New survey shows what key stakeholders within Visegrad Group think

Czech Republic's Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, South Korea President Moon Jae-in, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Slovakia's Prime Minister Eduard Heger after a meeting of  Visegrad Group in Budapest

Key Visegrad Group (Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia) stakeholders see Germany as an important bilateral partner and want the EU to expand further south and east. They are also more hopeful about prospects for better relations with the United States since the election of Joe Biden, but remain largely wary of China. These are just some of the findings of the latest bi-annual “Trends of Visegrad Foreign Policy” survey, published by the Czech foreign affairs think-tank Association for International Affairs (AMO) in cooperation with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

The “Trends of Visegrad Foreign Policy” survey has been compiled every two years since 2015. Its purpose is to attempt to determine whether a common Visegrad Group (V4) foreign-policy identity can be identified, or at least where the interests of these four states intersect.

This year the survey drew from the responses of nearly 500 people working in business, politics, journalism, the civil service, political analysis and other related disciplines, who are each working in one of the four Visegrad member states. This makes up for an altogether very specific segment of society within these states. However, one that is arguably also especially influential when it comes to these questions. Czechs and Slovaks made up for a majority of responses and most of the respondents came from the civil service (39 percent) and researcher/analyst sectors (29 percent).

Visegrad states rank their EU partners

One of the authors of the publication was Pavlína Janebová, the research director at the Czech foreign affairs think-tank Association for International Affairs (AMO). She said one of the highlights of the survey was the way in which respondents described their attitude to their kez western EU neighbour - Germany.

“What is not surprising, but interesting nonetheless is the importance of Germany as one of the main bilateral partners [(V4 average of 91 percent]. However, at the same time V4 respondents mentioned Germany as a close ally [within the EU] to a lesser extent [39 percent].

Pavlína Janebová | Photo: Association for International Affairs

“We can therefore see that Germany is perceived as the big important partner mainly when it comes to the economy. But at the same time, especially when it comes to Poland, the perception of Germany as a political ally is much smaller.”

Asked to mark their relations with Germany on a scale of 1 (best) to 5 (worst), Polish respondents gave the lowest mark 3.3, while Czech and Slovak respondents ranked their relations with Germany the highest – 1.6 and 1.5 respectively. On average, V4 respondents evaluated their relations with Germany with a 2.2 mark. Compared with the previous survey, respondents from all countries ranked their relations with Germany lower than in the previous survey in 2019, but higher than four years ago.

When asked about whether the Visegrad Group should cooperate more closely with Germany, 82 percent of all respondents at least partly agreed. However, Pavlína Janebová says that there may be potential hurdles between German and V4 cooperation in the near future on some issues.

“When it comes to issues such as climate change and the rule of law, the positions of the current, outgoing German government and the Polish and Hungarian governments as well as the current outgoing Czech government are quite far apart.”

The other major EU player, France, was mentioned by 37 percent of respondents as one of their country’s most important partners within the union. The perception of France’s importance was strongest among Polish respondents with 61 percent, followed by 41 percent of Slovaks, 27 percent of Czechs and just 16 percent of Hungarians. However, just 4 percent of V4 respondents said they saw France as a close ally for their country.

What was also interesting in this year’s survey results is that Austria, which traditionally scores high as an ally and partner among V4 countries representing the former Habsburg Empire (Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary), scored very low among Hungarian respondents. Just 8 percent of Hungarians designated Austria as a close ally compared to the 34 percent registered in 2019.

Photo: Elekes Andor,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

On average, V4 respondents evaluated their countries relations with Croatia and Slovenia as the best in the EU with an overall mark of 1.9. Meanwhile, the Netherlands (3.0) and Sweden (2.8) come out as worst. In a survey that mostly drew on responses from civil servants, it is perhaps also interesting that France and Sweden ranked low among Czech respondents, because these three countries are to cooperate as the EU presidency trio in 2022-23.

While Germany and, to a lesser degree France, tended to score high in terms of important partners but low in terms of allies for V4 states, when it came to V4 respondents evaluating each other the trend was the opposite.

Czech and Slovak respondents named each other as their country’s closest ally. This was the same when it came to the relationship between Polish respondents and those from Hungary. Both of these results follow a stable trend that has been visible in the previous surveys.

In terms of seeing V4 states as important partners for coalition building when they are pursuing their country’s European policy interests, only Hungary stood out with a relatively high average of positive responses (63 percent). Respondents from all other V4 member states evaluated this prospect lower than they did in 2017. Among Czechs, 35 percent responded positively to the question.

When it came to the question of which other groups of states represented within the EU respondents had the highest potential for cooperation with the V4, the Baltic states (88 percent) and the EU member states in the Balkans scored the highest (85 percent). Nordic and Benelux states also received relatively high scores with 76 percent and 68 percent respectively.

