegrád 1” – was most strongly influenced by the guiding idea of the group: joining EU and NATO as soon as possible. Joint Visegrád activities, therefore, focused almost entirely on foreign policy, though also the establishment of mutual trade liberalisation fell into this period.

This was followed by a long phase of decline, though some scholars prefer the term “transition”. In 1992, the political climate in the region deteriorated significantly with the authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar coming to power in Slovakia and the isolationist Václav Klaus in Czechia. Needless to say, this constellation made international cooperation within the group way more difficult which resulted in fewer high-level meetings and less international progress overall. However, economically the four countries continued moving closer together during this time since they signed the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) in late 1992.

After changes in government in both Slovakia and Czechia, the Visegrád group left this state of hibernation in 1998. This third phase – sometimes called “Visegrád 2” – was again remarkably dynamic, the primary aim now is to help Slovakia catch up in the EU and NATO accession process, after it’s been declined entry into NATO in 1997. With the establishment of the Visegrád fund with its headquarters in Bratislava, the group also for the first time established formal structures. The activities of the Visegrád group reached its height during this time and accession to the EU followed suit in 2004, this time including Slovakia.

1.2 | Visegrád after EU accession

With the accession into the EU, the Visegrád group fulfilled the purpose it was created for in 1991. All four states were now EU-countries and members of NATO; the communist system of state and economy has been radically transformed and the group firmly established and well-acknowledged in Europe and beyond. Many commentators, therefore, thought it would cease to exist, lacking this basic mission. This, however, did not happen.

There were some voices already around 2003/2004 that proclaimed a continued and stronger role for Visegrád in the future. Patrycja Bukalska and Mariusz Bocian, for instance, proposed in 2003 that the group should continue to exist and shift its focus to joining the Schengen area, continuing the work of the Visegrád fund, assisting each other in utilising EU funds and coordinating their activities in the EU Council.6 These high hopes could not be fulfilled at this time. While being successful in the field of foreign and EU policy – all four states joined the Schengen zone in 2007 – the Visegrád group overall proved unable to establish itself as a real centre of power in the EU. As Christopher Walsch put it, they were simply “reluctant to construct a common Central European Identity”, not distinguishing themselves too hard from the “old” member states.

This only started to change quite recently and the refugee crisis played a major role in this. While following Eurobarometer results from 2004 onwards, it has already been shown that the Visegrád states saw increasing levels of Euroscepticism after accession, this Euroscepticism long did not translate into political action. It only came to the fore in full swing when the refugee crisis hit Europe in 2015. This event changed the nature of the Visegrád group forever and in this light, it is almost ironic to point to the words of Václav Havel in 1994, when he warned us that if Europeans don’t continue to base themselves on the best European values the “future will fall into the hands of a cast of fools, fanatics, populists, and demagogues waiting for their chance and determined to promote the worst European traditions”.

2 | Open opposition: Visegrád taking on a new role

2.1 | The EU’s management of the refugee crisis

The events of summer of 2015 hit the European Union unprepared. With its ill-fitted Dublin-regulation, stating that it is the first EU-country a migrant sets foot in that must process the asylum claim, the EU was completely incapable to deal with the massive inflow of Syrian and other refugees. Soon, thousands upon thousands of refugees were travelling through Europe, collecting on the beaches of Greece and – not to forget – the train stations of Budapest. While Angela Merkel took a pragmatic step when opening German borders to the migrants stranded in Budapest in increasingly desperate circumstances, the Visegrád group would have none of that.

When the European Commission went on to propose relocation of refugees across Europe – first only for 160,000 from Greece, Italy and Hungary – the Visegrád four openly opposed any such scheme on the grounds that EU countries should instead find “sovereign solutions”.10 Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán around that time famously said that he will not have others dictate “who we must admit into our houses and home country”. Hungary and Slovakia even filed a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice against any mandatory migrant quota and all Visegrád states openly supported the blocking of the “Balkan route” in early 2016 with some even sending troops to protect Macedonia’s border.

2.2 | The notion of “effective solidarity”
For most of 2015 and 2016, the Visegrád group’s policy was essentially limited to this: opposition out of principle without offering any solutions but closing borders and ignoring the Geneva Convention (all while insisting that Schengen is the greatest achievement of the EU and shall not be abolished).

The Slovakian Presidency of the EU-Council finally presented an alternative last autumn called “Effective solidarity: a way forward on Dublin revision”.

You can read the whole article here.

Written by: Ralf Grabuschnig (Writer & Editor, IKGS Research Institute in Munich).

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