We are back with another instalment of our blog. This time, we are shining our metaphorical spotlight on the Visegrad Group (V4) – the partnership among the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. As the war in Ukraine continues and the EU faces multiple challenges, is the V4 an influential force or rather a relic of the past?
Once again, what we present here is a mere snippet of what we have to contribute on the matter; do not hesitate to get in touch with us for more insights and intelligence.
The war, differing world views of the group’s leaders, and EU pressure have collectively led to the increasing irrelevance of the V4 as a platform with meaningful cooperation being practically impossible at the present time.
Britain’s departure from the EU has led to the loss of a fellow Eurosceptic. Without the UK’s clout, the V4 countries may find it harder to sustain – or even promote – some of their rather Eurosceptic views in Brussels.
With the UK out of the picture, Poland´s relative strength in Brussels has increased. Warsaw might feel dragged down by its other three comparatively small V4 partners.
If the Hungarian government does not shift its position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the other V4 partners will increasingly isolate Budapest from their joint deliberations, finding associating with Hungary neither useful nor reputationally beneficial.
Calls for more internal cooperation but less external political coordination have appeared. If this proves true, Hungary may finally find itself truly alone in the EU, releasing the union from the deadlock of Polish and Hungarian vetoes.
Plans for the upcoming V4 presidency indicate that the members’ coordinated attitudes towards EU policies may become a thing of the past and instead either shift towards bilateral cooperation or the formation of ad hoc blocs on the basis of common interests.
A (barely) united bloc
When the voting power in the EU institutions was redistributed in light of Britain’s exit from the EU, the situation seemed more than positive for the members of the V4. The longstanding Eurosceptics could now profit from having a relatively higher influence in the union. Furhtermore, they began to be sought out by former UK allies looking for new partners to balance the Franco-German leadership in the EU and as a result, the Visegrad Group has been building lucrative partnerships with the Dutch and Austrian governments, seemingly demonstrating that the V4 could be a rather influential player in the EU when united around a common agenda. But the politics involved are more complex than they may seem.
The V4 has never been a fully coherent bloc, something which has become even more apparent after Brexit with the growing prominence of differences over the rule of law and climate policies. Poland and Hungary have been close partners since the establishment of the 2015 Polish government, providing each other with practical protection – each other’s veto – during conflicts with Brussels over the rule of law and related sanctions. In turn, the Czech Republic and Slovakia prioritised gains from the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and Next Generation EU (NG) funds over loyalty to their supposed partners. Then again, Prague joined Warsaw in the attempt to remove the condition of achieving climate neutrality by 2050 from the NG negotiations. It also supported Budapest in requiring financial guarantees to compensate for the alleged disadvantages resulting from the pursuit of nuclear power development, instead campaigning for its inclusion in the EU taxonomy for sustainable finance. Cooperation among the members (or a lack thereof) is therefore motivated by varying pragmatic interests rather than regional loyalty.
Torn apart by war?
While the partnership between Hungary and Poland may have appeared strong before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Russian invasion has presented it with a major obstacle. As a frontline state and hub for defence aid to Ukraine, Poland has taken an especially strong stance against the Russian aggression in Ukraine. So have the Czech Republic and Slovakia, all three of them disproportionately affected by the influx of Ukrainian refugees.
On the other hand, the Hungarian response was one of the softest responses in the EU. While the Hungarian government did back EU sanctions against Russia and nominally criticised the war, it continues to oppose a ban on energy imports and will not allow weapon transfers through its territories or provide weapons bilaterally. This is the result of the country’s close political and economic ties with Russia personified by the countries’ leaders and related guarantees of low gas prices, special loans for the funding of the Paks II nuclear power plant, and the placement of Russia’s International Investment Bank in Budapest.
The resulting hostilities towards Hungary from the other V4 members have been more than apparent. In late March, the Czech Republic and Poland decided to cancel a high-level meeting of V4 defence ministers over Hungary’s lukewarm response to the war. Similarly, no Hungarian representative was invited to join the Czech, Polish, and Slovenian leaders on their March 16 train visit to Kyiv, the first of a number of high-level trips to support Ukraine’s President.
The future of V4 cooperation currently depends on Hungary’s approach in the coming weeks. While the country has emphasised the importance of its EU and NATO membership, its actions seem to be speaking louder than words. It has not taken any steps to diversify its supplies of raw materials or strengthen its commitments to NATO, but after much deliberation has agreed to stage a NATO battlegroup on its territory, contributing to the strengthening of NATO’s eastern flank. Furthermore, Hungary was the only EU state that did not expel Russian diplomats following the revelation of war crimes in Bucha. Rather than working with the V4, Budapest will likely find itself alongside states that have been softer on Russia, such as the remaining BRICS members, rather than its usual Central European partners.
This signalises that among other things, Hungary will no longer be able to rely on the V4 members’ support in Brussels. On the contrary, if the EU was to intensify its pressure on Hungary over the rule of law, possibly limiting Hungary’s access to the EU Recovery Fund, Poland may not come forward to offer a helping hand. This could in turn lead to tension, with Poland looking to secure access to funds by strengthening its relationship with Brussels and thus turning away from its need for Hungarian backup.