On April 15 – 17, Bratislava will host the GLOBSEC 2016 Forum, the preeminent foreign and security policy conference in Central Europe. Among other topics, it will also address growing political fragmentation and discord in Europe. As the accumulation of internal and external crises has put the EU under enormous stress, growing differences among member states have eroded mutual trust, and Brussels-based institutions are losing popularity among EU citizens. Disintegration of the whole European project, unimaginable only a few years ago, has now become a real possibility.
In the run-up to the GLOBSEC 2016, CEPI asked three top young foreign policy experts in the region’s capitals if there a sense of urgency among the Visegrad leaders? How concerned should they be about weakening, fragmented Europe, and what can they do about it?
In general, our experts agree that current political leaders of the Visegrad Group – Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia – seem not to take full account of the geopolitical risks that a weakening, more disintegrated Europe would entail for their region. At the same time, there is also a growing discord among the Visegrad governments about how to react to developments on the EU level. The underlying tensions among the Polish-Hungarian ‘illiberal’ conservative camp and the Slovak-Czech more ‘pro-European’ tandem have been temporarily eclipsed by their common position on the refugee/migration crisis. In the long run, however, those differences are likely to come out, and hamper the Visegrad leaders’ capacity to act jointly in the EU matters, and prevent further fragmentation in Europe.
Paweł Zerka, Head of Foreign Policy Research, WiseEuropa think tank, Warsaw, Poland
They should obviously be concerned – but they should also see it as an opportunity to promote some elements of a long-term vision concerning European integration.
Instead, some of them seem to focus on the short term under a dubious assumption that a fragmented union would boost relative political position of their countries in the continent. There is a note of a perverse and irresponsibleSchadenfreude in that attitude. It is debatable whether Poland and Hungary, despite what they are saying, are taking full account of the risks that a fragmented Europe would entail, in terms of their limited capacity of balancing a possible comeback to the concert of Great Powers.
At the end of the day, the current European crisis could well turn out to be a moment of a “creative destruction” when an improved long-term vision of European integration is coined. It is clear that an earlier European consensus regarding thefinalité of the EU has been broken. In this context, if there is anything that Central European leaders should be expected to do, it is to communicate a viable “plan B” not only for them but also for the EU.
Here, a crucial problem about most Visegrad leaders is that so far they have been associated mostly with a negative vision (e.g. on refugee crisis), while at the same time doing little to arrive at some sort of a V4 consensus on European matters. Meanwhile, their joint message on Europe is in demand. And it should be achievable regardless of regional differences on the future of Eurozone, the role of Germany or relations with Russia, whereby usually Slovaks and Czechs demonstrate quite distinct positions from Poland and Hungary. At the core of the V4 minimum contribution we already find their commitment to the European single market and to the EU’s prematurely fading star of convergence. But more is needed.
Coming up at a joint perspective will rest mostly on the shoulders of Poland and Slovakia which are taking over the presidencies of the V4 and of the EU, respectively, in July 2016. It will surely become an important test of their regional leadership capacities as well as of their dedication to the European project.
Martin Michelot, Head of Research, EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy, Prague, the Czech Republic
A stable and confident Europe is more than ever in the interest of Visegrad leaders, especially those who will be facing electoral challenges in the near future. Recent elections in Slovakia and Poland have shown that the main concern of voters remains, more than ever, economic issues and improved social conditions. In this picture, the migration crisis has sometimes been used as a fig-leaf to cover the unpleasant reality of inequalities in access to wealth.
Therefore, Visegrad leaders have no interest in a change of the fundamentals of the continued prosperity and development of their countries, whether that be the Schengen system, which is fundamental for the automotive industry in particular, or the EU cohesion funds which continuously help improve quality of life and infrastructure.
Existing tensions between “Old” and “New” Europe and the changed perception of the V4 among European decision-makers have already created tensions that have led to the questioning these fundamentals. The idea of a multi-speed Europe, which is often agitated as a result of these tensions, should send cold chills down the spine of Visegrad leaders, as the danger of being left back is one that they cannot afford, especially with Russia looming around the corner. At the same time, European powers that praise the virtue of continued integration can no longer remain in their ivory tower and keep the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that seems to animate their exercise of European leadership.
The openness of a part of the Czech political class towards China indicates that the country may be looking for a way to decrease its independence on European trading and monies in order to ensure its continued growth. This not-so virtuous example – not shared by all in Prague – reflects the deep struggles in this frenzied quest for prosperity on the one hand and European influence on the other. That should not stop Czech (and Slovak, with the upcoming EU presidency) leaders from playing a role in creating a new balance between the region and older European powers, by acting as a responsible stakeholder between Brussels and the region, and at least starting to minimize the meaning of these tensions to lay down the new fundamentals of European togetherness.
Dániel Bartha, Executive Director, Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy, Budapest, Hungary
Some Visegrad leaders see the current European disorder as the justification of their anti-Brussels stance. Unfortunately, being the scaremonger is not generating much benefits or good-will from their EU partners.
In reality, the growing political fragmentation within the Visegrad Group leaves limited space for joint actions. Obviously, common position on the migration crisis remains – for a while – the common denominator of regional initiatives, but one can hardly expect the system overhaul from the most sceptic and inactive members. The recent speech by the European Council President Donald Tusk at the EPP Saint Géry Dialogue on 4th April carried a clear message to his fellow Central Europeans that the expectation in Brussels is that they stop feeding populism at home, and start taking political agreements and institutions on the EU level more seriously.
A lot will depend on Slovakia as the next holder of the rotating EU Presidency in the second half of 2016, and its capacity and ability to engage Poland into EU deal-making, both as the key regional power and as the next chair of the Visegrad Group. A successful EU Presidency is not only in the interest of the Slovak Republic, which is the most pro-EU member of the V4 group, but also a legitimacy question for the new coalition government of Prime Minister Fico in Bratislava.
Hungary also has to take a more constructive role. The obvious choice could be the EU’s crisis management of the new instability in the Western Balkans, which is under great pressure from the migration crisis. Given Europe’s low attention and capacity to focus on the region, Hungary can work together with Germany and other EU partners to use its exceptionally good bilateral relations with Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo. Focus on strengthening the Western Balkans policy could spark international recognition and foster economic cooperation with the region.
Another area where Hungary could play an active role is the transformation of the EU’s Eastern Partnership policies and support for visa liberalization for Ukraine as Brussels needs to adapt to the results of the recent Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement. All members of the Visegrad Group are actively contributing to the reform processes in Ukraine, and are ready to increase their support.
Neither of these steps will help substantially reform the basic functioning of the EU, but respecting the EU institutions and meaningfully contributing to their modus operandi by taking a serious share would be a step forward.
“A view from Central Europe” is a series of monthly blog-style publications providing a platform for young and up-coming thinkers from the Visegrad Group – Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – to reach an EU wide policy-focused audience. The project aims to stimulate dialogue between the V4 capitals and European opinion-makers on relevant issues in the EU agenda with strategic implications for Central Europe.
This project is supported by the International Visegrad Fund.