The future of the Visegrád initiative has not been a hot topic in either Washington or Brussels. Indeed, even those policy makers and politicians who know something about the Visegrád Group (V4) have no strong opinion about its past, present, or future. They do not view it either as a vital regional institution or a groundbreaking international network. If they are not skeptical about Visegrád then they are largely indifferent and probably cannot pinpoint a single major achievement in recent years.
So why does Visegrád, in celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, lack a clear identity and focus for US policy makers and their West European counterparts? In the midst of Europe’s institutional multitudes, Visegrád’s shortcomings are twofold: organizational overkill and implementable underkill. The number of EU institutions, regional initiatives, economic fora, security networks, cross-border programs, and bilateral or trilateral projects is so expansive that any one regional format can easily become submerged or forgotten.
The fundamental idea behind the Visegrád initiative, launched in the early 1990s, was for the four re-emerging Central East European democracies (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) to better coordinate their policies in striving for NATO and EU membership. Government officials believed that by banding together and speaking with almost one voice in various multinational formats they were more likely to be heard and no country would fall behind in its aspirations and achievements.
However, at the outset there were suspicions in some policy circles in all four countries that the existence of a distinct Visegrád Group would itself provide an excuse for EU and NATO leaders to exclude new aspirants from both organizations. V4 could be depicted as a viable alternative or substitute body by various West European leaders who were lukewarm about expanding both the Union and the Alliance eastward. Either they did not want to antagonize an unpredictable Russia or to incorporate poorer and still reforming states into prosperous and advanced pan-European bodies.
Hesitation, delay, or outright opposition reinforced the stance of those political leaders in Central East Europe who wanted to place brakes on the development of Visegrád. Slovakia was a special case after it opted for independent statehood in 1993. The Vladimir Meciar administration needed enemies to demonstrate its national credentials and its resolute defense of Slovak interests against assorted internal and external threats. Visegrád was often depicted in Bratislava as either a Czech plot to re-establish control over Slovakia or a Hungarian plan to annex Slovak territory. Moreover, Meciar’s government declared its neutrality toward NATO, was mute on EU accession, and maintained a close relationship with Moscow.
Czech governments were also Visegrád-sceptics even when participating in its meetings and initiatives. They did not want V4 to overshadow their efforts and progress in joining the major “Western” institutions and to be dragged backwards into some neutral post-communist zone. For several years, Warsaw and Budapest seemed to be the main backers of Visegrád but even they made limited political investments in the grouping. In sum, regardless of differing commitments to Visegrád, each state contributed to V4 underperformance.
The recent revival of V4 has numerous causes, partly protective, partly proactive. There has been some concern in the region over the motives behind Russia’s overtures toward the United States and NATO and a lingering suspicion about the efficacy of President Barack Obama’s “reset” with Moscow, which appeared to come at the price of downgrading Central Europe in US foreign policy. Visegrád was perceived as a mechanism for taking more responsibility for the region and not relying primarily on Washington or Brussels.
The Lisbon Treaty also has some impact on the V4 renaissance by altering EU voting mechanisms and providing opportunities for Germany and France to promote their policies without requiring unanimity. The extension of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) limits the veto option of any member state in several areas, including energy, defense, and the Union budget. As a result, a combined Central East Europe vote would become a counterweight to Germany and France in the EU’s Council of Ministers, with the Visegrád Group possessing the same number of votes as Paris and Berlin combined. Such collaboration would better promote Central East Europe’s interests concerning such vital questions as the debate over the EU’s 2014–2020 budget, maintaining a strong European Cohesion Policy (ECP) that provides vital structural funds, and finding a geographical balance in staffing the newly established European External Action Service (EAS).
The recent election of centre-right governments in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia also contributed to the new Visegrád impetus as all four CEE governments share a similar agenda and believe they can amplify their voice in Washington, Brussels, and within international organizations by acting in unison. Indeed, US policy makers have underscored that instead of complaining about American disengagement, the Central Europeans should devise new regional and international initiatives that could gain US support.
Uppermost on the list of Visegrád Group priorities is energy security, with an emphasis on diversifying sources and supplies. A V4 Energy Security Summit was held in Budapest in February 2010, attended by high-ranking representatives from several European states. The Summit and subsequent gatherings have expressed support for North-South interconnectors through all Central European countries, including the North-South Corridor that will link the planned Croatian and Polish Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminals. A Polish-Czech Corridor is due to be completed by the fall, while Poland and Slovakia have also signed a letter of intent to create an interconnector. The Visegrád Group lobbies the EU to politically and economically support the North-South Corridor and backs the Constanta LNG terminal in Romania and other LNG projects in the wider Black Sea region.
