Presidents of the Visegrad Group countries meet on Lake Balaton

Presidents of the Visegrad Group countries, photo: CTK

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.

Presidents of the Visegrad Group countries, photo: CTK
Czech President Vaclav Klaus and his wife Livia were the last to arrive on sunny Thursday afternoon in front of the neo-Rococo chateau in Keszthely, a small spa community on Lake Balaton. The chateau, once the seat of the aristocratic family of Festetics, was the venue for the annual meeting of the presidents of the Visegrad Group countries. In the splendid 19th century park, the Czech presidential couple was welcomed by their Hungarian, Polish and Slovak counterparts, and an honour guard of the Hungarian Army. Then, to the tones of the Rakoczi March, the presidents retired to the chateau halls for a first round of debates to discuss their countries' first three years in the European Union.

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.

Vaclav Klaus (left) and Laszlo Solyom, photo: CTK
"I am very happy that the presidents are here and that our town will appear in TVs and radios across Europe."

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.

Photo: European Commission
"I would also like to mention the other side of the Schengen treaty that the Hungarian president was already talking about. Poland is ready to protect the Schengen borders of the European Union, although it means great responsibility for us as we border on Lithuania, Belarus as well as the Russian Federation. But we would not like to make it more difficult for the citizens of these countries to enter and we would like to keep visas for their citizens free of charge."

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.

"I would like to say that in 2002 the Parliament of the Czech Republic adopted a similar declaration. I do not know the exact wording of the declaration passed by the Slovak National Council. But what we passed then said that the Benes Decrees are an integral part of the legal system of the Czech Republic but that they cannot be applied today. I think that this is a very rational and standard attitude and if the Slovak Parliament passed something similar, I understand it and I consider it to be a symmetrical decision."

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.