V4 no longer a role model for Eastern Partnership countries

Prime Ministers of Visegrad Group countries (L-R): Slovakia's Robert Fico, Hungary's Viktor Orban, Poland's Beata Szydlo and Czech Republic's Bohuslav Sobotka during their meeting at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, 19 June 2017. [Leszek Szymanski/EPA]

Experts have warned that Visegrad countries, haunted by a wave of Euroscepticism and populism, can no longer aspire to be role models and “export” their experience with democratic transition to the Eastern Partnership countries. EURACTIV Slovakia reports.

The Visegrad countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary) played an important role in initiating the EU Eastern Partnership, comprising six ex-Soviet republics, and tried to support EU ambitions and the democratic transformation of the countries on the eastern EU border.

But due to rising Euroscepticism and populism, Visegrad political leaders are losing interest and the ability to support their eastern neighbours, experts warned at the conference ‘Taking stock of the Eastern Partnership’, organised by the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA) in Bratislava this week.

V4 losing credibility and interest

In the past, central Europe perceived the Eastern Partnership as an opportunity to “export” its experience with transition and European integration. “Now we could rather share lessons from the failures of some of our own democratic processes,” said Miriam Lexmann from the International Republican Institute.

Michal Šimečka of the Institute of International Relations in Prague said the internal political situation in the Visegrad countries and their position on European integration makes any experience-sharing irrelevant. That is mostly true of Hungary and Poland, and to some extent of the Czech Republic, with the upcoming government of billionnaire Eurosceptic Andrej Babiš.

Šimečka said the Babiš government will continue the policy of non-interest towards the Eastern Partnership.

According to Grzegorz Gromadzki, an independent expert from Warsaw, the same applies to the Polish government, although it was Poland that co-initiated the Eastern Partnership, with Sweden. “Today, this topic is not interesting for (Polish) politicians,” said Gromadzki.

András Racz from the Péter Pázmány Catholic University in Budapest said Hungary pays attention – and very limited attention at that – only to Ukraine, while disregarding others in the Eastern Partnership. The main reason is the Hungarian minority living in the Trans-Carpathian region.

On a purely theoretical level, Hungary will still support cooperation because “words do not mean much in the Hungarian politics”, said Racz. But with the upcoming parliamentary elections “foreign policy will be totally subordinated to internal political interests”.

The Russian factor

Bilateral relations are influenced by the positions of the Visegrad countries on Russia.

There, V4 countries do not all share one platform. While Poland is traditionally very sceptical, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is actively cultivating relations with Vladimir Putin.

According to András Racz, the common ground for close ties between Moscow and Budapest is not “any support for pan-Slavic unity or other Russian policies. It is in the “anti-agenda” targeted against the West, against the EU and against NATO.”  Racz stressed that Hungary is the only EU country trying to strengthen its ties to Russia, for example by increasing its dependence on Russian gas.

“A more successful fight of V4 countries against the Russian disinformation campaign would allow them to formulate more effectively their relations to the Eastern Partnership countries,” said Miriam Lexmann from the IRR.

European perspective for Eastern Partnership countries

The Eastern Partnership countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – are waiting for the EU summit that will discuss the future of this initiative.

But Florent Marciacq from the Austrian-French Centre for Understanding in Europe cautioned that EU members are divided on this issue. “On the one hand, there is a perspective of EU membership, on the other, there are countries that absolutely refute such prospects.”

“Until we reach agreement on the purpose of the Eastern Partnership across the EU, any progress on European integration would be impossible for those countries,” he said.

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