The rise and shine of Visegrad
By Eszter Zalan
The name of a quiet medieval town in Hungary – Visegrad – has in recent times become synonymous with the word “rebellion” in Brussels.
Others, particularly if they are from one of the four countries in the loose association of the Visegrad Group, might argue that it stands for “alternative”.
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The group, also known as V4, was formed in Visegrad in 1991 and is comprised of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. It has remained relatively obscure for almost 25 years.
Then the migration crisis hit.
The EU’s inability to handle the crisis, combined with a tilt in the power structure within the union after the Brexit vote and increasingly bellicose and eurosceptic leaders in Hungary and Poland, has thrust the group to the fore.
In 2016, V4 leaders have pushed for a change in the EU's migration policy and has refused to accept asylum seekers under the EU's quota system. They also called for reform of the EU after the Brexit vote.
“The V4 basically fulfilled the role it was created for in the first place, to be a powerful lobby organisation.” Daniel Bartha, the director of the Budapest-based Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy, told Euobserver.
“It now holds on to a significant number of votes in the European Council to offset Germany.”
The original sin
Diplomats refer to a meeting of interior ministers in September 2015, when the four states were out-voted on migrant quotas, as the “original sin” that emboldened the group.
The V4 countries disagreed with the mandatory part of the system - even though in the end Poland, under its previous government, did not vote with the rest of the Visegrad nations - and particularly disliked how the European Commission rammed through its German-inspired proposal.
A year after the migration quotas were introduced, Slovak prime minister Robert Fico declared the idea politically dead. "Quotas today clearly divide the EU, therefore I think they are politically finished," he told journalists while his country was holding the rotating EU presidency.
Eastern EU states were not the only ones that did not like the quota system, but they were the most vocal about it, with Hungary and Slovakia challenging it in the EU Court of Justice.
Strong anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the Visegrad leaders was initially criticised, but eventually the focus of the EU’s migration policy shifted from taking in asylum seekers and distributing them fairly, to reinforcing border control and shutting down migration routes.
The issue has finally forced the realisation in the corridors of the Berlaymont, the EU commission’s headquarters, that V4 countries could not be ignored.
But as one EU official observed, commission president Jean-Claude Juncker still surrounds himself with a small circle of close aides and is less open to influence from the V4.
The official gave the example of the commission proposal on “posted workers”, which would require companies from the eastern EU to pay as much to their workers sent to Western Europe as their western counterparts.
In principle, the proposal makes sense in a single market, and some Western European states have long objected to easterners undercutting local wages. But 11 national parliaments objected to the commission’s proposal, the bulk of them eastern nations. The commission decided in July to move ahead with the proposal anyway.
After Brexit vote
The Brexit vote was a shock to the EU, but it reinforced the V4’s presence.
It has been interpreted as a vote against the ruling elite and mainstream politics, a public sentiment that Hungarian and Polish leaders have been successfully exploiting. Those two nations took it as a sign that the EU needs to change, and they were ready with an alternative.
“The European Commission hasn't fully understood what happened in the British referendum,” Polish prime minister Beata Szydlo told reporters in July, when her country took over the V4 rotating presidency.
“The EU needs to return to its roots. We need to care more about the concerns of citizens and less about those of the institutions.”
Similarly, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban said in June that democratic legitimacy for the EU can only come from the member states.
“We have to return to the notion that the basis of the EU is not its institutions, but the member states. The democratic feature of the EU can only be reinforced through the member states,” he said after the British referendum.
There is yet a concrete proposal, but in the Slovak capital in September, the 27 member states kicked off a soul-searching “Bratislava process” to explore how the EU could be reformed to win back citizens, and the V4’s ideas are bound to be influential.
“After Brexit, the EU’s political centre of gravity has shifted towards the east,” said analyst Daniel Bartha.
“France has had a declining economy since the early 2010s, so it has been less potent in offsetting Germany’s dominance on the continent. New power centres are destined to emerge in the union.”
But the V4’s rise in EU politics might only be temporary, as many issues divide the four nations and would hamper their ability to influence EU politics.
“The harmony only exists from the outside. Migration is the key issue where the four agreed. On everything else – for instance energy – there is little agreement,” said Bartha.
He cited as an example relations with Russia – a friend to Hungary but still regarded as a threat in Poland.
And Slovakia’s government has largely muted its opposition to EU migration policy during its presidency of the EU Council.
EU officials have suggested engaging with the “more reasonable” elements within the V4 – Slovakia and the Czech Republic – to separate them from Poland and Hungary whenever possible.
“They need our gestures. It is that moment,” argued one EU official.
This story was first published in EUobserver's Europe in Review 2016 magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.