Unity of Central Europe’s Visegrad Group under strain – POLITICO
BUDAPEST — The Visegrad Group of Central European countries is under growing strain as Slovakia and the Czech Republic prioritize relationships with France and Germany while Hungary and Poland opt to challenge Brussels.
Hungary, which holds the group’s rotating presidency, insists that signs the Visegrad Four is splitting into two camps are misleading.
“The warning bells have been rung regarding Visegrad unity, but the situation is that we’re still here,” Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said Thursday after a meeting in Budapest between senior officials from the group and their counterparts from the Eastern Partnership, another regional grouping.
They may well be still here but they don’t all seem to be in the same place politically. Even the lineup for Thursday’s gathering suggested as much. It was billed as a foreign ministers’ meeting — but, of the Visegrad countries, only Poland and Hungary had foreign ministers present. Slovakia and the Czech Republic sent state secretaries.
In recent months, there have been other signs that Czech and Slovak leaders have concluded their countries are best served by being close to the EU’s Franco-German heart, especially as Paris and Berlin have signaled they want to embark on a new drive for European integration after Germany’s parliamentary election on September 24.
The Czech Republic is planning to request observer status at meetings of eurozone finance ministers. Meanwhile, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico said a couple of weeks ago that the “fundamentals” of his policy were being “close to the [EU] core, close to France, to Germany.”
Poland and Hungary, by contrast, have clashed with the European Commission and Western European governments repeatedly in recent years, on issues including the rule of law and migration — to the increasing discomfort of politicians in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Petr Ježek, a Czech member of the European Parliament representing the centrist ANO movement, which leads in opinion polls ahead of a general election in October, said the Visegrad Group was a “useful format for regional cooperation” in the long term. But, he added, “I’m afraid that the government in Poland and to some extent the one in Hungary are not the ones one should team up with too much.”
While leaders of all the Visegrad countries emphasize their commitment to the group, officials in Slovakia and the Czech Republic highlight the importance of other relationships.
“Visegrad is not the only pillar on which the Czech Republic builds its Central European policy,” said Tomas Kafka, director of the Central Europe Department at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, citing the country’s strategic dialogue with Germany and its so-called “Slavkov cooperation” with Slovakia and Austria.
“All three pillars are equally … usefully to us,” he said.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has worked to use the Visegrad Group as a tool for boosting its profile on the European stage.
“Orbán and [Polish ruling party leader Jarosław] Kaczyński would like to see Visegrad as a breeding ground of a ‘cultural counter-revolution’ in the EU […] counterbalancing the liberal, federalist Europe of Germany and France,” said Péter Krekó, director at the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, a think tank.
“But with Slovakia in the eurozone, and the Czech Republic aiming to be an observer in the eurogroup meetings, they have already made their decisions to belong to the core of the EU,” he said, adding that Austria, Germany and France were all working to undermine the cohesion of the Visegrad Group.
One issue on which the Visegrad Group appeared united was their opposition to accepting quotas of migrants allocated by the European Commission. But Milan Nič, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said the Slovak government softened its stance on this issue after a general election last year.
“Until then Fico was very much a populist and sided with Orbán as part of his domestic campaign. But then he formed a coalition with a liberal Slovak Hungarian party, which is pro-refugee … he started to backpedal,” Nič said.
A clear sign that Western European governments are not treating all members of the Visegrad Group in the same way came as recently as last week. When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Central and Eastern Europe, he chose to meet in Salzburg with the Czech and Slovak leadership, while snubbing the Polish and Hungarian governments.
During his election campaign and after taking office, Macron criticized democratic backsliding in Central Europe, angering Hungarian and Polish leaders. And he has vowed to reform Europe’s posted workers directive, which allows companies in Western Europe to use cheaper labor from the east of the Continent. That move has especially irked the Polish leadership, which fears businesses could suffer.
On Thursday, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said some of Macron’s comments on Poland were “directed at his domestic audience.”
The French president’s “idea to reform the posted workers directive of the European Union is supposed to be discussed in the framework of experts and not brought to the political level or ideological level,” he said, stressing that Polish, Czech and Slovak officials will work together to try to get a compromise on posted workers.
Poland does not feel “isolated,” Waszczykowski said. “Look at this,” he added, referring to Central European and Eastern Partnership officials on the stage.