Visegrad summit overshadowed by the floods

From left to right: Hungarian president Ferenc Madl, Czech president Vaclav Havel, Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski, photo: CTK

On Wednesday the presidents of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary held a Visegrad summit in the east Bohemia town of Castolovice. Of the Visegrad four, which also includes Slovakia, only the Slovak president Rudolf Schuster was absent, due to illness.

From left to right: Hungarian president Ferenc Madl,  Czech president Vaclav Havel,  Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski,  photo: CTK
"Well, inevitably given the recent events the main talks were around the floods here in the Czech Republic which also affected in particular Hungry of the other Visegrad countries. Both the Polish and Hungarian presidents offered very strong sympathies for the Czech Republic and Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski went so far as to offer a broad package of concrete aid . Afterwards I caught up with President Kwasniewski and asked him precisely what form this help would be taking."

President Kwasniewski: We have our specialists here. We have provided special equipment. Pharmaceutics. Disinfectants. Companies and people have been collecting money . I think that these various forms of support are a nice show of solidarity and good cooperation between our countries. It is also a way of thanking the Czech people for helping us after our floods in 1997.

Clearly the floods are now overshadowing all else. What other topics were discussed, David ?

"Well, one of the most interesting things discussed was the question of European integration. There's a matter that has been worrying all the applicant countries recently which is that they'll complete the process of getting ready to join the EU, there will be a date for them to join and then they'll hold a referendum and the people will vote against the EU. The presidents discussed ways of avoiding this and they came up with quite an ingenious plan which is a cascade system of referenda that would take place after all the preparations are ready next spring. Basically, what this means is that referenda in the applicant countries would take place in quick succession and that they would start, most probably, in Hungary where support for the EU is overwhelming and on the basis of that strong mandate for EU membership the presidents are hoping that people in the other countries would vote for EU membership on a kind of inertia or a kind of momentum created by that vote."

With all four countries set to become EU members in 2004 will not the Visegrad Group become superfluous?

"That's actually a question I put to President Kwasniewski after the talks and he was very firm in his defense of Visegrad, as indeed were the other two presidents present."

President Kwasniewski: We will work as members of the EU and NATO but we have a lot of regional problems which it is necessary for us to solve together. So I see the future of the Visegrad Group not in terms of European or NATO affairs but rather relating to regional problems . The prospects are quite bright and this structure can be very useful for all of us.

David, I understand that the three presidents also discussed the possibility of forming a broader grouping that would include other candidate states. Is that the case?

"Yes, this is a proposal that the Polish president recently came up with. It would involve, in addition to keeping the Visegrad grouping , creating a further organization that would include countries such as Bulgaria, Macedonia , Croatia, and the Baltic states ie. countries which are not in the frontline to join the EU or necessarily NATO but which he felt shouldn't be left out of the discussion process. There's been a degree of support expressed by the other countries in the region for this idea. President Havel and the Hungarian president Ferenc Madl did offer a degree of support."

It appears that with president Havel's term in office to expire next February this will most likely be the last Visegrad group summit he will attend, isn't that so?

"It certainly seems that way and obviously we'll see what the feelings are of the next Czech president towards Visegrad. It has had a fairly mixed fate over the last ten years of its existence. For example when Vaclav Klaus was Czech PM he was vehemently against the Visegrad grouping. He saw it as a waste of time and money. So in that respect we'll just have to wait and see. "