V4 in the EU: neither blocking minority nor agenda-setter

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The flags of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, who comprise the Visegrad group of nations. [Sejm Information System]

Fears in Berlin of the Visegrad Four acting as a blocking minority on EU dossiers has softened. Instead, German policy-makers and analysts are trying to identify common ground between Germany and the V4, writes Anna-Lena Kirch.

Anna-Lena Kirch is a Research Associate at the Centre for International Security Policy (CISP) at the Hertie School of Governance

From a Berlin lens, the Visegrád states (V4) as an entity have disappeared from the radar when it comes to European politics. One major reason is that asylum and migration issues no longer top the list of hotly debated ‘to do’s’ in Brussels. Moreover, domestic policies and discourses in Germany as well as most of the EU have shifted towards the V4 position: away from a strong ‘welcoming culture’ towards better protection of EU external borders, pragmatic third country agreements to reduce irregular migration and against binding relocation schemes. As a result, the controversy around the issue has decreased and there is consensus on the need to focus on the external dimension of migration.

Instead, the agenda is dominated by other political challenges like Brexit, defence cooperation, the relationship with China or climate policy where the V4 have not stood out as a group.

The EU currently shows little sign of moving towards more supranational integration or the deepening of a ‘two speed Europe’ around the Eurozone, along the lines of the reform proposals put forward by the French President Emmanuel Macron. If such a policy agenda gained ground after the European Parliament elections and were equally supported by governments in Berlin and Paris, this development would likely trigger another Central European veto position.

With only Slovakia being part of the Eurozone, the other governments are critical of additional transfers of competencies to the European Commission, but also wary of being marginalised in possible two-tier Europe scenarios. However, given the status quo of low European cohesion, increasing fragmentation of national preferences and fragile governments in many EU member states, a strong push for ‘more Europe’ is not a likely scenario.

The V4 have so far not delivered on their announcement to actively contribute to shaping the EU reform process which was initiated in 2016. Even on energy security or the Single Market where the V4 traditionally have shared many interests, they have not presented themselves as a coherent group lately. The revision of the posted workers directive was a very politicised case where the four Visegrád countries initially pursued a joint policy approach in order to counter demands under French leadership to apply higher social security standards and minimum wages to workers temporarily posted in other countries EU countries. Governments in Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Bratislava criticized the legislative proposal as a protectionist tool to shield Western European labour markets from Central-Eastern European competition. However, the V4 consensus eventually broke and only Hungary and Poland voted against the final deal.

Another common denominator has been the V4’s net beneficiary position in the context of cohesion policy. The four countries have served as the core of the ‘friends of cohesion group’ that has lobbied against far-reaching budgetary cuts in negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework. However, the Czech Republic is on the verge of becoming a net payer, adding another layer of differentiation within the group.

The lack of common interests on many EU dossiers is balanced out by a growing network of V4+ consultation formats which reflect the flexible and instrumental branding of V4 cooperation. The list includes meetings with European partners like Germany, France, the UK, Austria, Slovenia, Benelux, the Baltics but also third countries like Canada, Israel, Egypt, Japan, Korea or the Western Balkans.

Another step towards diversification of partners has been Poland’s increased engagement in broader sub-regional formats like the Three Seas Initiative.

This is not to say that V4 cooperation is about to disappear or become meaningless. The existence of annual presidencies and the dense net of more or less formalised consultation and coordination meetings on all possible administrative and political levels has a strong stabilising and uniting effect. It is out of the question that the group will dissolve any time soon.

The 2018 EU Coalition Explorer by the European Council on Foreign Relations confirms that the Visegrád countries are each other’s default partners. They all range among each other’s top five ‘most contacted’ EU member states. Policy-makers in Hungary and Slovakia contact their V4 counterparts even more often than Berlin. Many V4 projects have a cross-border or regional development character, and cover policy areas outside the immediate EU context. The International Visegrád Fund, for instance, funds numerous initiatives, which aim to connect civil society actors or build research and analysis structures like ‘Think Visegrad’ in the region. Other examples include joint infrastructure projects with a focus on North-South interconnectors, plans to transform Central Europe into an innovation hub or defence cooperation in areas like training, education and information sharing.

Instead of fearing the V4, German policy-makers and analysts are now trying to identify common ground between Germany and the V4, while at the same time doing justice to existing national differences between Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Angela Merkel’s participation in the V4+ summit in Bratislava in February 2019 was therefore characterised as a ‘Versöhnungstour’ (reconciliation tour) in some German media outlets, and an ‘impossible balancing act’ in others.

On the one hand, the German government and most political parties (except for the Alternative for Germany) remain critical of domestic developments in the region which are seen as attempts to undermine the rule of law and European values. A recent example has been Viktor Orbán’s poster campaign against Jean-Claude Juncker and George Soros which triggered broad criticism and led to Orbán’s Fidesz party being suspended from the European People’s Party in the European Parliament.

On the other hand, German policy-makers and policy analysts are actively searching for joint European projects – beyond trade relations. Taking one step in that direction, Germany joined the Three Seas Initiative in September 2018 as an observer. In addition, during the V4+Germany summit in February, the five countries agreed to launch a joint development initiative in Morocco to fight poverty and contribute to stabilisation efforts in Northern Africa. It remains to be seen if and in which form the project will materialise – and to what extent it creates spill-over effects in other policy areas.

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