Visegrad Four search for common ground in 'Friends of Schengen'

Visegrad Four search for common ground in 'Friends of Schengen'
By Tim Gosling December 3, 2015

The Visegrad Four will launch the 'Friends of Schengen', the prime ministers of the four Central European states announced at a summit in Prague on December 3. The idea is an attempt to hit back at suggestions from some western EU states that the EU should restrict the wider border-free bloc to a 'mini Schengen'.

The move also represents a bid to concentrate on the common ground between the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. Their opposition to the EU's push for countries to accept redistributed migrants has angered the likes of Germany, leading to suggestions that membership in the Schengen system could be rescinded.

That would hit the Visegrad states hard. Quick and easy travel to western Europe is very popular among Central Europeans and their economies are dependent on exports to the rest of the EU. 

Meanwhile, the four PMs appeared uncomfortable when asked about their stance on Nord Stream II. The plan to expand the Russian gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine, has split the EU and Visegrad. While Poland and Slovakia have led objections, the Czech Republic on December 2 declined to sign a letter of complaint to Brussels.

The Visegrad countries reject the idea of limiting the visa-free area to a smaller number of countries, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, host of the Prague summit, said. They will look to attract other EU member states to 'Friends of Schengen' that have a "common interest in protecting the external borders" of the visa free zone.

"We want to maintain freedom in EU via 'Friends of Schengen,' insisted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. "But we must still recognize border control is a national responsibility, and must stay that way."

Hungary has drawn harsh criticism for building fences on its borders with Serbia and Croatia. The country registered a lawsuit with the European Court of Justice on December 3 against the EU's migrant quotas, a day after Slovakia did the same.

"The Visegrad Four is showing solidarity on the migrants issue," Slovakia's Robert Fico added. "However, we reject false solidarity and instead demand real solutions to issues."

The EU migrant quotas were proposed to show unity with the likes of Greece and Italy, which have had to handle hundreds of thousands of refugees this year.

Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem – chair of the Eurozone's group of finance ministers - reiterated last week that some countries have discussed the idea of a 'mini Schengen'. He also warned that countries which failed to guard Europe's borders and did not take in a fair share of refugees might find themselves left out, a clear threat to Central Europe.

Jan Mladek, Czech economy minister, said at a press briefing on December that such an "unpleasant suggestion" would have grave repercussions for the Czech Republic. “For this country the open borders are as important as EU funds," he said. "[If we lose them] it means we can forget about just in time deliveries”.