Presidents of the Visegrad Group countries meet on Lake Balaton
The presidents of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic met on September 20 and 21 in Keszthely, a small spa town on the shores of Hungary's Lake Balaton. Their annual meeting was held with a focus on their countries experiences with the three years in the EU and on entering the Schengen zone in January 2008. But underneath the friendly facades, differences between the four countries were soon enough to show.
After the first plenary session, the Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom, Poland's Lech Kaczinski, Slovakia's Ivan Gasparovic and the head of the Czech Republic Vaclav Klaus were rejoined by their wives and set out on a stroll through the historic district of the town of Keszthely, which was staging a two-day festival to celebrate the visit of the Visegrad presidents.
One of the locals who came to see the presidential walk is souvenir shop-owner Erika Vozar whom I asked how she felt about the exclusive visit.
Do you like Mr Solyon, is he a good president
"Yes, I like him very much"
Later, the presidents with their entourages boarded the Szent Miklos, a boat that took them across Lake Balaton to the nearby town of Badascony for dinner. While on board, President Vaclav Klaus summed up the first round of talks with his colleagues.
"I think that the first day of this meeting was a very useful summary of the overviews of the four countries of their three years' membership in the EU. I think all of us view it very realistically, everybody sees the assets it has brought. But everybody is also aware of the problems that go along with it. Today, however, we were primarily dealing with the question of to what extent these four countries do and can act together in various matters; what to do to improve coordination among us; and what to do to have our opinions put through. That was the main topic. Apart from that, each of the countries evaluated not only the three years in the European Union, but also brought up their views of the future of the EU."
It all seemed very smooth and easy going but Vaclav Klaus is well-known for his scepticism regarding further integration within the E.U. So did the presidents touch upon any controversial topics at all during their afternoon chat?
"Today we had quite an interesting debate that originated in my announcing the motto of the Czech presidency of the EU in 2009 - 'Europe without barriers'. The interpreter, by inattention, a slip, or by mistake, translated it as 'Europe without frontiers'. I said, no, no, that is a mistake. We are saying 'without barriers', not 'without frontiers'. A very interesting debate ensued from that showed some different emphases. Hungary, for example, wants Europe without frontiers. We, and Slovakia in particular, want Europe without barriers but with frontiers. I think this a clear definition of a different view on such matters."
The second day of the event was a little less festive. The sole item on the agenda was Czech, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian entry into the Schengen zone in January 2008. Once these countries join the Schengen treaty, their borders with other members of the zone will cease to have border controls and the countries will rely on the protection of the common borders of the European Union. While the Czech Republic will only be surrounded by other Schengen zone countries and will therefore not patrol its borders any more, the other countries will have great responsibility of policing their frontiers with third countries in the East and South. Polish President Lech Kaczinski.
Austria has announced that it will keep policing its borders with Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic even after these countries join the Schengen zone. The presidents talked about this subject as well and this is what Hungary's President Laszlo Solyom had to say.
"We do not agree with Austria's plan to guard its borders, there must not be differences between old and new members of the EU. We agreed that we will ask our governments to protest the plans of the Austrian government."
At the very end of the meeting, one very controversial topic emerged. The Slovak Parliament had passed a declaration making the decrees of President Benes a form part of the Slovak legal system. The Benes decrees were introduced after the end of the Second World War and German and Hungarian property in Czechoslovakia was confiscated on their basis. While Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom said the Slovak declaration was "a hit out of the blue" and sharply rejected it, the Czech Republic's Vaclav Klaus expressed solidarity with the Slovak lawmakers.
The common and often controversial history of the four countries cast a long shadow on their presence. But despite all the very different views on history and sometimes conflicting attitudes to contemporary issues of the future of the European Union, the meeting in Keszthely showed that Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have things joining them than dividing them.