A few days before the EU summit on migration crisis on 7 March, German chancellor Angela Merkel is still committed to find a joint EU approach to the refugee crisis, and to making the deal with Turkey work. On the opposite end of the EU spectrum stands the Visegrad Group, refusing to participate in an EU-wide relocation mechanism and proposing to close off the Greek-Macedonian-Bulgarian border. This open clash has turned once-devoted allies of Germany into loud opponents, unafraid of flexing their political muscles to safeguard narrow national interests. This has resulted in the biggest East-West split in the EU in a decade. But is this new strategic drift and mistrust with Germany in the long-term interest of the Visegrad countries? How will both sides manage in the course of 2016? Are we going to see further divergence or gradual repair of this strained relationship?

As we approach 5 March parliamentary elections in Slovakia, and 13 March regional elections in Germany, CEPI and its partners have asked three experts in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia these newly essential questions in a reshaped ‘A View from Central Europe’ blog series.

 “A view from Central Europe” is a series of monthly blog-style publications providing a platform for foreign and EU policy experts, including young and up-coming thinkers, from the Visegrad Group region – Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – to reach an EU wide policy-focused audience. The  project aims to intensify dialogue  between the Visegrad capitals  and European opinion-makers on hotly debated issues in the EU agenda with strategic implications  for Central Europe.

Krzysztof Blusz, President, demosEUROPA-Centre for European Strategy, Warsaw, Poland

Paweł Zerka, Director of Research, demosEUROPA–Centre for European Strategy, Warsaw, Poland

Over the last decade, Poland has been at ease with Germany’s leadership in the EU. When deemed necessary, it has even called for more German involvement, as illustrated in a remarkable speech by Foreign Minister Sikorski in Berlin in 2011. But the honeymoon is over. And not so much because of Angela Merkel’s wir shaffen das decision, but rather as a consequence of recent political changes in Warsaw. The refugee crisis has provided an opportunity and a pretext for the new Polish government to re-frame its criticism vis-à-vis Berlin and Brussels.

That Poland was shifting its alliances in the EU became fully clear after the parliamentary speech of the current Foreign Minister Waszczykowski. In January 2016, he indicated that the UK was Poland’s main political ally in Europe, while portraying Germany as crucial but mostly an economic partner. Furthermore, he questioned the very idea of an “ever closer union”.

This reorientation may seem to be incomprehensible given Poland’s particularly close economic, social and strategic ties with Germany. Over the last decade, Poland has become the 4th most important trade partner of Germany in the EU. Apart from that, Poland’s rising position in Europe over recent years – crowned by a record allocation of over 80 billion euro in the EU’s 2014-2020 financial perspective and Donald Tusk’s election as the President of the European Council in 2014 – was possible largely on account of Berlin’s support.

Now the government of Law and Justice (PiS) is floating the idea of strengthened cooperation among Central European countries, clearly underestimating their diversified strategic and economic interests (e.g. concerning Russia and the neighbourhood, the Eurozone, energy policy). This reorientation, if it becomes a pivot away from Europe’s core, may put Poland’s economic and strategic interests at risk and weaken the country’s political influence in the EU.

The increasingly argumentative tone towards Germany poses big question marks regarding the objectives and the depth of Warsaw’s newly assumed assertiveness towards its Western neighbour. Is it a corrigible, interest-based Realpolitik aimed at acquiring better deals in specific areas (e.g. EU energy and climate policy, NATO bases in Eastern Europe)? Is it meant to prepare the country for the EU’s possible disintegration? Or is it simply a reflection of a rather inelegant diplomatic false start of the new government?

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS’s charismatic chairman, cultivates strong anti-German instincts that are shared by many within the hard core electorate of his party, although clearly not by a majority of Poles. In his 2011 book, he accused the then Polish elite of being “on a German payroll”. The PiS’s sovereigntist instincts, spiced up with anti-German sentiment, became a leitmotiv of Warsaw’s diplomacy after the EU Commission initiated a rule of law procedure against the country in January 2016. At the same time, the refugee crisis created a misleadingly appealing opportunity: Kaczynski recently accused Berlin of a foreign dictate and the media sympathizing with his party charged Merkel with risking Poland’s “Islamisation”.

It remains to be seen to what extent pivoting away from Poland’s entente cordiale with Germany will serve the domestic political objectives of the ruling party – or the extent to which it may be a purposeful tenet of a wider foreign policy reorientation of Poland. In either case, it is contributing significantly to the increasing questioning of Angela Merkel’s leadership in the EU and to her growing political isolation. The greatest risk is that it may be too late for a correction by the time PiS leaders realize that their suspicion about Europe’s looming disintegration has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pavol Demeš, Non-resident Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund, Bratislava, Slovakia

Germany will retain its leadership position in the EU throughout 2016.  Despite the severity of the ongoing refugee crisis and resurfaced dividing lines between western and eastern Europe, Germany will find a way to overcome the crisis for the sake of stemming further fragmentation on its own political landscape. The differences in perceptions of the refugee crisis between Visegrad group capitals and Berlin accompanied with fiery rhetoric need to be addressed as soon as possible. It is in Visegrad countries` individual and collective interest to restore constructive, pragmatic relations with Germany as well as with the EU institutions.

