Political scientist: Visegrad should be seen as a mechanism to build ad hoc, issue-based coalitions

Photo: archive of Polish Parliament

The Visegrad Four, a loose alliance of Central European states comprising the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary is celebrating 30 years since its founding in the historic town of Visegrad on February 15, 1991. What led to its creation shortly after the fall of communism, how has it changed over the years and what are its future prospects? I discussed these and other issues with Jan Kovář from the Prague-based Institute of International Relations and began by asking him to explain what purpose the alliance was meant to serve.

“Basically, there were two common goals, one –I would say- more important and one a little bit less so. The more important one was to help the countries to coordinate their efforts, to share experience in order to facilitate the three –and later four [after break-up of Czechoslovakia]-countries’ return to Europe –their integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, NATO and the EU. So that was the primary goal, and the second one was to improve cross-border, inter-state, inter-regional cooperation in many fields, from infra-structure to societal level, cultural cooperation, economic issues, cooperation among NGOs, research and education.”

So they helped each other in the transition to a market economy and democracy in the post-communist years?

Jan Kovář,  photo: archive of IIR

“You can put it that way, yes, because especially cooperation in the sphere of civil society and on the cultural level -those are all issues related to democracy, while infrastructural cooperation, cooperation in the economic field, an exchange of ideas was directly linked to the transition to a free market.”

One of the stated goals was “to create a new Central Europe, while integrating it within the broader European project” – how successful have the V4 been in this respect?

“Well, if we look at it through the perspective of those four countries becoming members of NATO and the EU within a decade or so from the establishment of the Visegrad group, we have to say that it was a successful effort because it was achieved in a relatively short time – especially if you look at how long the Western Balkan countries have been trying to join the EU. So joining NATO within a decade and the EU a little bit later was basically a huge achievement of those four countries and of the Visegrad group. So in this primary goal the V4 was very successful, I would say.”

When they achieved this goal the countries revised the “raison d’etre” of the V4 and they decided to stick together in order to reinforce regional positions. How successful have they been in that and are their positions not growing increasingly diverse?

“You are right that in 2004, after joining the EU, the V4 signed the Kromeříž declaration –in the beautiful Czech city of Kromeříž – that outlined the main goal of the V4 as “strengthening the cooperation and coordination of the four countries within the European Union”. For some time this cooperation was at a standstill. Between 2004 and 2010 there was not really much going on and Visegrad kind of disappeared from the radar of the four countries’ foreign policy and it was not visible in the media or to the public. Since 2009-2010 this started to change as the countries established joint coordination meetings ahead of EC summits and ministerial meetings of the Council of the EU.

Czech President Miloš Zeman,  Polish President Andrzej Duda,  photo: ČTK/AP/Jakub Szymczuk

"So, after a standstill period, there was an upsurge in cooperation in terms of coordinating their positions and actions at the EU level, and this is quite logical because, with the exception of Poland, all these countries are smaller or mid-sized member states and they fear that their voice will not be heard in the EU, especially since they are all new member states. So the V4 was intended to strengthen their voice in the EU. And they had some success in this.

"But, you asked about whether there was a growing divergence in their positions – I would say there has not been a divergence of positions overtime – there was always a divergence of positions. What became increasingly clear is that the Visegrad group will become a mechanism to build ad hoc, issue-based coalitions, when and if the interests of the V4 countries align – when they have common interests. When they do not the V4 will simply not be used.

"This is also reflected in the V4 countries being able to put together common positions when they have common interests –such as in the migration crisis-and not being able to do so when they don’t. Just look at the negotiations in December 2020 -on the last financial framework of the EU and the rule of law. There was a huge divergence and the Czech Republic and Slovakia were trying to make it very clear that the position of Hungary and Poland is not the position of the V4. Basically, they distanced themselves from the stand of Hungary and Poland. This is how the V4 works –and should work, because this is how EU policy-making works.”

At the height of the migration crisis they were regarded as “troublemakers” in the EU. Has that changed? How are they regarded today?

Photo: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“This has not changed completely, because of another issue and that is the issue of “rule of law” that I just mentioned in connection with the EU budget. This was another instance of the V4 becoming “toxic” in the EU, along with its position in the migration crisis. So what I would basically say is that the V4 has managed to put itself on the map in EU policy making as a regional coalition-making body, however the problem is that it also has a reputation of being rather reactive, of negatively reacting to proposals circulating at the EU level.  Instead of having a positive agenda regarding what should be done, how things should be done, how things should be reformed , the V4 is usually seen as having a position on what should not be done –why we do not want this or that to happen in EU politics. So this “toxicity” and the focus on reactivity are probably the main problems of the V4 when it comes to its image in the eyes of EU partners.”

