“Big, big differences” among V4 leaders before Prague summit

Flags of the Visegrad Four countries

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala is set to host his counterparts Slovakia, Poland and Hungary in Prague on Tuesday. The meeting of the Visegrad Four leaders comes against a backdrop of calls to cancel the summit after Slovakia’s Robert Fico made a speech widely seen as pro-Russian. I discussed the V4 today with Mats Braun, head of the Institute for International Relations in Prague.

Petr Fiala | Photo: Zuzana Jarolímková,  Czech Radio

“It’s a fairly loosely institutionalised form of cooperation, in the sense that they haven’t really built any institutions and so on.

“On the other hand, the cooperation has been ongoing since the early 1990s. It has a very developed system of having presidencies, with developed presidency programmes that cover a wide range of issues.

“That is also the case right now. You can go and you can find the programme of the Czech presidency, ‘V4 Citizens’, which outlines concrete agendas where the countries would like to have cooperation.

“But what is tricky at this point in time is that the governments have very different approaches to the main issues in the world today. That is in their view on Ukraine, where Hungary in particular sticks out but also, after their elections in the fall, Slovakia does too.

“Poland and Czechia have very different approaches. So basically the cooperation is in the situation that it might work quite well at lower levels.

“But what we will see tomorrow is something where we cannot expect any big results. I think for Czechia there is not a big interest in being seen too much at this time as a part of a Visegrad group.”

On Saturday’s second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine the Slovak prime minister, Robert Fico, made a speech that was widely seen as pro-Russian. What do you say to those who are saying that the Czech government should not at this moment be hosting a meeting with pro-Russian leaders like Fico and Orban?

Robert Fico | Photo: Office of Czech Government

“This is a question of, OK, you have on the one hand the symbolic value of having the meetings, which – as you say – could be challenged: Should you talk, meet with these leaders right now?

“On the other hand, these are close neighbours to Czechia and there has been institutional cooperation going on for a long time, with the countries being members of the EU, being members of NATO, and of course you need to talk to them.

“And of course the leaders do talk in any case. They meet at the European Council, they meet in other formats. So the question is, What can be gained from not talking? Actually, maybe something can be gained from talking.

“But indeed it’s very problematic. And of course for Czechia – profiling itself with a very clear position on Ukraine, on Russia, with a very pro-enlargement approach when it comes to Ukraine within the EU – it’s obvious that there are big, big differences between the countries.”

But wouldn’t it be a kind of moral stance to say, No meeting with these guys, especially after Fico’s speech at the weekend? Of course they have to speak at some level, but maybe also it’s worth making a moral stand?

Viktor Orban | Photo: Zuzana Jarolímková,  Czech Radio

“This is not a completely easy question to deal with. You have a format of neighbouring countries cooperating and it might be good to keep up the dialogue. But I don’t think this format, the Visegrad Group, is the right format to deal with the big issues facing Europe today.

“If you look at what has been revealed about the agenda that might be discussed, it’s more issues where they might find some similar ground, which has been the case with the Visegrad Group back in history as well – they tend to focus on the issues where they have some common opinion.

“This time they might be discussing energy security, they might be discussing the migration issue, there might be some aspect of the so-called Strategic Agenda for the European Union where they do find common ground.”