The Visegrad Group Wants Freedom and Security

V4 leaders’ declarations of friendship are oftentimes at odds with reality, but on some issues the group still speaks in one voice.

“I believe that cooperation within the Visegrad Group is sought for by all its members because if each of these countries acts on their own, their clout will be substantially lessened,” said Miloš Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic, in December 2017.

V4 politicians publicly assert the importance of the alliance. Leaders of the four countries reassure each other of their loyalty and common political and economic perspectives, such as investing in new technologies and developing innovation in the region. Prime minister Beata Szydło said in June that Visegrad countries are “joined by a true friendship of our regions and an understanding of one another’s concerns”.

Trends of Visegrad European Policy, a research conducted among journalists, civil servants and politicians from the Visegrad countries, shows that the view that V4 is a strong alliance is held not only by country leaders but also expert circles. It is not, however, followed by a belief that the V4 is able to impose its stance on the EU, even when, as is often the case, it is common for all the members of the group.       

Among the issues uniting the V4 are many associated with its common past. The conflict between the EU on the one hand and Hungary and Poland on the other regarding the rule of law and preserving democratic values may serve as an example. This issue has been debated since at least 2010, when Victor Orban was elected Prime Minister of Hungary for the second time, but the conflict intensified after controversial legal decisions were made by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland.

The reforms pursued by Orban and Kaczynski met with harsh critique not only from the institutions and politicians in Brussels but also opposition groups in Poland and Hungary. The Czech Republic and Slovakia, however, were apprehensive to chastise their partners, and leaders in both countries did not give their full support to the EU’s decision to trigger Article 7.

In the European Parliament, V4 MEPs are not committed to fighting governments in Warsaw and Budapest either. The November 2017 resolution to set in motion Article 7 procedure against Poland, was backed by less than one fourth of the V4 MEPs (24 out of 106, including 6 Poles). For forty of them this decision meant voting against party lines. In the case of Hungary, MEPs were more critical, but still most of them voted not to punish Orban’s government(50 to 41 in the vote for a resolution in May 2017).

Cultural differences between V4 and the old union are visible in their approach to the Istanbul convention on combating violence against women. Leaders, Slovakia and Hungary, assert that state legal systems do enough to protect women rights and decline to ratify the convention. Poland ratified the convention in 2015 when Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform was in power, but the PiS government is critical of the document. President Andrzej Duda went as far as to say that the agreement “should not be applied in practice”.

The V4 leaders believe that the convention interferes with the cultural specifics of their countries, forces western customs on them, introduces a loophole for legalizing one-sex partnerships(Slovakia) and brings about the “spectre of gender” which is a threat to traditional family (Poland).

While it was one of the last countries in Europe to sign the convention, the Czech Republic stands out among the V4 members, as it has already implemented many of the required legal provisions. Prague delays the ratification in order to aline Czech law with the requirements outlined in the document.

We want freedom of self-determination, we want freedom of competition

The Visegrad countries showed unanimity when it came to opposing the mechanism of relocation of refugees. Most of MEPs backed their governments on this issue. Only 14 MEPs from the V4 voted for the resolution under the telling title “on making relocation happen”. Over one third of those, including mainly MEPs from the EPP, did so breaking party lines. In the ECR, comprising, among others, PiS, the directive was to vote against relocation.

The issue of relocations did not win the V4 many friends in Europe, but the EU was not able to force the mechanism onto the Group, and it will probably be replaced by a different scheme. In that sense the whole affair could be considered something of a success – the group took a strong common stand and forced Brussels to capitulate. Viktor Orban went even further and stated that had it not been for the Visegrad having the courage to say “no” to relocation, “thousands of people would continue to flow into Europe, threatening security of the people on the continent”.

The group’s victory on the issue of relocations may be short lived, as during the February summit in Brussels the German chancellor Angela Merkel said that Eastern European countries refusing to take in refugees may yet have to pay the piper. Merkel announced that those in breach of the Union law should be cut off from European funds.

Another source of tension between the V4 and the old union is the Posting of Workers Directive. According to the V4, regulations giving posted and local workers  equal social rights hamper competition on the European single market. “Rules of the single market cannot be dictated by countries that are losing their competitive advantages due to the lack of structural reforms of the labour market,” said Szydło in October 2017.

