Looking back at 30 years of the Visegrád Group

Foundation of Visegrad Group in 1991, photo: Péter Antall, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

This coming Monday, the partnership between the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, known as the Visegrád Group will celebrate 30 years of existence. The V4, as the group is commonly referred to, reached the goals it originally set out achieve by the mid-2000s, but its member states have since continued to work together, recognising that there is value in unity within the European Union’s framework.

The formation of the Visegrád Group

In 1335 the kings of Bohemia, Hungary and Poland met at the castle of Visegrád on the Danube. The congress was triggered by the expansion of Habsburg power in the region and the three rulers agreed on pursuing mutual cooperation and friendly relations.

Little did they know that, more than 650 years later on February 15 1991, the leaders of their successor states - Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary - would gather at the same place and sign a mutual declaration of cooperation, with the primary target being that of achieving European integration after more than 40 years of being part of the Eastern bloc. This goal was highlighted at the time by Václav Havel, who was then the president of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic and present at the meeting.

Václav Havel,  photo: archive of Radio Prague International

“I want to reiterate that this partnership of our three states is not some attempt at replacing old crumbling structures with something new. We are not trying to fill in the place of the Warsaw Pact, neither are we trying to form some sort of cordon sanitaire between the Soviet Union and Western Europe. We want to be integrated into Europe as fully-fledged members and we hope to coordinate our efforts with this goal in mind.”

Thirty years of continuing EU integration later, it may almost seem hard to imagine Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia forming a block between East and West. However, at the time, less than two years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and with a Soviet Union that was still in existence, the reality of a union of European countries stretching as far as the Baltic States and the Bug River was far from inexorable in the eyes of both the contemporary political leaders and the public. Havel’s reference to the cordon sanitaire made it clear that what these Central European states wanted was to become a part of the ‘West’ and not a loosely allied buffer region, as had been the case in the interwar period.

This target was not just there for ideological reasons. The populations of the newly democratic states were eager to catch up with their Western neighbours economically and enjoy the fruits of a free market economy. However, in this respect, the Visegrád states would face a far harder journey than many may have imagined when cheering on the revolutions of 1989. The transition from state planning to market economy was a rough journey during the 1990s, with each Visegrád member facing its own unique challenges.

NATO Accession

NATO flag | Photo: GPA Photo Archive,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC 2.0

The first truly tangible success came instead in the field of security. At that the time, when the Visegrád Group was set up, its member states were still officially a part of the Cold War era Warsaw Pact, which would only be disbanded later in 1991. The original Visegrád declaration does not feature the disambiguation NATO, as the future of the Western alliance, indeed the future of the entire security system in Europe was not yet clear.

The path to become fully fledged members of NATO was set in 1994, after the Western alliance’s agreed to form the Partnership for Peace programme at a summit in Copenhagen in January of that year.

US President Bill Clinton went on to visit Prague later that month where he met with the heads of state of what was now the V4 (after the Velvet Divorce which dissolved Czechoslovakia into two countries there were now four member states).

Václav Havel, now president of the Czech Republic, made a speech following the meeting on behalf of the Visegrád Group in which he stressed that membership in the Partnership for Peace programme was perceived by the Visegrád states as an eventual precursor to full NATO membership.

“We strive to do everything that is possible for this partnership to result in our full membership of the alliance. We do not see [the Partnership for Peace] as a substitute, but as the first step on our journey to join NATO. We want to join the alliance, because we share the civilizational values that it protects and we want to take part in defending them. We realise that it is not possible, nor desirable to isolate Russia. However, we are independent states and decide for ourselves when it comes to questions of membership and orientation.”

Sergey Radchenko,  photo: WorldsApaRT/YouTube

This keenness to become fully fledged NATO members coupled with a strong emphasis on civilizational association with the West and distance from Russia was noted by diplomats at the time and can be seen in the archival records many of which have been made public recently. Russian historian Sergey Radchenko, who has been looking into the diplomatic archives closely, made this observation when speaking to Radio Prague International.

“What is very interesting in conversations between the Central and Eastern Europeans and their Western counterpart is the desire on the side of the former to be accepted as part of the West even as they drew the line between themselves and Russia. For example, when [US Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001] Madeline Albright visited on an exploratory mission several of the capital in the run up to NATO enlargement, she found out, as she put in her report, that Central and Eastern Europeans wanted to be in NATO themselves but with the Russians out.”

Full NATO membership would be achieved by the Czech Republic, Hungary and Polandin 1999, five years after the Partnership for Peace programme was set up. Slovakia joined five years later in 2004.

NATO membership was a major success. Not just because it brought the Visegrád states closer to the West, but also due to the nature of the alliance’s often cited Article 5 clause, which obliges all member states to come to the aid of a member state that is attacked. For Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians, whose geographic fate it was to be placed in a historically contested region, this was a very important factor in guaranteeing their long term security.

