Visegrad Four rebuilds unity on migration and Brexit

Visegrad Four rebuilds unity on migration and Brexit
The V4 looks in a strong position to press their demands heading into the February 18-19 Brussels summit.
By By Benjamin Cunningham in Prague February 19, 2016

The Visegrad Four’s 25th anniversary summit ended with consensus on refugee issues and the Brexit talks, but less clarity on what this grouping of Central European states will stand for moving forward, amid signs of emerging internal divisions.

The February 15 prime ministers gathering in Prague doubled as a planning session for the European Council at the end of the week, where discussions were set to be dominated by UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s plan to win concessions from the EU to avoid a British exit from the EU. The V4 leaders took a softened tone on refugees, agreeing to pursue a common European solution while remaining opposed to resettlement quotas. More concrete is their push to exempt EU citizens already living in the UK from Cameron’s plan to limit in-work benefits for immigrants.

Hundreds of thousands of V4 citizens already live in the UK, including an estimated 700,000 Poles alone, and leaders insist that any changes to benefits apply only to future emigrants.

“Our fundamental goal is the defence of rights obtained by people already on the islands,” Polish Europe Minister Konrad Szymański told Polish Radio on February 15.

With a strong ally in European Commission President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, the V4 looks in a strong position to press their demands heading into the February 18-19 Brussels summit.

“The issue of access to social benefits continues to be among the most sensitive,” Tusk said after meeting Czech Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka on February 16. “The position of V4 is very clear. In view of that, I have no doubts: there is an extra mile we will have to walk to reach an agreement.”

Following up on the meeting of premiers on February 15, a series of events in Prague marked a quarter century of the Visegrad Group, which was formed as an impetus to push its then three members — Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland — towards EU and Nato membership. Amid stark differences with Germany and others on how to approach the ongoing migration crisis, strong rhetoric coming out of regional capitals, and the illiberal drift of particularly Poland, many are asking what the goal of the V4 is now.

“The substance is Central European identity, and the V4 is the most visible representation,” said János Martonyi, a former Hungarian foreign minister who recently served on expert panel examining the future of the V4. “Historically, countries in this region have always tried to rely on a big brother and it has not worked out well.”

The V4 countries have drawn increasing criticism from the outside in recent months as leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Slovakia’s Robert Fico and Czech President Miloš Zeman have stoked racial tensions against the backdrop of the migrant crisis. The rise of the Law and Justice government in Poland and rapid changes to media and judicial policies there have raised eyebrows in Brussels and Western European capitals, where many increasingly see the V4 as a bulwark of inward looking nationalism and populism.

“Sometimes the rhetoric by our leaders is not smart, but this is not about an east-west divide,” Pavol Demeš, a former Slovak foreign minister, said at a February 17 event in Prague. “This is about the reaction to what is unknown terrain for us, mass migration.”

Such negative branding has leaders in Prague concerned, and Sobotka’s more Brussels-friendly and conciliatory government is looking for ways to subtly distance themselves from the rest of the group and reassure EU allies of its more Western-like line, according to one Czech foreign ministry source. But Czech diplomats are loathe to allude to any sort of V4 divisions publicly and indeed the communiques coming out of the Prague summit had a typically consensual tone.

In an interview with Czech Radio on the eve of the summit, Sobotka, who is chairing the V4 for the first six months of 2016, said that the group’s main purpose now is to “advance our views and opinions, especially in the EU.” He and others have also emphasised the need to extend the EU into the Western Balkans.  

In that vein, the prime ministers of Bulgaria and Macedonia — one an EU member and the other not — attended the summit. These are two frontline states that V4 leaders argue need more help in slowing the flow of migrants from Syria via Turkey, Greece and the Balkans. Many in the region have been critical of Greece’s ability to patrol the border of the Schengen visa free travel area.

“The swift implementation of measures agreed at the EU level to strengthen external border protection must remain the top priority,” the joint statement issued after the summit read.

Though largely an effort to avoid making headlines ahead of key meetings in Brussels, the V4 end summit did not end without a few rhetorical flourishes. Fico, who faces an increasingly tight reelection battle March 5, opened the summit by insinuating that Germany was trying to prevent the V4 from discussing migration issues and accused Berlin of issuing a “demarché” to discourage the talks.

The V4 pledged to offer the EU a so-called plan B if leaders are unable to agree on a common policy for confronting the migration issues. Under the V4 initiative soldiers and police officers from other members states would be deployed to the Macedonian border with Greece to block the flow of migrants.

“There is a clear link between organised crime and the migration crisis,” Fico said following the summit. “Unless the Schengen borders are closed, we stand no chance.”