Visegrad Group gains stature as countries set EU agenda in 2011

Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič, Václav Klaus (right), photo: CTK

Central European heads of state have just finished two days of bilateral and collective talks in the West Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary. Discussions of the Visegrad regional grouping seem to have been pretty focused thanks in part to the fact that two of the four countries will be setting the European Union’s agenda next year.

Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič, Václav Klaus (right), photo: CTK
Czech President Václav Klaus seemed to enjoy being in the spotlight as the host of the Visegrad heads of state summit that ended on Saturday. And his comments over the weekend put a lot of distance between his stance about the grouping of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary now and 15-20 years ago when he derided it as a meaningless talking shop.

Then the four countries were outside of the European Union and NATO seeking to get in. And, in what sometimes seemed like a race to get in first before the door closed, Mr. Klaus did not seem keen then to be held back by any laggards.

Now all four are inside the EU and NATO and fighting their corner. And the message they seem to have learned is that in such institutions a collective voice goes much further than a solitary one. Václav Klaus made these comments at the closing press conference.

Hungarian President Pál Schmitt, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič, Václav Klaus (left to right), photo: CTK
“We all four have common interests that our voice is heard - that our voice is heard in the European Union and in the whole world. We are three small countries, Poland being the biggest. But we are convinced that this synthetic effect of cooperation gives us a clear chance to do that.”

The one for four and four for one approach was getting a lot of play in Karlovy Vary thanks to the fact that Hungary will be president of the EU council at the start of next year with Poland following on in the second half. That means that they can make some key calls about what gets prioritized and what gets sent to the back of the queue.

It’s already clear that the priorities will include shaping relations with other countries further East, read Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union, and boosting energy security so as to be less reliant on Russian gas and oil.

The four are also comparing notes and positions ahead of the NATO summit in Lisbon at the end of this month which is seeking to reset the alliance’s strategy and tasks for the next decades.

So is the Visegrad group on the eve of its 20th birthday in February becoming a much bigger force? That is a question I put to Michal Kořan, head of research at Prague’s Institute of International Relations.

“I think that the Visegrad Group is gaining significance slowly despite the fact that just before EU accession there was big scepticism about the role and significance of the grouping. But especially in the last two years. Many practical projects were carried out. And I believe the Visegrad Group is slowly gaining its own identity as an important sub-regional cooperation and significant sub-regional group.”

But Mr. Kořan cautions against any idea that the four countries will use their EU presidencies to exclusively push a Central European agenda. First of all, while they share many views they are not always reading from the same page. Secondly, such an approach would rebound against them. Mr. Kořan again.

Michal Kořan
“The very fact that the Visegrad four leaders are talking about the EU presidencies as an opportunity to assert and somehow pursue the Visegrad agenda is of a significance. But I would be careful about linking the EU presidencies to some kind of regional interests or regionally defined agenda because that would, and rightly so, provoke a harsh response from the other EU members., even though I believe cooperation will be going on.”