In May, the Visegrad Countries signed a common declaration stating their disapproval of extending the scope of the Posting of Workers Directive to include the transportation branch. Revision of the directive is still in progress.

Reforms of the labour market are viewed unfavourably not only by government officials but by V4 MEPs as well. Even the European Pillar of Social Rights, being in itself a rather general proposal of unifying workers rights in the EU and focusing mostly on the Eurozone countries, did not gain their support. Out of 106 V4 MEPs, 55 voted against the pillar (30 of those broke their faction line).

The only Visegrad country to exhibit some sympathy toward the European Commission’s proposal was Slovakia. The Pillar is written first of all with the Eurozone countries in mind, and it is far more appealing for Slovakia, already a member, than for the rest of the V4. Robert Fico hopes that it will contribute to the development of his country’s labour market.

Both the Pillar and the resolution on the so-called social-dumping of poorer EU countries were welcomed by the majority of the European Parliament. The V4’s opposition has so far proved ineffective.

We want freedom, but also security

Apart from the advantages of the European single market, leaders of V4 countries expect the EU to provide security in issues such as the protection of external borders or energy production.

The Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians not only stress the importance of border safety, but also of good relations with the EU’s neighbour – Russia. They avoid criticizing the Kremlin for its annexation of Crimea and emphasize the necessity of maintaining good relations with Putin. Poland follows a different course, as it continues to declare support for Ukraine’s pro-European aspirations.

The V4’s policy on reforming the EU’s energy market follows from regional objectives. Both the governments and the MEPs approve of the European gas market as it renders the supply of this resource more secure.

They oppose, however, the EU’s flagship project of reducing greenhouse gas emissions – the so called winter package, a set of eight legislative proposals that is supposed to pave the way for a green revolution on the European energy market. Their objections seem warranted, as weaning the V4 off fossil fuels (Poland and the Czech Republic especially) will not be an easy task.

Poles are the loudest in voicing their disapproval of the EU’s proposal of a swift change to energy production from renewable sources. In the last vote on this issue, in January 2018, 38 MEPs, mostly from the EPP and S&D, defied party lines by abstaining rather than voting for the proposition. 20 Poles, the majority of them from the ECR, voted against.

The question of the so-called energy mix (i.e. from which sources is energy produced) is another example showing that the V4 countries strongly oppose excessive interference with their economy and internal affairs.

Energy security is a key issue for the Visegrad countries and the governments can count on strong support of the MEPs. Six V4 MEPs delivered reports on subjects connected with the reform of the European energy market: Poles Jerzy Buzek (EPP), Adam Gierek (S&D), Marek Gróbarczyk (ECR), Zdzisław Krasnodębski (ECR), Czech Miroslav Poche (S&D) and Hungarian András Gyürk (EPP). Buzek’s report of the EU’s gas policy was backed by a startling 89% of V4 MEPs – a seldom seen unanimity.

Despite a visible opposition to the governments in Poland or Hungary, on some issues even MEPs from opposition parties follow their governments and vote along country rather than party lines. Such was the issue of energy production for Polish MEPs, which also showed that a cooperation of the government with the MEPs could prove beneficial to the country.

What is this Visegrad for?

The Visegrad Group is an alliance based on common experience and goals, yet today it is united in its priorities only on a couple of issues. Leaders of V4 countries know how to defend their right to self-determination and turn a blind eye on controversial decisions of other members of the group. But they are divided when it comes to handling particular issues, as was seen in Slovakia’s stance regarding the labour market and the reform of the Eurozone or Poland’s approach to coal energy production.

“For Slovakia it is not the Visegrad Group, but the European Union, that is the vital space for deciding our future,” said Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico in April 2017.

Albeit this statement is one among many others, more enthusiastic towards the alliance, it is not only a sign that Slovakia calls Visegrad’s importance into doubt, but how radically the attitudes within the Group have shifted since its inception  in 1991. The V4 was created to so that Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary would join the European Union. Today, its members seem not quite sure what role in the EU they are supposed to play.

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