Pierre Buhler graduated from the Ecole des Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC), Sciences Po Paris and is a former student of the ENA. He joined the French diplomatic service and served in Warsaw, Moscow, Washington and New York, and eventually as French ambassador in Singapore and Poland. He was also diplomatic advisor to the Minister of Defence, associate professor at Sciences Po and President of the French Institute, ambassador in charge of France’s external cultural action. He currently teaches cultural diplomacy at the School of International Relations at Sciences Po and is a permanent consultant on influence diplomacy at the Centre d’Analyse, de Prévision et de Stratégie (CAPS).
Pierre Buhler was French Ambassador to Poland between 2012 and 2016, he is writing here in a personal capacity. This article was originally published in French on Diploweb.
What are the geopolitical dynamics specific to this group of four European Union member states? What are the convergences and divergences between Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia? With his solid experience of the region, Pierre Buhler draws both a clear and precise picture.
WHAT NOW? Presumably, this is the question that the four Heads of government who met under the Polish Presidency in Krakow on February 17th, 2021, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of what was then the « Visegrad Triangle », precisely avoided to ask themselves. It was probably wiser not to spoil the festivities…The joint declaration issued on this occasion, which was unremarkable, even insipid, could have concluded any of their annual meetings at this level.
A shortcut to Western integration
The founders, Polish President Lech Wałęsa, Czechoslovak President Václav Havel and Hungarian Prime Minister József Antall, met in Visegrád, a former Hungarian capital on the Danube, to sign on February 15th, 1991, a declaration stating their intention to « fully engage in the European political and economic system, as well as in the security system. » This choice, endorsed by three former dissidents, was made, it should be noted, at a moment when the USSR had not yet imploded (December 1991) and when its troops, although retreating, were still deployed in the region.
In 2021, on the eve of the 30th anniversary, in a less unitary atmosphere, Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok made a point of recalling that the three leaders had wanted to make the Visegrad Group « not a defensive wall against the West or the European Union, but an integral part of it. » With the idea, of course, to carry more weight together than separately. But also to prepare for accession, in particular by creating a free-trade zone between themselves.
And it was indeed together that these states – four in number after the « velvet divorce » of December 31st, 1992 – were invited to join the European Union on May 1st, 2004 – in a cohort of 10 states in total, it is true. This integration in the West was also marked by the access to NATO membership in 1999 – but only for three of them, Slovakia being then in trouble with rule of law and democracy, had to wait for the next NATO enlargement, on March 29th, 2004 – earned with the support of the other three.
Despite some differences, the formation of the « Visegrad Four » (V4) proved to be a fairly coherent group in the European community, as its members were in a hurry to integrate economically into the single market and, more concretely, into German industry’s hinterland. Once these processes were well under way, one might have imagined that, once its mission accomplished, the Visegrád Group would have dissolved imperceptibly into the European Union.
But it was not the case. The V4 worked, with discretion and effectiveness, to make the most of the European funds for its members. By forming a block, often by enticing other countries in the region to join against the « frugal » ones, careful to limit transfers. But other member states were able to find allies in the V4, such as, for example, France, which during the preparations for the 2014-2020 multiannual financial framework felt a strong interest in a generous European budget, especially to preserve the common agricultural policy (CAP). They also made common cause to push, in 2014, the candidacy of one of their own, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, for one of the most important positions in the European Union, that of the European Council.
The first signs of division
But it was not until 2015 that two developments really put the V4 on the radar screen of the European Union – and the West-European media.
The migration crisis of 2015 first led the European institutions, given its magnitude, to decide on a distribution of refugees according to quotas by country. This decision was accepted by the then centrist government in Poland. But it was the middle of an election campaign, and this project immediately became one of the main topics of debate in the campaign, providing a boon to the right-wing opposition, led by PiS (Law and Justice), which had just won the Presidency and was therefore in a better position to do the same in the parliamentary elections.
This quota system had been met from the outset with a clear refusal by the other three V4 countries and then, after the PiS victory, by the entire Visegrad group, two of which, Hungary and Slovakia, even challenged this decision before the European Court of Justice .
The second development was the victory of another populist and Eurosceptic party within the V4, in addition to Hungary’s Fidesz – and this in the largest country in the group, Poland. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczynski, an unconditional admirer of the « illiberal democracy » model designed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, had, in opposition, chosen as his slogan « soon it will be Budapest in Warsaw« . And after his party managed to take over both chambers in the Fall of 2015, he followed his Hungarian mentor and set about removing the obstacles to the exercise of unrestrained power, methodically dismantling the rule of law. Triggering in the process the wrath of the European Union institutions. But those could only pretend concrete actions, as the treaties do not allow for effective sanctioning of « departures » from the rule of law and the values of the European Union.
Beyond the unity, which has not been challenged on immigration matters, this drift of two of the four members of the V4 has contributed to weakening it. Hungarian Prime Minister, a veteran of the group, whose strong personality and maneuvering skills make him pose as the group’s inspirer and leader, has indeed constantly tried to form a bloc to protect himself against pressure from the European Union to respect the rule of law.
The other two members, Czech Republic and Slovakia, are even less inclined to follow this path as their political configurations are different. While the government in Prague can be described as populist, it is still far from the model of Hungary and Poland. And on the eve of the meeting, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš clearly ruled out the possibility of making it a « political grouping”.
As for Slovakia, it is even further away from this model since the election in 2019 of a President resolutely in favor of the rule of law, Zuzana Čaputová, and, in the wake of the parliamentary elections a year ago, the arrival in office of a Prime Minister, Igor Matovič, committed to the fight against a plague that had been ravaged the country, corruption. To resume then, the divide is marked between Eurosceptics on the one hand and pro-Europeans on the other – at the level of governments at least, since public opinion everywhere declares itself attached to the European idea.
