A writing published on the Polish news portal Do Rzeczy sums up the contributions at the international conference entitled “EU Reform. Needs and our possibilities. Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Hungarian perspectives,” organized by the Felczak Institute.
Photo: Felczak Institute
The lack of a common stance on the war in Ukraine is having a decidedly negative impact on relations between governments in Central Europe, participants of the conference agreed. However, in the face of EU reform, which may introduce solutions that are dangerous for the region, it is worth focusing on the issues that unite the Visegrad Group countries, experts from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland stressed, noting that it is thanks to cooperation that Central Europe has developed the fastest in the entire EU in recent decades. Our nations are also united by their attitude to migration.
– The Visegrad Group is not in the best shape at the moment, which is due to the fact that on the most important issue concerning our security, the war in Ukraine, we do not have a common position. This fundamental issue complicates cooperation at the highest political levels,” said Vit Dostal, executive director of the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague, noting that many Czech politicians no longer find meetings in this format attractive.
And although some political circles in the Czech Republic believe that Prague should no longer participate in the V4 format, Vít Dostal predicts that the Czech government does not intend to abolish the Visegrad Group, and as planned, the Czech presidency of the organization will begin from June.
According to Director Dostal, it is precisely at times when we disagree on fundamental issues that it is worthwhile to cooperate within the Visegrad Group, which has the advantage of being largely decentralized, so cooperation takes place at the level of individual ministries. – When there is no common V4 voice on core issues, we do not need to hold so many top-level summits or meetings with other countries. We can focus on common interests,” added Dostal.
– The war in Ukraine has definitely had a negative impact on relations within the Visegrad Group, noted Jaroslav Kuchyňa of the CEVRO Institute, a private university that has been focusing on security, legal and political issues since 2014. From Prague’s point of view, we have no idea what is going on in Budapest. We do not know what the prime minister of the Hungarian government might have in mind,” Kuchyňa stated, adding that in order for Visegrad cooperation to continue it would be good to focus on those issues on which the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary have a consensual position, such as the directions of European Union reform and the risks associated with it.
– Eliminating unanimity and switching to qualified majority decision-making would be a disaster for Central Europe, warned Kuchyňa, estimating that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s high-profile speech in Prague was “the second worst speech by a German on the territory of the Czech Republic” (after the speech by Adolf Hitler’s appointed Protector of Bohemia and Moravia Reinhard Heydrich, whom the Czechs liquidated in Prague on June 4, 1942).
Deputy editor-in-chief of the Slovak daily Postoj, Jozef Majchrák, noted that when his editors interviewed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán two years ago, he defined his vision of the Visegrad Group as a counterweight to Germany and France inside the European Union. – “I think that today, because of the fact that the attitudes of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland differ from those of Hungary on the war issue, the Visegrad Group no longer makes such an impression, and even gives the impression of being paralyzed,” Majchrák told the editor, noting that the V4 crisis adds new arguments to the critics of the Visegrad Group, which have recently clearly increased especially on the progressive side of the Slovakian political scene. They are calling not so much for leaving the Visegrad Group, but for Slovakia to take a break from cooperation within this format, the deputy editor-in-chief of the Slovak daily explained.
Majchrák noted at the same time that Slovakia, as a small country, is always looking for strategic allies. For a long time, a large part of the Slovak political elite saw Germany as this strategic partner, while the war in Ukraine showed that the attitude of the government in Berlin regarding energy or relations with Moscow was not right from Bratislava’s point of view. Thus, among some Slovak elites, the position of Poland, which is much more predictable than Germany, began to grow,” added the deputy head of Postoj.
– Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has repeatedly made it clear that cooperation within the Visegrad Group only makes sense if it is led from Warsaw, noted the foreign affairs director of the Hungarian Századvég Foundation, Csaba Faragó. Citing the issue of the problem with cheap grain imports from Ukraine, he said: “I spoke with many farmers and businessmen in Hungary who were struggling with this issue, but we could not do anything about it until Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki acted. Then Hungary joined Poland’s efforts,” Faragó announced, revealing that recent polls show that
an overwhelming majority of Hungarians are satisfied with the Budapest government’s policy toward the war in Ukraine, while a majority of Slovaks are not satisfied with the unequivocally pro-Ukrainian direction adopted by the government in Bratislava.
