Monday

21st Jun 2021

Analysis

Visegrád 'trouble-makers' celebrate 30 years together

  • Slovak PM Igor Matovic (r), European Council president Charles Michel, Poland's Mateusz Morawiecki, Hungary's Viktor Orban and Czech PM Andrej Babis in the Wawel Castle in Krakow (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Sometimes nicknamed the trouble-makers in the EU, the prime ministers of the Visegrád Four Group met in Krakow on Wednesday (17 February) to mark the 30th anniversary of their cooperation.

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki welcomed in the Wawel Castle his Hungarian, Czech, and Slovak counterparts Viktor Orban, Andrej Babis, and Igor Matovic, plus the European Council president Charles Michel.

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In the last 30 years, the four ex-communist states have had quite a turnaround: they have become EU and Nato members and built market economies.

Ahead of the meeting, in an op-ed published in Hungary and Poland, Orban said the "Visegrad Group countries have a responsibility to protect Europe from external attacks and internal imperial ambitions".

He added that "the debates within the EU on the issues of migration, the demographic situation, the role of families and the conflict between national culture and multiculturalism once again called attention to the historical duty of central Europe".

But there was little mention of that cultural clash at the press conference of the prime ministers and Michel on Wednesday, even though Orban has been able to use the Visegrad format effectively for promoting his policies.

Founded in February 1991 with then-presidents Lech Walesa of Poland, Vaclav Havel of then-Czechoslovakia and Jozsef Antall of Hungary in Visegrad, Hungary, the V4 originally set out joint cooperation for EU integration.

On Wednesday, the prime ministers took pride in the economic success of the region.

Morawiecki called it a "success story", saying "the V4 countries are the engine of economic development in Europe", highlighting fast GDP growth, low unemployment, and growing investment.

"The Visegrad group, for the past five years, have been much stronger than before," he said after the meeting. In 2015, the V4 made a name for themselves in the EU when they fiercely opposed the bloc's migration policy at the height of the crisis.

And while the region has been one of the fastest-growing parts of the EU before the pandemic, that has not translated into the same increase in personal incomes, fuelling some political disillusionment.

Economists have also warned that the pillars of their success - EU funds, low wages, and reliance on German trade, and investment in factories - also make them vulnerable in the future.

All V4 countries have a relatively large number of emigrants living abroad, - some 11 percent of Polish, and 9 percent of Czechs - and adding to the potential social and economic tensions.

Cracks papered over

At least two of the V4, Poland and Hungary, have locked horns with the EU over democracy and rule of law, with both countries under ongoing scrutiny.

Czech prime minister Andrej Babis, who is facing elections in October, has been suspected of fraud, by allegedly misappropriating EU funds - a claim he has denied.

On Wednesday, Michel did not mention the rule of law challenge in Poland and Hungary, but said that the "European political project is based on fundamental democratic values".

While the V4 countries have been sticking together on policies such as migration and, to some extent, climate, cracks have also appeared as Warsaw and Budapest sound increasingly hardline and challenge democratic norms.

Slovakia sticks out

Last November, Slovak justice minister Maria Kolikova criticised Poland and Hungary for using the V4 name in a newly-founded institution on the "Central European perspective on the rule of law".

She warned that there is no agreement among the Visegrad countries on such an initiative, adding that she regards this attempt as a "misuse of the V4 brand".

Slovakia is the only eurozone member in the V4, the other three countries have expressed disinterest in joining the monetary club.

On Wednesday, Matovic was the only PM reflecting at length on the differences in his remarks.

"Sometimes we have discussions and arguments, putting into question the very existence of the Visegrad group, and people are asking whether we are the trouble-makers of the EU, do we always need to have a different point of view or position. It is not true," he said.

"We are working together in order to prepare joint position, a common decision that can be discussed with other member states in the EU," Matovic said.

"It doesn't mean that we need to have the very same view on everything, or that we need to agree on everything amongst us, or that we need to agree on everything in the EU," he added.

Asked what is the key to the V4's future success, Orban sent a veiled message to Slovakia to stick to the group.

"Slovakia has strategic importance in the cooperation. It connects central Europe's northern part and southern part. It has a great significance to stay together, to stay united, that all four building blocks are in their place," Orban said.

The talks in Krakow focused on combating the Covid-19 pandemic, EU climate and migration policy, relations with Belarus and Russia, and strengthening the EU's eastern partnership.

The leaders adopted a declaration setting out the goals of the V4, such as deepening the EU single market, developing the energy and transport infrastructure of the region, the proper functioning of the passport-free Schengen zone, "consensual reform" of the EU's asylum policy, and joint security and defence cooperation.

"We want to make sure that Europe is a successful project and we want to make sure that Europe can overcome all the challenges," Babis said, adding that it is "regrettable" that the EU does not have a "clear-cut plan for Schengen or for the Western Balkans and Serbia".

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