Ahead of the crucial EU summit, members of the Central European political, business and analytical elites met between 29 November to 1 December 2013 at the 5th Château Béla Central European Strategic Forum to debate on the role and future position of the region.

Central European countries are now better positioned to exert their influence in Brussels than at any point since the 2004 EU expansion big bang. However, in a post-crisis Europe, the region needs to have a clear idea on what it wants to achieve be it security and defence, economy or political development in an era of enhanced economic governance, even closer integration, rampant euro-scepticism and continuing Eastern Partnership conundrums.

Château Béla Central European Strategic Forum Summary.

Debating in panels and less formal discussion formats, guests of the Slovak Atlantic Commission’s Château Béla 2013 forum pondered on the idea framework developed by think-tanks demosEuropa and the CEPI. The concept argues for Central Europe to develop its own intrinsic vision of itself, separate and distinct from the prerogative of catching up with the more developed countries of Western Europe.

However, 10 years after entering the EU, Central Europe still possesses a kind of accession mentality, more eager to adapt than to shape, but it needs to create its own narrative. The region certainly is in a position to do so as its macroeconomic data are better than the EU average. On the other hand, there are issues that seem to be preventing that from happening. As one of the Château Béla guests remarked, Central Europe does not have an identity and it is hard to single out binding factors.

Increasingly though, Central Europe is not being seen as the Visegrad Four group synonymous with the post-communist countries, as the inclusion of Austria is becoming commonplace. However, practical manifestation, especially in the business and trade arena, is ahead of the Vienna’s political point of view. While the region is by no means monolithic, it needs to find and define its common identity and build upon its ten-year-long EU run.

Communication with the Europeans was identified by Château Béla participants as one of the key problems along with the apparent lack of rules regarding lobbying on the EU level. The EU is then seen as a lobbyist playground lacking accountability, which only exacerbates the lack of legitimacy on the political level. These notions feed extremism and provide a platform for political opportunists who question everything the Europeans take for granted including free movements of goods and people.

“2014 will be an important year for the European Union and we are glad that the Château Béla 2013 helped to contribute to the Europe-wide discussion. This year’s event has again provided for frank – and from time to time even heated – debates on the future of regional cooperation in the wider V4 region and how can we address the phenomena of rising nationalism and populism in several European countries amid the lack of strong leadership on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Milan Solár, Programme Director of the Slovak Atlantic Commission, the organiser of the Château Béla Central European Strategic Forum series.

The 2013 event hosted top governments officials such as Miroslav Lajčák, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic; Jiří Schneider, First Deputy Minister for European Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic; Szabolcs Takács, Deputy State Secretary for Security Policy and Political Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Hungary as well as Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission for Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration.  Moreover, the debates were driven by the representatives of the region’s top think-tanks such as CEPI, demosEUROPA, Centre for European Studies, as well as members of the world media Judy Dempsey, Editor in Chief of the Strategic Europe;  and Edward Lucas, International Editor with The Economist.