A consortium of four Central European think tanks has published and presented a unique regional survey on foreign policy trends in the four Visegrad Group (V4) countries—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.
The study is based on data collected in mid-2015 that allowed the authors to examine and compare the views held by over 400 foreign policy experts and opinion makers from the V4. The survey looked at a variety of national and European policy issues such as foreign and EU policy priorities, allies and partners, successes and failures, cooperation among the Visegrad countries, EU policies, and transatlantic relations.
The survey was finalized at the beginning of September as the V4 leaders closed ranks amid Europe’s migration crisis to resist the EU’s refugee relocation mechanism. The leaders also reduced their previous differences of opinion on Russia and the Ukraine crisis.
An analysis of the responses gives an insight into the divisions and overlaps among national visions and perceptions in the Visegrad region, as well as expectations in the European context.
The results indicate several interesting trends. First of all, the Visegrad Group will remain a cohesive bloc on the EU level on some relevant issues such as energy and migration. Perceptions of priorities on the national and the EU levels overlap a lot. Also, bilateral relations within the Visegrad Group are now perceived as excellent—which has not always been the case and is part of the success of EU integration and Visegrad cooperation.
While the ongoing migration crisis has brought about a major parting between Berlin and the V4 capitals, Central Europeans still consider Germany their most important partner.
On the future of EU integration, Visegrad expectations are quite divergent and fragmented. Poles and Czech expect more differentiated (multispeed) integration, Hungarians think that larger member states will increasingly dominate, and Slovaks—the only eurozone country in the grouping—expect a reinforcing of the euro area.
Before the NATO summit in Warsaw in July 2016, all four Visegrad countries are confident that the alliance will adapt to the new security situation on its Eastern flank, and that NATO’s role is set to grow. They also expect that the transatlantic relationship will strengthen in the near future in trade and security areas.
Although regional differences on Eastern policy and Russia remain, the foreign policy identities of all four countries are similar. Responses on transatlantic relations were the most cohesive. On average, elites in the V4 viewed the United States as their second most important partner. The only exceptions were the Hungarians, who self-critically also identified the recent worsening of U.S.-Hungarian relations as the biggest failure of Hungary’s post-2004 foreign policy.
When it came to other partnerships, there was greater divergence. Polish respondents looked at other big EU players, Hungarians stressed the roles of Russia and China, while Czechs and Slovaks preferred to cultivate relations with other small countries in the region such as Austria.
Overall, Visegrad was seen internally as an important regional grouping, capable of articulating its members’ national interests on the EU level. However, the perception of the V4’s ability to become an influential actor in the EU varied a lot among its members, with Slovaks being the most optimistic and Poles the most skeptical.
At the same time, the external view of the V4 at the moment might just be the opposite: other capitals may perceive Visegrad as an obstructionist bloc that refuses to share the burden of migration pressures and prevents other states from devising new EU policies on the refugees conundrum. Indeed, the migration issue is an area in which the V4 should cooperate, according to the survey’s respondents, joining the traditional areas of V4 coordination on energy policy, energy security, Eastern policy, and security and defense issues.
Looking ahead to 2016, domestic developments are likely to shape Visegrad foreign policy and lead to an even more insular approach than in 2015.
The landslide victory of Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) in October 2015 allowed the new political elite in Warsaw to undertake changes at an unprecedented pace. Nevertheless, criticism from Brussels of the government’s policies pours oil onto the fire and may strengthen the Euroskeptic hardliners within the PiS, who believe that Central Europe has to find its own path to prosperity, one not based on catching up with Western Europe.
Such a sovereigntist narrative has long been pursued by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and Czech Deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babiš also often use anti-EU rhetoric. The famous statement by former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski—“I fear German power less than . . . German inactivity”—might thus be turned upside down by some Visegrad leaders: “We fear German power and do not care about EU’s inactivity.”
On issues other than migration, the current center-left governments in Bratislava and Prague have been markedly more pro-EU than Orbán’s conservative Fidesz party or the PiS in Warsaw. The question is whether Slovakia, once its parliamentary elections are over in early March, will be able to set a pragmatic approach before it assumes its first-ever rotating presidency of the EU Council in July 2016. Bratislava will have to handle and coordinate the highly sensitive migration and Schengen portfolios in the council during its term, not to mention a possible UK referendum on remaining in or leaving the EU.
If the V4 continue to promote a different vision of Europe (as a fortress), Germany will be increasingly tempted to go around the Central European countries, working out joint solutions with a smaller core group or a coalition of willing member states, as it has already been trying to do on a plan to resettle refugees from Turkish camps later this year. That carries two major risks for the V4 countries. First, their clout within the EU will diminish even further. And second, a German-led core group approach will spill over into key strategic areas for the V4, such as energy, security, and cohesion policy.
In this respect, one might extrapolate from the warning that Judy Dempsey recently gave about Poland turning away from the EU. If the Visegrad Group as a whole turns away from Berlin and Brussels, the big winner will be Russia. And the big losers will be the Central Europeans. Such an outcome goes against the founding raison d’être of the Visegrad Group, which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary in February 2016.
Milan Nič is the director of the Central European Policy Institute in Bratislava.
Vít Dostál is the research director of the Association for International Affairs in Prague.