Anton Bendarzsevszkij, a Belarusian-born security expert at the Danube Institute in Budapest, acknowledged that the Visegrad Group is going through a difficult time right now, but at the same time noted that in the cooperation of the V4 countries, which has lasted for more than three decades, there have already been similar crises, but they have managed to get through them. It is worth considering, he noted, what issues are most important for us now. In the 1990s it was transatlantic integration, entry into NATO and the European Union. Is it really the primary issue to agree to send weapons to Ukraine? I do not think so, he added. But such issues could be, for example, energy and food security, economic cooperation, protection of EU borders, NATO defense policy and security of the Visegrad Group countries. And it is precisely on these issues that the governments of all V4 countries are able to communicate well, Anton Bendarzsevszkij stressed.
The editor-in-chief of the weekly Do Rzeczy, Pawel Lisicki, who led the discussion, pointed out that the structure of Hungary’s energy sources – based overwhelmingly on supplies from Russia – could be controversial in the other Visegrad Group countries. He also noted that opinion polls show that the vast majority of Hungarians support Viktor Orbán’s policies, believing that the most important thing is to ensure economic security and not get involved in armed conflict. The poll among Poles, on the other hand, showed that respondents are most concerned about a Russian onslaught and are willing to sacrifice economic issues to increase their sense of security.
– From the Hungarian point of view, we regard the Visegrad Group, which has repeatedly proven over the past three decades that it can deliver significant successes, as the most important format for regional cooperation, noted István Loránd Szakáli of the Budapest think tank Center for Fundamental Rights (Alapjogokért Központ), noting that Hungary also participates in such formats as the Bucharest Nine and the Trilateral Initiative.
– “I am optimistic about the future of the Visegrad Group, and I base my optimism on the fact that cooperation within the V4 has always been very flexible, and we have always been able to find those issues where, thanks to mutual cooperation, all four countries of the group gained more than if they acted individually,” added István Loránd Szakáli, stressing that it is thanks to the economic cooperation of the countries of the region that the Visegrad Four have become the most economically dynamic area of the EU over the past 20 years. Our goal should also be the development of infrastructure, both highways and high-speed railroads, on the north-south axis. Brussels will only help us with such projects if we come forward together on this issue, the Hungarian think-tank expert argued.
His colleague at Alapjogokért Közpon, István Kovács, noted that in recent months, Hungarians have been hearing a lot of very critical voices from their friends even on issues that should unite the Visegrad countries. Nevertheless, he, too, is optimistic about the future of the V4 format, since
the geopolitical situation has for several hundred years made it simply worthwhile for the countries of the region to cooperate. History clearly shows that our future depends on our ability to act together,
Dénes András Nagy, of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the National University of Public Service in Budapest, recalled that back in 2003, the International Visegrad Fund commissioned a large survey of public opinion in the V4 countries, which asked whether the Visegrad Group still made sense and still had important tasks to accomplish. At the time, only 46 percent of Czechs answered in the affirmative. This survey was repeated in 2021, and then “yes” was answered by 71 percent of Czechs, the Hungarian analyst recalled. The same trend can be seen in Slovakia, where the percentage of people declaring the need for a V4 group rose from 75 percent in 2003, to 78 percent in 2021.
In the case of Poles, 62 percent were supporters of the Visegrad Group in 2003, and 59 percent in 2021. Meanwhile, in Hungary, 59 percent said “yes” in 2003, and by 2021 this group had risen to 82 percent. So the overwhelming majority of our citizens are clearly in favor of the continuation of the Visegrad Group. Hence we need to find common big issues again, such as the issue of migration, where our nations think very much alike after all,” stressed Nagy.
Featured Photo: Facebook Visegrad 4 Hungary