The ‘illiberal axis’ formed by Hungary and Poland should be rubbing its hands with glee as it eyes an opportunity to press a proclaimed “cultural counter revolution” at the EU’s first post-Brexit summit, whilst Brussels and Berlin strive to keep the lid firmly fixed on the can of contentious worms eating away at the bloc. However, despite the reports in the Western press, not all the “Eastern EU states” are so keen to kick the bloc when its down, while just how far Hungary and Poland will push their case when it comes to the crunch is debatable.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski – chairman of Poland’s ruling Law & Justice (PiS) - have spent recent weeks insisting they not be swayed by efforts to keep difficult issues off the summit agenda. Yet the track record of the Visegrad Four – in which the pair is joined by Czechia and Slovakia – suggests the rhetoric will be much calmer as they meet with EU peers in Slovak capital Bratislava on September 16.
Still, the diplomatic effort to keep the summit on track has been energetic. Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel would like the summit to focus on mundane policy in a bid to stress unity amongst the 27-member states that will be present, with the UK sitting it out.
“We all feel that in these turbulent times marked by crises and conflicts, what we need more than ever before is a confirmation of the sense of our community,” Tusk wrote in an open letter to member states on September 13. Even the “informal” label is an effort to remove expectations of anything concrete resulting from the meeting.
Security and border protection are earmarked as the topics to be discussed in Bratislava, with the narrow focus intended to avoid disagreement. More contentious issues such as migration, economic policy and the looming Brexit negotiations are off the agenda as far as Brussels and Berlin are concerned.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian PM Matteo Renzi have spent recent weeks on tour around the EU drumming up support to push unity of the bloc in the wake of Brexit and in the face of the populist challenge, including that coalescing in the east.
Brexit was not only the result of “a cynical game of populists exploiting social frustrations,” Tusk notes. “Bratislava will have to be a turning point in terms of protecting the union's external borders. We must demonstrate to our citizens that we are willing and able to protect them from a repeat of the chaos of 2015. This will require the full cooperation of all the governments and European institutions.”
However, he also held out an olive branch to the populists. “"The keys to a healthy balance between the priorities of member states and those of the union lie in national capitals," the former Polish PM, and bitter enemy of Kaczynski, continued. "The institutions should support the priorities as agreed among member states, and not impose their own."
The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, offered signs of compromise with Visegrad demands on specifics in his ‘State of the Union’ speech the following day. He announced plans to launch an EU army, gelling with recent calls from Hungary and the Czech Republic, railed against low milk prices – an issue earmarked as central to the revival of support for the EU by Slovakia.
He also essentially admitted that the idea of migrant quotas - the one issue to truly unite the Central European states - is all but dead. As the largest recipients, a boost for infrastructure funding should also be welcomed in Visegrad.
However, at apparent odds with Tusk, he was also swift to try to slam the door shut against forces of “fragmentation”. He offered stern words on the UK’s effort to wrangle a one-sided Brexit deal, as well as those EU leaders promoting the "galloping populism" sweeping the bloc. "Too often, national interests are brought to the fore" in Europe, he declared.
However, Hungary and Poland will likely hold little truck with that as they arrive in Bratislava. They will see as yet another example of how the Brussels ‘elite’ is blocking reform to try to cling to the status quo.
The populist leaders of the two countries are enjoying the struggles of the EU, and Brexit appears to have sealed a ‘bromance’. They assert that the exit of the UK proves their calls to reform the bloc are correct. They insist they have no intention of relaxing their grip on an EU bogeyman that offers them both so much traction with voters at home.
The time to strike is now, whilst the opponent is winded, the Hungarian leader clearly feels. "Brexit is a fantastic opportunity for us," Orban – a practiced opportunist - said in late August as he shared a stage and platitudes with his Polish ally Kaczynski. "We are at a historic cultural moment. There is a possibility of a cultural counter-revolution right now."
With proponents of the course towards a stronger union on the back foot and keen to evade any further strife right now, the pair is also keen to accelerate their journey from the periphery of EU politics towards the mainstream, as populism grips the continent. With self-interest to the fore, they could be keen to stir up as much trouble as possible in Bratislava, pressing their announced bid for a new EU treaty that will hand greater powers back to nation states.
Indeed, Hungary and Poland made it clear to Tusk - the former Polish PM was in the region this week attempting to coordinate policy ahead of the summit - that they will not toe the line.
“We expect this summit to be a first impulse to change the EU,” Polish government spokesman Rafal Bochenek said on September 13 after Tusk met PM Beata Szydlo. “EU officials shouldn’t try to block these changes as a passive approach and lack of understanding of what people want led to Brexit.”
Szydlo, seen as a little more than a front for Kaczynski – in contrast with Orban a committed nationalist ideologue who is officially a simple backbench MP – has said that Visegrad has a "recipe for the EU" that will be revealed in Bratislava. The Polish PM will not have her firebrand mentor at her side in the summit meetings, but Orban will offer support to the protégé of his new best friend.
