A New East–West Divide in Sight?

Hosted by the King of Hungary, Caroberto of Anjou, in October 1335, the kings of Poland and Bohemia (today’s Czech lands), Kazimierz the Great and John of Luxemburg, met at the royal palace of Visegrád to coordinate their various policies. After the collapse of communism, upon the invitation of Hungary’s Prime Minister, that remote model was followed by the leaders of the very same countries, Presidents Walesa and Havel, and Prime Minister Antall, all proven opponents of communism and dedicated to democracy and human rights.* On 15 February 1991 they signed a Declaration of Cooperation in the restored part of the medieval palace. The immediate aim was to complete the dismantling of the institutions which embodied political and economic dependence on the Soviet Union: the Warsaw Pact (the coalition of the unwilling) and Comecon. But the basic purpose was to set aside old rivalries and the memory of conflicts between their nations, and to work jointly for early accession both to the European Community and NATO. Hungary’s lead was followed by the other former Soviet satellites, and Gorbachev soon acquiesced in what was inevitable: the formal dissolution of the Warsaw Pact took place on 1 July 1991 in Prague, when the occupying Soviet troops were already in the process of returning home. The three Visegrád countries signed the “Europe Agreement” with the European Community on 16 December 1991 in Brussels, and created the Central European Free Trade Agreement a year later, on 21 December 1992.

No one can deny the many tangible results of what became the V4 after the split of Czechoslovakia in January 1993. In the last twenty-five years the world has come to know the name Visegrád, because those four countries were able to carry out the transition to a market economy relatively smoothly and were politically stable, thus setting good examples for other regions struggling with difficult legacies from the past. Trade between the four increased significantly despite still inadequate road and rail links. Temporary differences over some political statements or agriculture meant less than a few foreign ill-wishers perceived. The cultural programmes and exchanges supported by the Visegrád Fund (established in 2001) were very popular and bore important tangible results. The Kroměříž Summit in 2004 stated that the key objectives set in 1991 had been achieved, and a new declaration was adopted expressing determination to continue the cooperation, even as members of the European Union. To paraphrase the 19th century Czech leader, František Palacký, if “Visegrád” had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent it.

While EU funds have substantially helped the economies of the V4, the political potential in comparison has been relatively untapped, at least until recently. Separately the Visegrád countries could be overlooked, outvoted and neglected over many issues, but allied together they represent a real formidable power, on the level of the UK or France. In the European Parliament they have more seats than Germany. The first time though the V4 has appeared on the international scene as a group to be reckoned with is in relation to the 2015 migration crisis. Unexpectedly for many observers, Hungary’s position on the flux of refugees or immigrants – i.e. that they should not be admitted inside the Schengen system in large numbers and without proper documents or being screened, and that barbed-wire fences erected on the borders may divert and reduce the flood – came to be supported by all the Visegrád partners, and also by other Central Europeans. Prime Minister Orbán, who until recently has called Germany and its Chancellor the mainstay of Hungary, openly criticises Willkommenskultur and states that his country does not accept quotas for migrants to be dispersed throughout the EU. That position led to fears that the new EU members might form a strong bloc and provoke either a division between several Western governments and their public, or, far worse, a split in Europe, more or less along the old line of the erstwhile Iron Curtain. That would reverse all the results of 1989, the annus mirabilis, the fall of the European communist dominoes. It would be tantamount to the betrayal of all who fought for regime change during the Cold War. That would run against the ideals and heritage of the founders of Visegrád, and be a tragedy not only for the inhabitants of the eastern half of Europe. What is certain is that a lasting political division inside the EU should on no account be allowed to emerge in any form. “Vrexit” would lead to an economic downturn in the whole EU of a magnitude that the financial disaster of 2008 and the crisis of the Euro would seem pale in comparison. The political consequences would be even worse: the loss of real independence for many states, the resurgence of power blocs, and the possibility of armed conflicts. But such an Apocalypse is unlikely, unless common sense disappears in Europe.