V4 capitals are also pushing for further liberalization of internal EU markets and the removal of remaining barriers dividing the Visegrád Group from other member states, such as cancelling the transition periods for the free movement of labour. Other valuable arenas include Visegrád cooperation in transportation and infrastructure, research and education, environmental protection, and collaboration with other regional and international organizations.
Despite these positive plans and initiatives, several problem areas remain that might hamper further cooperation within the group if they are allowed to fester. These include lingering bilateral disputes, including in particular Slovak-Hungarian nationality frictions over language and citizenship laws and broader minority rights. Nonetheless, relations between Budapest and Bratislava are not as tense as they were during the 1990s, when they soured broader Visegrád cooperation, and both of the current administrations understand the need for coexistence.
Some capitals could become selective in their V4 involvement. Specifically, Poland’s renewed focus on the Weimar Triangle with Germany and France may limit its engagement within Visegrád. Warsaw’s aspirations to become a major EU player and to develop its ties with Germany and Russia may create the appearance of detachment from its smaller neighbours and generate resentment over its alleged big power ambitions. Critics of Poland’s foreign policy perceive the Donald Tusk government as intent on placating Russia, Germany, and France to the detriment of local neighbourhood relations. Diplomats from several Visegrád states have complained that it has become difficult to involve their Polish counterparts in regional projects as Warsaw looks toward Berlin as its primary continental partner.
Differing aspirations among Central East Europe capitals undermine regional cohesion and their joint weight inside the EU and NATO. They also serve Moscow’s goals of turning Poland into a more neutral player with regard to the “post-Soviet space” in the Wider Europe that Moscow seeks to absorb into its sphere of “privileged interest.” In answering their critics, the authorities in Warsaw contend that they have not neglected their eastern neighbours, but by acquiring greater influence inside the EU with Berlin and Paris they will have more of an impact on the Union’s eastern dimension and provide momentum to its Eastern Partnership Program.
Other factors could also play a negative role in Visegrád Group cohesion, including the election of new governments with alternative priorities; a lack of EU funding for Visegrád projects; increasing economic disparities between the four economies; and economic competition in attracting Foreign Direct Investment. The debate over Visegrád’s future and potential areas of lasting cooperation will focus on such questions as institutionalization of the co-operation, allocating more resources to the V4 Fund, where the current budget stands at a mere €6 million, establishing a priori solidarity when a V4 member has a dispute with a third party, and security cooperation in procurements, budgeting, and training.
In making Visegrád more relevant, some policy makers believe that the V4+ mechanism has significant potential. The idea originated during the Czech Presidency in 2007–2008 and has been part of the official Visegrád agenda ever since. Based on the core V4 members it involves ad-hoc cooperation with other Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern European countries covering such areas as energy security, EU accession, and the EU’s Eastern Partnership. The Czech Presidency also paid attention to the Caucasus and Central Asia and developed consultation formats with Austria and Slovenia toward the Western Balkan countries. V4 capitals also provide EU aspirants and candidates with technical support and know-how based on their own experience with the accession process.
Additionally, the Czech Presidency sought to establish new formats for inter-regional cooperation. Presently, Visegrád interacts with the Benelux countries, the Nordic Council, with Austria and Slovenia (in the Regional Partnership format), with the Baltic countries, Ukraine, and Moldova. For the current Slovak Presidency of the Visegrád Group, the V4 needs to pursue more extensive links with the US, Russia, Turkey, Israel, and elsewhere. Bratislava has recommended organizing expert-level V4+ foreign policy consultations on topical issues that could form a core component of the V4’s operational action plan. Although such ambitions may be admirable, there is a danger of over-extension and unfulfilled international expectations.
In sum, the Visegrád grouping has opportunities to increase its effectiveness if it follows two core principles: cooperation not integration, and instrumentalization not institutionalization. Attempts to establish permanent structures and secretariats would likely turn V4 into another expensive and unwieldy sub-European bureaucracy without boosting its effectiveness. On the contrary, the institution would then exist regardless of its usefulness and vitality. The Visegrád cooperation needs to focus on its real capabilities and prioritize a limited but realistic agenda, either in resolving existing problems or in launching valuable new initiatives inside or outside the EU. Above all, to be successful Visegrád must remain focused, streamlined, and consequential.