Does it not hurt the Czech Republic to be associated with this? Or would you say that the benefits it gets in pushing through some of its interest outweigh this disadvantage?

“Well, speaking for the Czech Republic – but this goes for all the V4 countries –they should not speak about leaving the V4, because the V4 is a pragmatic instrument to promote these countries’ interests in the EU when they have common interests; and it should not be used when they don’t. This realization needs to sink in and I think that the voices in favour of leaving the V4 or forming an even closer alliance are misleading, because their proponents somehow fail to understand the logic behind  the V4 as a pragmatic, instrumental mechanism for cooperation and coordination in forging common positions when they can be forged. This is –in my view - how Czech diplomacy should approach the  V4 and its role in the EU.”

But when it comes to some of the problems that you mentioned, such as those with Hungary or Poland, do not some of the other Western states tend to throw the four countries into one bag, so to speak, and see this region in a bad light, generally?

Zuzana Čaputová,  photo: Slavomír Frešo,  CC BY-SA 4.0

“They do, they clearly do. It suffices to look back at December 2020 at the negotiations over the EUs budget. Poland and Hungary were the troublemakers because they fiercely opposed the link between the EU budget and the rule of law and at one point in time it was seen by the Western states as the position of the V4 countries. And there were huge efforts made by the Slovak president, Zuzana Čaputová, but also by Czech diplomacy to make clear that this is not the position of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, or the position of the V4, but simply that of Poland and Hungary. So while there sometimes are tendencies from the Western states to throw all of the V4 states into one bag the job of the Czech and Slovak diplomacy, or indeed that of any of the four countries, is to make clear –in such cases – that there is no joint V4 position on the given issue.  And to make it clear that the V4 is really an instrument to forge ad hoc issue-based coalitions in EU policy making and that it is not an over-arching, permanent body that has a common position on all EU political issues.”

Would you say that there are natural leaders in the V4 group –or does it depend on the governments in place at the given time?

“Yes, but I would not call them “natural” leaders. Poland, given that it is the largest member of the V4 (larger than the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary put together) is a natural leader in terms of having the strongest voice in the EU. Recently, Hungary and Poland also tried to become leaders in the sense that they started to instrumentalize the V4 to promote their national, domestic political  positions and this was clearly bad for the Czech Republic and Slovakia and it is linked to the Hungarian and Polish aggressive strategies against the EU. So you may speak of the V4 as having “leaders” at certain points in time, but more important for the overall development of the V4 is the logic of rotating presidencies. So you have leaders given by the rotating presidencies. And, as I said, the diplomacies of the countries that dislike the fact that other members are using the V4 to promote their domestic or national political interests should make it clear to Europe that this is not a V4 position and should distance themselves from such instrumentalization of the V4 by particular countries.”

Has the Visegrad Group contributed to stability in Central Europe?

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

“That’s a hard question. From my view it definitely contributed to stability by helping the four countries to integrate in Euro-Atlantic structures – so, in this sense, it strengthened stability in Central Europe. But it also helped the stability of the four countries in terms of building, nurturing, forging regional cross-border cooperation at the societal level, at the level of students, scholars, NGOs, - so we can say it helped on the macro-level by integrating the four countries into the EU and NATO and on the micro level by helping, regional, cross-border and cross-country exchange.”

What are the outlooks for the future? Where do you see the Visegrad Group in ten years’ time? Will it still be around?

“I think it will. My forecast is that it will still be around. Since it survived the standstill between 2004 and 2010 I believe it will survive for a longer period. And I believe that there will be reasons for the V4 to exist. Because if you look at the role of the V4 from the Czech perspective – the V4 is one of the anchors of the Czech Central European foreign policy, together with bilateral relations with Germany. I believe it will remain this anchor, also for the reasons I mentioned previously.

"I also believe it will have reason to exist because of the role of the International Visegrad Fund, especially when it comes to broadening and extension of scholarships and grants it provides, not only in Central Europe but to the Western Balkans, to Eastern Europe. The International Visegrad Fund today is a very important financial scheme to promote scholars, students and civil society cooperation in the region.

"And lastly, I believe the V4 will remain in place for one simple reason – and that is that it will be increasingly understood as a pragmatic instrument to promote common interests in the EU of the four countries, helping them to coordinate and create ad hoc, issue-based coalitions in the EU on matters where they have a common interest. So for those reasons I believe there will be no large-scale changes to how the V4 operates or what it does and will continue to fulfil this role on a kind of inertia.”