Pavlína Janebová summarised the findings.

“The results confirm that foreign policy stakeholders, as opposed to government representatives, perceive Visegrad cooperation in a more pragmatic way. We can see that while V4 cooperation is considered to be important, it is not the only exclusive foreign policy platform that they would prefer. This counts in all cases with the exception of Hungarian respondents, who were most enthusiastic about V4 cooperation.”

Future areas of likely Visegrad cooperation

Photo: European Parliament via Foter.com,  CC BY-NC-ND

Aside from mutual relations, the survey also focused on what respondents perceive to be the most important issues faced by the EU in the next five years. Environmental and climate issues, energy policy and the digital agenda were selected as important by more than four fifths of the V4 respondents. These topics were also identified as areas on which the Visegrad countries should cooperate closer together in the future.

Areas where respondents thought that V4 countries had the most successful cooperation were infrastructure, coordination within the EU and culture and education.

A majority of respondents also stated that they expect the importance of the EU’s common foreign, defence and security policy to grow in the next five years.

In fact the survey showed that the majority of respondents were even in favour of something that is normally a highly contested issue, namely the introduction of qualified majority voting in EU foreign policy decisions, says Pavlína Janebová.

“We cannot say as such that V4 states are interested in qualified majority voting, because when you look at government representatives and politicians they are unanimously against this. For example, the current prime ministers of these states are opposed to it. However, looking at the opinion among the broader respondents group which consist not just of politicians but also foreign policy analysts and researchers, we perhaps see that there may be potential for the discussion to turn around.

“The argument for introducing qualified majority voting in selected areas of foreign policy is that it would make matters more efficient. The EU would have more potential to become a global player.”

In favour of EU expansion

In terms of EU foreign policy, V4 respondents were also clearly for accepting the current candidate states from the Western Balkans into the EU within the next ten years. Pavlína Janebová says that this agenda is particularly important for Hungary.

“It is also important for Poland, but we can see among respondents that Poland has a clear preference for eastern expansion. When it comes to the Western Balkans, there are states in the western part of the European Union who are opposed to any further steps in that direction. So while this is an important topic, there has not been much development on it over the past years.

“We asked about whether the currently associated states [in the Eastern Partnership of the EU], that means Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, should be granted candidate status. There was agreement among respondents that this should happen. We can see that when it comes to the Eastern Partnership that while there is agreement for developing this relationship further among Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Hungary on the other hand has bad bilateral relations with Ukraine.”

Visegrad attitudes towards non-EU big players

Joe Biden,  photo: David Lienemann,  The White House,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0

The survey also showed that support for the EU’s sanction policy towards Russia and the rejection of accepting the annexation of Crimea remain the dominant position among V4 respondents. This position was especially strong among respondents from Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia. Although there was also support for this policy from well over half of all Hungarian respondents, it was lower than the percentage recorded in the previous survey two years ago. Slight majorities among both Hungarian and Slovak respondents also agreed with the statement that the EU should strive for a more cooperative approach towards Russia.

A significant positive shift was noticeable among V4 respondents when it came to the question of how they expect future relations with the US to develop. Pavlína Janebová says that this increase in expectations is most likely the result of the election of President Joe Biden.

“I think it really is mainly because Trump is out of office. It is not about political inclinations. We could see that Polish and Hungarian governments were openly supporting Trump against Biden ahead of the US presidential elections. They were disappointed when Biden won. However, I think that Trump was seen as very unpredictable. Even though President Biden has signalled that he will not be focusing on this region of the world, it is always good to have a stable partner and I think that is also mainly the perception among the respondents.

“However, we also often see among respondents the opinion that the EU should be less dependent on US security and defence capacities.”

When asked about China, 84 percent of V4 respondents agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement that certain Chinese activities pose a security threat. On the question of whether the EU should ratify its investment deal with China, which was agreed last year, the answers were noticeably split. On average, 43 percent of respondents said that they are at least somewhat in favour of this, while and 39 percent said that they were against. Respondents from Hungary were most likely to say that they would welcome the ratification of the deal while those from the Czech Republic were most opposed.

In fact, Czech Respondents seemed most hawkish on China when it came to the survey questions. 91 percent of Czech respondents agreed with the statement that certain Chinese activities pose a security threat, compared to a V4 average of 84 percent. At the same time, just 24 percent of the Czechs questioned in the survey believed that the EU should strive for a more cooperative approach with China. On the other hand, a slight majority of Polish respondents was in favour of closer cooperation with the Asian superpower.

The full publication can be found on the website of the Association for International Affairs: https://trendy.amo.cz/trendy2021/paper