The foreign ministers of the Visegrad Group countries met with their German and French counterparts in Prague on June 27 to try to nip in the bud any attempt to exploit the Brexit crisis to push towards a "two-tier" Europe.
The meeting was hastily arranged following the shock British referendum result announced on June 24, over a weekend during which there were howls of complaint over an exclusive get together between the founder members of the EU. Central European fears were heightened by revelations of a Franco/German proposal for an accelerated drive towards greater EU integration – albeit a plan not reportedly endorsed by Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The hasty and unusual arrangement of the meeting was mirrored by the press briefing, with only host Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek speaking. He offered the expected platitudes, noting that the EU must work together to carry on the project and define the relationship with the UK, but in reality the Czech Republic and its V4 peers will have a very different approach than Berlin and Paris.
For Central Europe, the loss of the UK is a severe blow. The broadly Eurosceptic stance in London, pushing for a free trade-focussed club, rather than deeper integration along financial, security, and cultural lines, matches the view in Visegrad well. The loss of the weighty UK as a counter-balance to the French and German axis has political circles on edge across the region, as they eye the risk of a "two-tier" EU in which they are in the wrong, non-euro, half.
That wariness turned to outright worry and anger as a document emerged detailing a proposal to deepen integration. Polish media have presented what appears to be an informal letter put together by the foreign ministers of France and Germany. The document puts forward a “European superstate,” TVP Info asserts. The proposal was due to be presented to the V4 group by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Prague, the Polish media outlet claimed.
The document appears to propose several highly controversial suggestions. They include a single EU army and formation of a unified foreign policy. The unification of criminal law, and tax and visa systems are also on the list, it appears.
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski's response was unambiguous. "This is not a good solution, of course, because from the time the EU was invented... a lot has changed," he said according to PAP. "The mood in European societies is different. Europe and our voters do not want to give the Union over into the hands of technocrats."
It is not clear how the conversation in Prague went. However, German media report that Merkel would have no truck with the proposals anyway. At the best of times the German leader has proved cautious on pressing forwards with the EU project. In the wake of the conservative populism that drove the Brexit vote and is spreading across Europe, it would act little more than like a red rag to a bull.
Indeed, European leaders across the spectrum are stressing that Brexit must, most importantly, alter the course of the EU and spark deep reform. The fundamental, yet unstated, point in that is this means reclaiming some national sovereignty from Brussels. The curt meeting and comments in Prague presumably stemmed from the proposal's potentially cynical bid to take it the opposite way.
"To pretend that nothing happened would be the wrong response to the vote on Brexit," Zaoralek told the press following the meeting, flanked by five (silent) peers. "The wrong answer," he added according to Cesky Rozhlas, "would be hasty integration."
Rather, the EU must now begin to solve the practical problems of its people, the Czech foreign minister demanded.
Later comments from Slovak counterpart Miroslav Lajcak backed that stance up. "I think that people in Britain in the first place, but also in the rest of Europe, deserve to know that their decisions will count," he said.
The head of the press office at the Polish Ministry of Foreign affairs said the meeting of the foreign ministers of the six founding countries of the EU on June 25 and the Franco-German proposals on the reform of the union were discussed.
"The question is whether the Franco-German proposals to go further, are at this moment a good response to what happened and the results of the referendum in the UK," Rafal Sobczak dead-panned. "For us the most important thing is above all to maintain unity and cohesion in all the member states of the union."
The fear that the larger western member states may seek to ditch that 'unity' led Waszczykowski the very same day to host another hastily-arranged meeting. The list of attendees added peers from Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, as well as the Visegrad ministers. It was of no little significance that the UK minister of state for Europe David Lidington was also invited. Britain has, understandably, been locked out of EU talks since the Brexit vote and has turned inwards.
“We believe that it is important to talk to everyone," Sobczak said. "Of course, EU foreign ministers can meet in various formats within the EU framework, but it is important that the discussions take place in an inclusive atmosphere and serve to deepen reflection on the future of the EU.”
Visegrad's bid to derail any push towards further integration was, however, perhaps best illustrated on June 26. In a somewhat dramatic performance on Czech state TV's flagship political programme presented by Vaclav Moravec, Zaoralek called on Jean Claude Juncker to quit.
"Right now I can't see the European Commission chairman as the right man for the job," the minister said, calling the keen proponent of a closer union in Europe a "negative symbol".
"I don't want to call on anyone [to resign]," he continued, "but... someone in the EU maybe should contemplate quitting, because [Brexit] is a responsibility someone should have assumed."