These tensions were further aggravated by the Autumn 2020 tug of war over the conditionality mechanism sought by the European Commission to link access to European funds to respect for the rule of law. This mechanism was rejected by Hungary and Poland, which were threatening to use their right of veto on the adoption of the European Union’s multi-annual budget. This dispute was at the forefront of the media scene for several weeks, upsetting the two pro-European members of the V4. The veto could only be avoided at the cost of a compromise, which provided for the EU Court of Justice to be seized on the legality of this mechanism, a procedure that Poland and Hungary triggered in early March 2021.
Although less visible, another gesture has taken an almost acrimonious turn. Hungary, followed by Poland, set out, at that same time, to create, under the V4 banner, an institute that was supposed to develop a common vision of the rule of law and the sovereignty of nation states, distinct from the European corpus enshrined in the treaties. This project was met with an upright refusal in Bratislava, where the Minister of Justice declared herself shocked by this « abuse of the V4 brand« .
As the four Heads of government met in Krakow on February 17th, 2021 to celebrate the group’s 30th anniversary, the display of unity was then a bit of a facade…
Fundamentals: convergences and divergences
These developments have bluntly highlighted fundamental divisions, which are also dependent, however, on the political circumstances determined by the electoral consultations. But they do not erase the convergences of interests, inherited from a shared history, and which belong to the long term.
These include, of course, unwavering agreement on migration issues, in the form of firm opposition to any form of compulsory relocation of refugees, even though each of them grants the right of asylum to small numbers of applicants – in the range of a few dozen people per year. Shared economic interests also bring the four countries closer together, and their positions are more or less the same on access to European funds – with the caveat, however, of respecting the rule of law in spending procedures – on social Europe – again, however, with differences on the directive on posted work – and on the « Three Seas Initiative”. This project, initiated by Poland, includes the other three members of the V4, but is intended to bring together, mainly around infrastructure projects, 12 European Union member states bordering the Adriatic, the Baltic and the Black Sea. While all four members of the group support the enlargement of the EU to the Western Balkans, they also share similar reservations about the concepts of strategic autonomy and European sovereignty.
Of a more contingent nature, the level of tensions caused by the pandemic led the V4 countries, impatient with the European Union’s slow supply of vaccines, to be the first, led by Hungary, to break with European solidarity by obtaining supplies from China, and then Russia, in early March 2021.
In the field of divergences, there is first of all a fundamental disagreement. On the one hand, Hungary and Poland aspire to turn the V4 into a political entity within the European Union that could be an alternative to the values embodied by the latter. The Czech Republic and Slovakia do not want to hear about this and stick to a purely economic vocation for the group. But even this is not self-evident, with Slovakia having joined the Eurozone in 2009, while Hungary and Poland remain hostile, by principle, to the single currency. Heavily dependent on coal, Poland is still far behind the others in the fight against climate change. Finally, there is a significant difference between the Czech Republic, whose standard of living is close to the European average, and the other three countries, which lag in the bottom third of the 27 in this respect.
They are also divided on several important foreign policy issues, but the dividing lines are different there. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, for example, is supported by the Czechs, while Poland – and to a lesser degree Slovakia – is strongly opposed. Craved by Poland, the presence of U.S. forces on national territory is rejected by the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These two countries welcomed the victory in the United States of Democratic President Joe Biden, who during the campaign had described Poland and Hungary as « totalitarian countries » – whose leaders made no secret of their preference for his predecessor, Donald Trump. As for relations with Russia, they divide Poland and Hungary, which also has a bad relationship with Ukraine, unlike Poland, which favors a European perspective for Kyiv. It was not with his V4 partners, but with his Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, that Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski proposed the « Eastern Partnership » to his EU peers in 2008. Clearly, foreign policies of the V4 members do not reflect more cohesion than their European policies.
A “negative connotation”
All in all, the four V4 member states show their attachment to this format when it offers added value on subjects of common interest, whether within the European Union or in other forums, such as the Three Seas initiative. But it is not, for Prague and Bratislava, exclusive of other geometries, and the two countries demonstrated this without qualms by creating, in 2015, the so-called Slavkov format (the Czech name for Austerlitz), together with Austria, but without Poland and Hungary.
Finally, the glorious uncertainty of democratic deadlines is also likely to change the landscape. In the countries concerned, first and foremost, but also elsewhere, as we have seen in the United States, with the victory of a side that intends to make democracy and the rule of law an axis of its foreign policy. As for the V4, while national elections are not expected for several years in Poland and Slovakia, this is not the case in the Czech Republic or Hungary. The « illiberal » nature of the democracy practiced by Viktor Orban and his party, Fidesz, will probably allow him to return to power, thanks to the back-country in particular, since the big cities tend to lean towards the opposition, but in the Czech Republic, the rising party is the « Pirates », which is rather close, in its pro-European convictions, to the team in power in Bratislava.
These considerations point to the dynamics of a group undergirded by multiple and often opposing forces. After going relatively unnoticed by the European mainstream for a quarter of a century, the V4 has suffered from a « negative connotation, » notes Lukas Macek, a research associate at the Jacques Delors Institute, « and if it was not an empty shell before 2015, it has not become an ‘axis of evil’ within the EU since then ». And Macek concludes that « the best way for the other member states and for the EU institutions to ‘manage Visegrád’ is to take it for what it is: one format among others for dealing with the countries that make it up, one tool among others for these countries to assert their interests within the EU or vis-à-vis the rest of the world”.
 Following a scandal triggered by a Sputnik-V vaccine order he placed on his own, he had to resign from his position of Prime minister on March 30, 2021.