To better understand V4 members` response to the crisis, it is necessary to examine the social composition of the region. Compared with the rest of the EU, central Europe has small immigrant populations and more socially conservative societies. Fear of the unknown can be easily exploited by politicians to pursue domestic political purposes, as the case of Slovakia demonstrates. The incumbent governing party misused the refugee crisis in its pre-election campaign to minimize domestic issues such as healthcare, education and unemployment. However, the Slovak electorate is starting to realize the danger of falling into the trap of populist rhetoric. We can see that the abovementioned domestic issues are already replacing the refugee crisis as the dominant theme before the March 5 election. The open question is to what extent the new Slovak government will be able to moderate its rhetoric afterwards and mend fences with Berlin and the EU commission to get their support behind the country’s first EU Council Presidency.

Last year saw big divides on the issue of tackling the flow of refugees into Europe. In 2016 we seem to have overcome the struggle to find pragmatic solutions and adopt a more realistic approach to protecting the EU external borders. Nonetheless, the risk is not over yet. The refugee crisis is going to test the unity of the EU as well as the member states` commitment to the European project. This year should not bring further entrenchment of new dividing lines in the EU. It rather may open up new possibilities for managing this crisis that surely will stay with us longer. Consequently, it is imperative to handle the issue in the right manner; otherwise, it could stimulate initiatives that will pose threats to the spirit of EU unity.

All in all, I believe the refugee debate between central and western Europe will not deteriorate. There are a few events this year that might improve the dialogue between Germany and V4. First, the GLOBSEC conference on 15-16 April in Bratislava where the issue of EU unity will stand high on the agenda. Second, the British debate will keep the EU up at night until the UK`s referendum on 23rd June. Third, the Warsaw Summit of the NATO on 8-9 July where broader transatlantic security and politics issues will be discussed. Last but not least, Slovakia`s EU presidency in the second half of 2016 will swing Central Europe to the centre of the political debate. It is a time for the Visegrad countries to stop thinking about their own security and partake in forging a common European approach.

V4 countries need to focus on enhancing the efficiency of EU leadership, increasing the dialogue on EU unity, and deepening cooperation between the EU and NATO. I think this would be significantly better than repeatedly questioning our commitment and loyalty to the European family.  Therefore, these major events may prove crucial for us in overcoming some of the negative trends we have experienced.

Michal Vit, Research Fellow, Europeum-Institute for European Policy, Prague, Czech Republic

It has always been an open question to what extent Germany would be able to translate its economic power and political clout into leadership at the EU level. In 2016, the previous period, which seemed to consist of fruitful cooperation between Berlin and its new partners in the Visegrad Group, appears to be over. Germany still acts as a reluctant hegemon – and it is now becoming increasingly isolated in dealing with the migration and refugee crisis, and not getting any substantial help from Central Europe. The natural conclusion would be to lament the fact that Germany is not able to lead other European countries. How can we assess shared perceptions of one another and manage mutual mistrust?

Given the rise of sovereigntist political parties such as PiS or Fidesz, current anti-German sentiment on the rise in Poland and partly also in Hungary should not be such a surprise. It has been building up for at least the past two years.  The problem is not Germany`s conduct of its immigrant–friendly policies and lack of substantial dialogue with Visegrad capitals in summer 2015, but the fact that German political parties and institutions were not able to develop an effective mechanism of mutual cooperation and trust with Central Europe over the past decade. In addition to this, German institutions were not able to shift from their usual rigid practices to a modus operandi that would reflect the realities of Central Europe. In parallel, Visegrad countries did not pay enough attention to developing a better understanding of the dynamics of German policy-making; it actually seems that engagement was limited to maintaining constructive economic relations without adding a personal layer to this burgeoning relationship.

What to expect from 2016? A prerequisite to progress is the political will for common solutions. A focus must be put on the issues of cooperation that can translate into mutually beneficial outcomes and provide new building blocks for our relationship.

However, the reality of domestic politics is far from matching this perspective. In March 2016 the regional state elections in Germany will take place in three regions. This may mean heightened pressure for Angela Merkel to consider her policy as a failure in light of double digit support for AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). At the same time, Chancellor Merkel is the only political leader openly advocating to keep the idea of further European integration on the agenda, which makes her position even less tenable on the domestic as well as the European level.

Do the Visegrad states consider the implications of holding Merkel accountable for the current situation in the EU, or will they look for a grand compromise with Berlin? Despite existing strategic communication channels between Prague and Berlin, I am afraid that Czech political leaders do not consider the wider context of the current difficult position of Angela Merkel both at home and within the EU. Despite the complexity of current challenges in Europe, Czech political leaders will continue focusing on the domestic arena.

This project is supported by the International Visegrad Fund.