Many argue that the recent decision of British voters to leave the EU represents a decisive turning point in the history of European integration. If the post-Brexit EU is to survive, it will have to change the way it thinks about itself. At their mini-summit in Warsaw on 21 July, leaders of the Visegrad Group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) have warned of widespread disillusionment with the EU project among their citizens. They also called for deeper political reflection on the current challenges the EU is facing, which should be on the agenda of the informal EU summit in Bratislava on 16 September. The GLOBSEC Policy Institute has asked three experts in the Visegrad region to write about predominant outlook on the EU future in their respective national capitals. What ideas can they offer to EU partners? The picture emerging from these blog post is one of continuing differentiation even within the V4 bloc.
Milan Nič, Research Director, GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Bratislava
As the rest of Europe is digesting Brexit, Slovakia finds itself in the eye of the storm. Holding the rotating EU Presidency at such a confusing and formative moment provides Bratislava with unusual insight and temporal advantage. The Slovak government will host an informal EU summit on 16 September, and also co-shape its agenda. It will also enjoy open, ongoing communication channels with leaders in Brussels, Berlin and other relevant EU capitals. If the Slovaks show to be competent operators in such challenging times – and if Prime Minster Fico will not spoil it with populist, xenophobic statements at home – they can rebuild some of the trust and credibility with Western Europeans that they burned with their positions on the recent migration crisis. The whole Visegrad region could benefit.
Meanwhile, the dominant narrative on Europe is now one of disintegration. The most likely policy response will be a differentiated EU integration, which is already moving on multiple speeds. Unlike Warsaw or Budapest, Bratislava is not interested in a ‘loose membership’. Being the only Visegrad member of the Eurozone, Slovakia is prepared for more cooperation on economic governance. Domestic backlash to such pragmatic policy either from the Eurosceptic opposition or from the disengaged public seems to still be manageable. At the same time, internal differentiation within Visegrad on the EU’s future will not make it any easier for Bratislava to steer a positive course during its EU Presidency.
Looking at the near future, Bratislava has two immediate concerns. The first one is the latest dramatic development in Turkey. A possiblity of the EU-Turkey deal on migration could result in renewed flows of refugees to the Greek islands. The second concern is being left out. ‘Exclusive formats’ are now the name of the game among the so-called old members, from the six founding countries of the EU, or the German-France-Italy triumvirate, which met to discuss what to do right after the Brexit vote. In the Slovak view, the idea of ‘core Europe’ does not make sense. It would create more splits and problems, at a time when Berlin and Paris, as well as many core EU members are internally divided. ‘Crucial decisions about the future of Europe cannot be decided only by two or three powerful Western European member states’, said prime minister Fico, and EU reforms cannot be designed without active involvement of Central and Eastern Europeans. If things continue to unravel, a more likely scenario is an ‘inter-governmental avantgarde’ by fiscally responsible, and functionally more prepared Eurozone states, as suggested by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble. This is a train that Slovakia does not want to miss out on. The biggest danger comes from a similar ‘exclusive format’ within the Schengen zone, from which all V4 countries excluded themselves, thanks to their position on migration crisis.
Paweł Zerka, Head of foreign policy research program, WiseEuropa ,Warsaw
The Polish government has joined the choir of calls for the reform of the EU which became commonplace in the post-Brexit Europe. Warsaw has its own ideas, even if they are ready only in broad strokes so far, and we shouldn’t assume that they are meant to serve only the internal political goals. The moment is opportune for the Law and Justice government to seek the strengthening of the EU’s intergovernmental dimension, thus challenging the supranational path favoured by the Old Continent’s federalists.
Any resemblances to Wolfgang Schäuble’s pragmatic ideas on the future of Europe are, however, purely coincidental. When the German finance minister says that governments may have to solve certain issues, like refugee flows or border security, “if the Commission fails to act”, he is demonstrating his commitment to the ‘getting things done’ paradigm. Instead, the Polish government may be using the refugee question together with the Brexit confusion as pretexts to seek more clout vis-à-vis Brussels and to reinforce its regional leadership. Warsaw may also be pushing forward a Westphalian vision of national sovereignty, seeking to bring back to Member States competences in such areas as justice or security – even if European Treaties make the feasibility of such an operation highly unlikely.
Some details of the Polish ideas on the EU reform may already be discussed among Central European governmentsat the V4 Summit in Warsaw on July 21st. We should also expect issues of migration and border control to dominate the V4+ meeting of interior ministers in autumn, organised among the four Visegrad members plus Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic States. Yet the region should not be expected to welcome Warsaw’s ideas with enthusiasm. Some countries, like Romania, have reacted to Brexit by seeking more and not less integration, accelerating their efforts to enter the Eurozone. Slovakia and the Baltics are already there. Neither they, nor the Czechs, would like to mess up with Germany. And most of all, no country in the region (even Hungary) seems to enjoy the idea of ending up in the EU’s second-line ‘consolation club’ led by Poland. That is why any attempts to arrive at a common Central European position on the EU reform may reach, at most, a meagre and hackneyed “We care for Europe”. So far, it’s only a storm in a teacup.
Edit Inotai, Senior Fellow, Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID), Budapest
‘Fed up with the preaching from Brussels, the British decided to take their future in their own hands’ – this is how Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán summed up his view on Brexit. It was just a few days after his government had published ads in British newspapers urging Brits to ‘remain’ in the EU.
You may call it inconsistent but it has its own logic. With the UK leaving the EU, Hungary has lost a significant ally in her fight against Brussels’ centralization efforts, and also an important net contributor to the EU budget, including the cohesion funds. On the other hand, Brexit will speed up the debate on the future of the European integration, and Budapest – one of the leading critics of further deepening – should finally come up with its own plan. Speculation runs high that the Fidesz government is only interested in the EU cohesion funds. As they become more limited – the current budget only runs until 2020 – moving towards a ‘loose membership’ and regaining national sovereignty could be put on the political agenda.
The October 2nd referendum in Hungary on the EU’s mandatory quotas on refugees will not just serve as a litmus test of the society’s sentiment but will also put the government’s propaganda machine to the trial. Currently, Hungarians are strongly supporting EU membership (61% of them still have a favourable view of the EU, according to Pew survey released in June), so Brexit will not be automatically followed by a Huxit.
The Orbán government will benefit from the current trend of a “more differentiated” EU, preferring an “a la carte” integration with member states forming their own subgroups and not complying with every piece of the EU legislation. It sounds tempting, but it also implies that Hungary is doomed to stay in the periphery.
The stakes are high. The Visegrad countries, a group of 65 million people, could help steer the EU out of the present crisis. Instead of purely blocking initiatives, Budapest should become a much more constructive EU partner. Shallow Brussels-bashing would need to be altered by a positive, solution-oriented and mature policy.
“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.
This project is supported by the International Visegrad Fund.