“Europe needs to be strengthened on a member state level,” the Hungarian premier reiterated on September 12. “We need to revisit the concept of the Europe of nations, and the continent needs to regain its competitiveness. That is the viewpoint of the Visegrad Four countries. The third proposal is to finally seriously consider setting up an EU military.”
The claim by Luxembourg’s foreign minister on the eve of the summit that Hungary should be kicked out of the EU for abusing the bloc’s values in its treatment of migrants was presumably intended to be a shot across the bows, however misjudged. Indeed, the likes of Germany and Austria were swift to slam the call, clearly hoping not to provoke Budapest.
Hungary needs no provocation. But confrontational and opportunist as ever, Orban is only likely to seize upon the comment and use it as another stick with which to beat Brussels over what he – and increasingly many other populist leaders across Europe – claims is a democratic deficit.
However, despite reports further west complaining of a “spiky” Visegrad Four, neither Czechia or Slovakia are likely to join the revolution this week. Meanwhile, just how much trouble Orban and Kaczynski will be ready to stir up when faced with a European rather than domestic audience is also a question.
“The migrant issue was a rare point of agreement for the Visegrad states,” points out Otilia Dhand at Teneo Intelligence. “It has raised speculation that the group could come together to split the EU. However, while that point illustrated the V4 can no longer be expected to simply sign on the dotted line, they are not going to lead a unified call for EU reform. There are too many different interests between them.”
As host for the event and current holder of the EU presidency, Slovakia will clearly not want to see the summit descend into chaos. At the same time, the mood has changed in Bratislava since Prime Minister Robert Fico was shocked by the success of neo-nazi and far right parties in the March election – and the loss of his Smer party’s parliamentary majority. A major heart attack not long after also appears to have quelled much of the fire in his belly.
Bratislava even offered a rebuke to Warsaw this week concerning its fight with Brussels over the PiS government’s efforts to control Poland’s constitutional court and state media. That’s a tussle Kaczynski insists illustrates the EU’s dictatorial tendencies towards member states and their domestic business.
However, Fico’s administration appears to side with Brussels. "Both the independence of tribunals and freedom and pluralism of media are indispensable elements in ensuring the rule of law in a democratic society,” Bratislava’s state secretary for European affairs pronounced, noting that he was speaking on behalf of the Slovak presidency.
The Slovak leader has also dropped his populist racist rants against the EU’s migrant quotas and clearly moved towards a more constructive stance. “The summit is to discuss topics that show that the European Union is a viable project and that this project is worth the fight," he said in a video posted on YouTube on September 12.
That’s an outlook that brings the Slovak PM closer to his Czech peer. In Prague, Bohuslav Sobotka has spent the last couple of years playing up to the EU and US as leader of the responsible Visegrad state, a strategy largely inspired by his long and bitter feud with President Milos Zeman, an outspoken populist who enjoys bashing Brussels and features prominently in international media coverage of the Czech stance, despite having little actual power.
The head of state is something of a Machiavellian master. He met with Norbert Hofer – the far-right candidate for the Austrian presidential election - on September 12, with the pair announcing they want to strengthen the role of Central Europe in the EU. "We want to create a union in the union," Hofer told reporters.
Yet the same day, the Czech cabinet approved a mandate for Sobotka’s trip to Bratislava that will see him stick closely to the line pushed by Berlin. “The Czech Republic will push for the deepening of defence and security cooperation. The Czech government considers it crucial for the future that the economic levels of particular member states come closer to each other,” the text reads.
The PM also clearly rejected Hofer’s suggestion as well as the call to expel Hungary from the bloc. "We will not create any union within the EU or expel anyone," Sobotka stated. “Europe must cooperate and retain its cohesion." His advisor, former PM Vladimir Spidla, also called for the Czechs to quickly join the euro, as he eyes likely further moves towards a ‘two-tier’ EU. Slovakia is the only other Visegrad state within the single currency.
Some suggest these more moderate Visegrad states will prove instrumental in toning down the Hungarian/Polish assault on Brussels at this sensitive time. "The Slovak EU presidency will not associate itself with anything like that", Milan Nic at the Globsec Policy Institute, suggested to the BBC.
"The Czechs are neighbours of Germany, and they're very worried by the rhetoric coming out of Budapest and Warsaw," he added. "Messages were passed behind closed doors at the [most recent] Visegrad summit... not to disrupt Bratislava. I think it is now understood," he sums up.
Dhand suggests that may be little more than a technicality anyway. During recent meetings with Merkel, the Polish and Hungarian leaders were remarkably quiet with their complaints, she points out.
“Warsaw and Budapest are not alone in their views on reform of the EU. They would likely find similar stances in the Netherlands or Denmark,” the analyst suggests. “However, they’re not going to come up with a reform proposal of their own. They traditionally seek sponsorship of a larger member state for any issues.”