VISEGRAD: V4 leaders struggle to paper over the cracks

VISEGRAD: V4 leaders struggle to paper over the cracks
There was little evidence that the four PMs were happy to see one another.
By Tim Gosling in Prague June 9, 2016

The prime ministers of the Visegrad Four offered the usual platitudes on unity as they took the stage at the Prague European Summit on June 8, but the bulk of the comments only served to illustrate the continuing divisions.

The EU and the series of crises buffeting the bloc have come to utterly dominate the agenda for Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. But far from promoting the “solidarity” invoked at the event, the four are being pulled apart by the problems plaguing the bloc and the resulting domestic political considerations.

While the Visegrad states insist that they have a common stance towards Brussels, the evidence suggests anything but. Hungary and Poland are increasingly forming a two-pronged force for ‘illiberal democracy’ but Russia is the elephant in the room whenever the pair meet. Splits within the V4 are also clear on practically every other major issue on the EU table, including the migrant crisis and energy security.

The only issue on which all appear to agree sincerely is that they don’t want to see the UK leave the bloc. Yet the four Central European states proved the major obstacle to Prime Minister David Cameron’s efforts earlier this year to clinch a deal intended to tempt the British to remain.

This all only illustrates the vulnerability of these young democracies to the rising wave of populism washing over the EU. The space for responsible and far-sighted leadership has shrunk rapidly as the frustration of the region’s population over the slow catch-up of living standards with those further West grows.

Still, the four continue to try to persuade themselves and the outside world that the V4 is a viable coalition into which they can pool resources and increase their leverage in Europe. And still, just about every time they get together the cracks look as wide as ever.

Handing over the 12-month presidency of the group to Poland on June 8, Bohuslav Sobotka demonstrated the antagonism from the off. The Czech PM is under constant pressure at home from his populist coalition partner Ano and his bitter enemy President Milos Zeman, and seems to have decided some months ago that the best defence is to play the good cop for Brussels and the US.

Standing next to Hungary’s Viktor Orban to deliver his opening remarks, Sobotka called for “positivity” and a recognition of the successes in Brussels’ response to its long list of crises. The glower of the champion of ‘illiberal democracy’ at Sobotka’s side only deepened as the Czech leader warmed to his theme.

Migration is being over reported, the Czech leader claimed, and the European project should not be distracted by the issue. Populism and nationalism are bigger dangers, he warned. “Radicals come with easy solutions. Actors are using unrealities and negativity to create divisions between member states and within societies.”

A good kicking

Undeterred, or perhaps provoked, by those apparent barbs, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and Orban both proceeded to give the EU yet another good kicking. Sobotka, meanwhile, spent the rest of the debate in silence, evidently aware of his isolation. 

Szydlo, busy fighting off efforts by the EU to force her government to end a nasty constitutional crisis, spent her time grating against “Brussels’ efforts to take power over national sovereignty”. EU institutions are elbowing one another in a bid to prove themselves the most invasive, she claimed.

Orban, meanwhile, continued his quixotic campaign to attack the evils of the European club. The Hungarian PM has been emboldened by the rise of rightwing populists across the EU that have voiced support for his extreme views on immigration, and as several commentators told bne IntelliNews recently, he now believes he strides a larger stage than just his small Central European country.

Launching a typically gruff and somewhat bizarre rant, the Hungarian PM sought to jump aboard the populist bandwagon challenging liberal democracy in the West, as he declared the legitimacy of the “elite” that had launched the EU project in the 1950s was over. ”I will add to Mr Sobotka’s list of crises,” he scowled at his host. “Now there is a crisis of economic legitimacy. Everything to the west of us is cracking. Some call that kind of view populism, but it doesn’t make it any less true.”

He moved on to stick the boot into the West and Nato. There is also a crisis of foreign policy, which seeks to spread liberal democracy, he insisted. “It is a heavily built concept in the minds of European leaders, but it has failed. Iraq, Libya and Syria now don’t exist – that foreign policy has broken all these countries,” the Hungarian PM claimed.

Szydlo, whose rabidly anti-Russian government is lobbying Nato hard to station troops and weapons in the region, agreed that the EU’s problems are all of its own making, and that Visegrad is the only region ready to state that frankly.

The bloc should show “solidarity” the Polish PM insisted – apparently without irony – with what she claimed is the most stable and economically dynamic region in Europe. That all of Central Europe is hugely dependent on demand for its exports out of the Eurozone – much maligned Germany most of all – was not mentioned, nor were the billions in EU funding that flow into Visegrad each year.

“We see no riots in the streets in Central Europe due to government decisions,” Szydlo went on to proclaim – an apparent reference to clashes in France in recent months –  which ignored  the huge demonstrations that have regularly filled the streets of Polish cities since her Law & Justice government took power in November.  

Milk & pork

Meanwhile, whether the result of his party’s surprise slump in the March elections, or his recent major heart surgery, Slovakia’s Robert Fico appeared unsure of where he should now stand. Consequently, he drifted around in the middle ground between Sobotka’s pro-Western stance and the fury professed by Poland and Hungary.

Indeed, as he warned that the EU faces “total fragmentation”, the Slovak populist looked shell-shocked as he asked how it was that neo-Nazi’s had been voted into the parliament in Bratislava. The PM appears genuinely bewildered how his long pre-election campaign to denigrate migrants and Muslims backfired so badly, and he’s now apparently seeking a new position to market.

In stark contrast to Orban’s attempt to promote himself as a geopolitical arbiter, Fico mostly mumbled about populist routes to revive support for the EU. “The EU discusses topics which are distant from the interests of our citizens,” he complained. “Milk and pork are the ways to persuade the common man” of the bloc’s benefits.

The performance was not one to put to rest worries over the stability of the Slovak government ahead of the country’s takeover of the EU presidency on July 1. Poland’s forthcoming leadership of the V4 is spurring nearly as much doubt it seems.

Despite the splits in a regional coalition that has so often been written off because of the self-interest and petty ambitions of its four members, Szydlo insisted that under Poland’s presidency over the next 12 months, the Visegrad Four will “intensify” cooperation. That, she says, will bolster her claim that the region is now the most fit to lead Europe.

A Polish government spokesman sought to clarify the aims. “The goals we want to pursue during our presidency… are the strengthening of the role of the Visegrad Group in the European Union, as well as strengthening cooperation on a common energy, migration and economic policy,” he claimed. On this evidence, that will prove no small challenge.

Indeed, several analysts suggested at the end of the event that with the passing of the Czech presidency, and its attempts to play a moderating role, the signs are that the V4, like its pronounced nemesis headquartered in Brussels, only risks further fragmentation.