Ahead of EU Presidency, Czechs seek alliances outside divided Visegrád Four

The new Czech government, which takes up the rotating EU presidency in July, hopes to use the opportunity to develop deeper ties with countries outside of the Visegrád Four group. That loose alliance of post-communist central European states was formed 30 years ago, well before its members joined the EU or NATO.

The V4 have taken common positions on many hot button issues, such as on aspects of the Green Deal and advancing nuclear powers. But half of its members – Poland and Hungary – have taken an illiberal turn under their hard-line conservative governments. And undermine basic European principles on the rule of law and independence of the judiciary.

“Hungary and Poland are nowadays in a serious dispute with the rest of the EU, while the Czech Republic and Slovakia are not playing the same notes,” Mikuláš Bek, this country’s newly appointed Minister for European Affairs, said in a recent interview.

While not looking to disband the V4, the minister told reporters on his first official trip to Brussels this Tuesday, the new Czech government does want to cement relations and increase meetings with other EU member states, such as France, with which – perhaps – the Czech Republic shares more positions in common.

“We have no ambition to weaken international cooperation [within the V4]. But this government has decided to look intensively for partners also outside of that framework, in line with our common understanding.”

Mikuláš Bek | Photo: Ondřej Surý,  Czech Radio

On the same day that Minister Bek paid his first visit to the European Commission in Brussels since taking up the European portfolio, Prime Minister Petr Fiala was in Bratislava on his first official trip abroad since taking office.

Slovakia, as it happens, in July will take the helm of the V4 presidency at the same time the Czech Republic takes the EU one, noted the country’s prime minister, Eduard Heger.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our two friendly, fraternal countries that at the same time we can set the tone for Europe. Both of our governments are pro-European, and firmly grounded in the rule of law.

While not calling out Poland and Hungary directly, the Czech premier, Petr Fiala, appeared to allude to the other half of the V4 – the elephants in the room.

“Ensuring the protection of democracy, human rights, the rule of law – these are values that we must not abandon.”

The European Commission in late December handed Poland a two-month ultimatum to address “serious doubts” about the impartiality of its constitutional court, and moved closer to triggering a mechanism that could ultimately deny Poland and Hungary and billions of euros, in essence tied to respecting the rule of law.

The Czech Republic has sided with the EU against Poland and Hungary on that front and a host of issues. ranging from the treatment of LGBTQ communities to the independence of the Polish judiciary.

The Czech Republic will seek to use its EU presidency in the second half of 2022 to build stronger links with the bloc’s mainstream members, counterbalancing ties with traditional regional allies Poland and Hungary that are in conflict with Brussels.