Joining the European Union

Photo: European Commission

Despite this major achievement, the mid-1990s are generally perceived as a period of less intense Visegrád cooperation. A clear roadmap for the accession into the European Union was still being worked out. Criteria for membership in the EU were set during the Copenhagen Council in 1993, but it would be a gradual process for the exact accession itself to be worked out.

To achieve this goal, Visegrád states had to fulfil specific democratic, judicial and economic benchmarks. These were tackled with varying speed by the four Visegrád members due to internal political conditions. For example, in the economic transformation towards a market economy, Czechoslovakia could benefit from inheriting a low debt-to-GDP ratio. Hungary and Poland were not so lucky in this respect. The Czech and Slovak Velvet Divorce also helped shake things up, ending some of the shared borders. Speaking in January of 1994, the then Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus highlighted some of the differences within the Visegrád Group.

Václav Klaus | Photo: Radio Prague International

“I think the Visegrád Group doubtless does share some similarities within its member states. We lie in the same geographical region and are currently tracing through the same early post-communist phase.  However, we also differ in a number of ways. These differences can be geopolitical. For example, our state no longer has a border with Hungary, we also have different relations with that state and with Poland. We consider the similarities we share with Slovakia as considerably more important that those we share with the other members.”

Learning to work within the EU

Full EU membership was eventually achieved by the Visegrád states in 2004. This meant that all of the basic objectives set out in the original Visegrád Declaration of 1991 had essentially been achieved. Nevertheless, the regional grouping continued to exist. As the leaders of these states would discover, the EU’s complicated, consensus based governance model provided regional groupings with considerable power when it came to key decisions.

For example, soon after joining the union, the Visegrád countries voiced their discontent at work restrictions for their citizens in several other EU states. Speaking to Czech Radio during a Visegrád Group meeting in September 2005, then Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič showed how Visegrád leaders could work together to solve the issue.

Ivan Gašparovič,  photo: Czech Television

“We want to bring up the problems that we consider to be discriminating towards us new members during our meetings with presidents of the other EU member states and look for a solution.”

However, perhaps the best known instance of Visegrád members using this option came during the migrant crisis of when the grouping’s four member states worked together to try and form a common stance on irregular migration to the EU, in opposition to the quota allocation system proposed by what is generally accepted to be the most powerful EU member state - Germany.

The quota response to the migrant crisis and opposition to it has continued to be a contested issue several years after the height of the crisis in 2015. In September 2020, the European Commission proposed to ditch the quota plan in favour of a solidarity by choice programme that would reward countries with EUR 10,000 per refugee adult taken on.

The migrant crisis was a closely covered issue by the media and it could be argued that the existence of the Visegrád Group entered the awareness of members of the general public outside of Central Europe through the group’s response to this crisis. However, it is far from the only area where there has been co-operation between the Visegrád members.

Visegrád Group cooperation

For example, in the year 2000, V4 prime ministers agreed to set up the International Visegrád Fund. This institution is used to promote and develop cultural cooperation, as well as exchanges in the field of science, research, education within the V4 and beyond, particularly the group’s eastern neighbourhood.

In 2016, Visegrád states also agreed to work together in the area of defence, forming the so-called Visegrád Battlegroup, a mixed military unit which has also featured Ukrainian and Croatian troops.

Slovakia's President Zuzana Čaputová,  Poland's President Andrzej Duda,  Hungary's President Janos Ader and Czech Republic's President Miloš Zeman attend the Visegrad Group presidents two-day summit,  photo: ČTK/AP/Jakub Szymczuk

Furthermore, experts often stress the Visegrád Group’s potential in helping the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme, which focuses on developing relations with the union’s neighbours in Eastern Europe. Speaking to Radio Prague International last year, political analyst Pavel Havlíček mentioned one of the beneficial programmes that have resulted from V4 cooperation in this region.

“Czechia, together with its other Visegrád partners, initiated a special fund called ‘V4EastSolidarity’, which served as a point of reference and fundraising for the Eastern Partnership countries to help them tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.”

There is no doubt that the Visegrád Group has served as a useful platform for all of its four member states at various points in its 30 year history. At the same time, cooperation within the group has been sporadic rather than strategic at times and often based on immediate shared real-politic targets.

As much as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are united by their geographical proximity and, to a degree, shared history and cultural values, they are also states with their own unique characteristics and interests.

Polls suggest that the populations of these states also perceive the Visegrád Group differently. For example, the results of a survey published in a joint research paper produced by the Czech Association for International Affairs and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation in 2019, found that while 95 percent of Hungarians believed that participation in the Visegrád Group was important for their country, less than a half of Czech respondents shared this view.