Visegrad Group: Will a new wind dispel the clouds?

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

An aerial picture taken with a drone shows the trees of the forest surrounding the Castle of Visegrad covered in hoarfrost in the foggy dawn in Visegrad, Hungary, 17 January 2020. E [Balasz Mohai/EPA/EFE]

One thing is moving in the right direction: according to the most recent Eurobarometer surveys, the pro-EU sentiment stands at a high level in the four Visegrad countries, write Yannis Karamitsios and Marcela Valkova.

Yannis Karamitsios is a co-founder of Alliance 4 Europe, a pan-European organisation that promotes European values and supports pro-EU networks. Marcela Valkova is member of Volt Belgium. Volt is a pan-European party with a progressive agenda aiming to change the way politics is done.

The views expressed by the authors in this article are strictly personal and do not necessarily represent those of their organisations or employers.

Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, joined their forces to create a cultural and political alliance, typically labelled as ‘Visegrad 4’ or ‘Visegrad group’. They all joined the EU in 2004, but are recently seen as the rebels of the union.

Despite the economic benefits of joining the club, their leaderships have been more Eurosceptic than their EU peers.

Their societies are more conservative than the west European societies in social issues, such as acceptance of immigration, gender equality or gay rights. Especially Poland and Hungary have proven disrespectful of civil society, rule of law and independence of justice.

All those countries have performed well in the area of social cohesion in relation to the rest of the EU, meaning their economic, political and cultural performance on the macro-level. On the other hand, they have scored rather low in the area of individual cohesion, namely people’s experiences, attitudes, beliefs and well-being.

The mixed messages of 2019

However, not all of them follow the same direction. The picture of 2019 has been more diverse and encouraging for the progressive or liberal followers of European affairs.

The first hopeful news came from Slovakia in March, when Zuzana Čaputová was elected in the second round of the presidential election with 58.4% of the vote. She became the first woman and the youngest-ever person to be elected president of the country.

She had campaigned on a socially liberal agenda, supporting same-sex adoptions and civil partnerships. Before that election, she was already known as an environmental and anti-corruption campaigner.

In the European Parliament elections in May, the liberal ANO won in the Czech Republic and the liberal-conservative alliance of PS/SPOLU won in Slovakia against some minor national populist competitors.

Another interesting development was noted in October’s local elections in Hungary, where the opposition recorded its biggest election victory in a decade. That was the moment when the liberal Gergely Karácsony defeated and replaced the ruling-party incumbent István Tarlós as mayor of Budapest.

Opposition parties won in other major cities as well, a fact which indicated that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz is no longer invincible.

The last encouraging news came in December, when the mayors of Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and Bratislava met in the Hungarian capital to sign a “Pact of Free Cities”. They committed to work together in defence of a pro-EU urban electorate, against socially conservative national governments and in favour of green policies.

Mr Karaczsony, the mayor of Budapest, stated that the mayors would advocate a pro-EU agenda at home and “city-tailored solutions” in Brussels. The mayor of Warsaw, Mr Rafal Trzaskowski, further said that “we want to fight for direct access to European money because we are the direct engines of growth in our countries”.

On the other hand, a different message arrived from the national political scene of Poland, where the ultra-conservative and eurosceptic ruling party PiS (Law and Justice) was the clear winner in both big elections of the year: the European Parliament elections of May and the general national elections of October, with more than 45% and 43% of the national votes respectively.

In Hungary, and despite the local elections, the ruling national populist party Fidesz remains highly popular in the rural areas. It is still supported by a growing economy and an anti-immigration sentiment. It also won the European Parliament elections in May with a very comfortable majority of more than 52%.

A less encouraging picture and bigger challenges for 2020?

The political agenda of the Visegrad group in 2020 consists of two big political events: the parliamentary election of Slovakia and the presidential election of Poland.

In Slovakia, and despite the progressive signs of the past year, the liberal side suffered a setback in the parliamentary elections of 29 February, where a conservative populist coalition won with a 7% lead from the second social-democratic one.

More than 16% of the vote went either to the nationalist-populist party We Are Family or to neo-Nazi party Kotlebists – People’s Party Our Slovakia, which respectively won the third and fourth places.

It is worth noting that the political party that nominated the Slovak President, Progressive Slovakia, did not manage to enter the parliament at all. The results of these elections are also a sign that individual cohesion, in the sense of convergence with EU values, has deteriorated.

The incumbent President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, who is supported by the ultra-conservative ruling PiS, is also expected to secure a second term in the Polish presidential election in May.

Opinion polls show a comfortable lead for him in the first round, at a range of 40% – 45%, well ahead of the second, Kidawa Blonska, who does not seem able to exceed a ceiling of 25%.

The judicial crisis that started in Poland in 2019 is also expected to continue. The government passed a bill that empowers the Disciplinary Chamber at the Supreme Court of Poland to punish judges who engage in “political activity”. Big demonstrations broke out.

The judges hit back when the Supreme Court ruled that this Chamber is illegitimate. Its independence was also questioned by all European and international organisations.

The European Commission filed an application to the EU court requesting interim measures on the continued functioning of the disciplinary chamber – the ruling is expected in a few days.  Poland risks descending into judicial and institutional chaos, which might lead to a direct and perhaps irreversible conflict with the EU.

No major political events are scheduled in the Czech Republic and Hungary, where presidential and parliamentary elections will normally take place in 2021 and the years afterwards.

Focus on civil movements

Barring any unexpected developments, the political landscape in the Visegrad group is likely to remain mixed as we described it above.

However, we, as political and civil campaigners, are mainly interested in the re-orientation of the wider public towards what we understand as contemporary European values: rule of law, human rights, gender equality, civil empowerment, ecological consciousness.

The aforementioned Mayors’ pact could set a very useful precedent for the regional co-operation of liberal and progressive movements, associations or individuals. Following the mayors’ example, it would also be interesting to see a closer alliance of civil groups that promote European values and causes.

Something is moving in the right direction. According to the most recent Eurobarometer surveys, the pro-EU sentiment stands at a high level in all those countries.

The turnout in the last European Parliament elections in the Visegrad countries, although still low, was also substantially higher than in the previous elections.

Moreover, urban populations are growing and, as the Warsaw mayor noticed, cities are becoming an important growth factor. People there are younger, better educated, more cosmopolitan and thus more receptive to new ideas. We should seize the momentum and offer them the boost that they need to expand their networks and actions as widely as possible.

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