Having witnessed the tragedies of the 20th century, the victims of two totalitarian dictatorships were strongly committed to Atlanticism, to the continued close collaboration of the United States and Europe. What went with that was the commitment to the traditional values of Europe. Freedom and political liberties were the battle-cry of the opponents of communism. A small minority might depart from those values, but the majority of the population is not likely to turn away from them. The present controversy on how immigration and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism should be handled is about practical politics and not about values. It is wrong to assume that the disagreement represents an East– West divide. The differing views should be discussed openly and sincerely, going beyond constraints of “political correctness”. Who can deny that all the values of Europe go back to the three hills: the Acropolis, the Capitolium and the Golgotha? Hungary’s late Prime Minister, József Antall used to say that in Europe even the atheists were Christians. By that he meant that the messages of both the Old and the New Testament are universal. The Islamic world was not alien to Antall, on the contrary: he was a disciple of Gyula Germanus, the foremost Hungarian scholar of the Arab civilisation, and in general the Muslim world. He had an intimate knowledge of its great cultural heritage, and he was aware of the potential of Turkey. In the first NATO “political-military workshop” held in a former Warsaw Pact country (Budapest, 3 June 1993), the Hungarian Prime Minister gave a very powerful speech in favour of the early membership of the V4 in NATO. While he assured his audience that “we are supporters of the renewal of Russia, supporters of Russian reformist endeavours”, he envisaged for NATO a new function in a volatile world, where “social and political fundamentalism may manifest itself in the North–South conflict and assail the world as the Bolshevism of the 21st century”. On 19 October 1993, a few weeks before his untimely death, Antall wrote to President Clinton, pleading for the upcoming NATO summit to make “preparations for the Visegrád Group’s accession to NATO. […] I remain convinced that this would also assist the reform forces in Russia, as I mentioned in my letter of September 14 to President Yeltsin”. The rest of the letter set forth why that was the time to act, using arguments which have been proven true by subsequent events, including a reference that an enlarged NATO could help Turkey “as a counterbalance to pan-Islamic, fundamentalist (Shi’ite), and, should occasion arise, Russian imperial endeavours”.

Hungary’s present Prime Minister has visited several Muslim states and often emphasises his respect for the Islamic faith. At the same time he is repeatedly expressing his conviction that Europe would be ruined with several millions of immigrants, who have a totally different cultural and religious background, and who will certainly not become Europeans, as we have seen enough proof of that in Western and Northern Europe. He warns his European colleagues against continuing the encouragement of the refugees in Turkey, who are pondering whether to set off for Europe. He is determined to prevent the migrants from entering Hungary from any direction. More and more countries facing the human flood are accepting Orbán’s standpoint, and the public in Western Europe is also swinging in that direction.

It might sound over-optimistic, but I think that the present apparently deep political divisions in Europe can be bridged with determination and goodwill. In the short run the decisions reached unanimously at the EU Summit on 19 February, strengthening the Schengen borders, flying bona fide refugees from Turkey to Europe and distributing them not by quotas but accepting them on a voluntary base, is a rational solution that could work. But the Euro-Atlantic community should also plan for the long run, for a better and more humane way out of the present crisis. It is hard to say but that is war. Not war on terror in general, but war against the organisation which terrorises Iraq and Syria. To form an international coalition, preferably acting under a resolution of the Security Council, in order to destroy the inhuman brigands who are the main culprits, who are responsible for the mass migration. A prerequisite is a settlement over Syria. The US, Turkey, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia have both joint and opposing interests in Syria. An agreement between them would deserve more than the Nobel Prize for Peace. The discussions might help to end the Ukrainian conflict too.

The V4 could initiate the discussion of the long-term solution within the EU. A common European position could bring all the others to the negotiating table. The stakes are very high; inaction or insufficient action would only deepen the present crisis. Narrow political and economic interests and short-term thinking can ruin all the achievements of the last 25 years. Caveant consules…

* See: “Visegrád – Past and Future” by the present author, Hungarian Review, Vol. II., No. 4 July 2011, pp. 20–23.

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