VISEGRAD: Europe’s axis is shifting West not East

VISEGRAD: Europe’s axis is shifting West not East
New premiers Andrej Babis (left) and Sebastian Kurz (right) will prioritise links with the EU's core.
By Robert Anderson in Prague February 13, 2018

Viktor Orban, the Hungarian strongman, has hailed 2018 as the year Central Europe will start to finally punch above its weight inside the European Union.  

He has claimed that the region’s growing economic and political self-confidence is attracting admirers across Europe, shifting the EU’s axis eastwards so that cooperation between Germany and the Visegrad Group is now becoming at least as important as cooperation between Germany and France. In particular he has welcomed Austria’s new government as an ally and as a possible harbinger that the tide against Western European federalists is turning.

This fantasy firstly ignores the widening division between Czechia and Slovakia on the one hand, and Hungary and Poland on the other. 2018 is likely instead to be the year the Visegrad Group becomes more and more moribund, preventing Orban’s crusade against Western Europe’s out of touch liberal elite from even getting off the ground.

At a panel debate in Prague in early December on the future of Central Europe organised by the Aspen Institute, the gaping fractures in the V4 were impossible to ignore. 

Moderator Michal Zantovsky, head of the Vaclav Havel Library and a former Czech centre-right politician, challenged Fidesz deputy Zsolt Nemeth to justify Orban’s hollowing out of Hungarian democracy, asking “Are we still on the same side?” Nemeth at first refused to answer and then brushed off the question with cold disdain. Representatives of Fidesz or Poland’s ruling Truth and Justice party are already a rare sight at Prague conferences – it is not hard to see why.

The united front of the V4 was always exaggerated anyway, both by Hungary and Poland (to bulk up their own significance), and by Western media, which as always prefer to hype a sexy story rather than tease out the little known region’s complexities.

Just because Orban regards himself as the V4’s spokesman does not mean he is. The Hungarian leader speaks good English and is witty, and therefore tends to overshadow his fellow V4 premiers. Czech and Slovak leaders could help themselves by beginning to voice their differences with their neighbourhood populists at V4 press conferences, rather than shuffling their feet or nodding along, as they did at their Budapest summit last month.

The V4 is not only divided politically between rightwing authoritarians in Poland and Hungary, and Social Democrats in Slovakia and centrist populists in Czechia, it also remains deeply split on key international issues such as relations with Russia and Nordstream 2. In reality the V4 these days agrees on little of substance apart from refusing to accept refugees, and defending the rights of their own migrants in Western Europe.

When the V4 put together their own EU programme in October 2016 in the Bratislava Declaration it was only notable for its vacuity. Moreover there was no follow-up; it stayed just a declaration. Central Europe’s voice in the upcoming big debate on the future of the EU has remained a purely negative one of resistance to a two-speed Europe and any cut in cohesion funds.

In fact it is hard to point to many issues in recent years where the V4 has played a key role in the EU, apart from its negative opposition to migrants. The fact that the V4 made so much of the EU Commission’s agreement to probe the allegedly worse food brand quality in the Eastern member states shows the limited range of its vision.

V4’s two main achievements have been raising the issues of energy security and the Eastern Partnership, says Vladimir Bilcik of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, but these are now endangered. “Now we are losing on both fronts,” he told bne IntelliNews. "They are no longer the focus of the EU because of the self-absorption of Poland and Hungary, and the lack of V4 unity to push this agenda.”

Dropping bombs

This failure is also because of the V4’s second fundamental weakness: its lack of allies. To achieve anything inside the EU it would have to work closely with other countries, and to engage in give and take, something Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland for one seems to have forgotten how to do. It is far easier just to rail against Brussels. This failure could be especially costly as the bloc starts to discuss the next budget framework.

“It is not enough to send bombs to Brussels – it is not enough to be right, you need to persuade them,” Petr Kolar, a former Czech deputy foreign minister, told an Institute for Politics and Society (IPS) seminar in Prague in October. “It is not good to blackmail our partners.”

Central Europe used to be seen as a natural part of a northern free market bloc led by the UK. However, the UK is currently obsessed with its exit from the EU – its loss is a big blow to the V4 – and even the now largely centre-right Scandinavian and Baltic governments have little to say to Central Europe’s rightwing authoritarians.

Elsewhere the populist revolution has been halted at the gates, though the Italian general election in March will represent another big test. Whether there is a great deal in common though between the Five Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo and Kaczynski’s Catholic and authoritarian Law and Justice Party is questionable. Central European populism remains a fundamentally different beast from its Western European variant.

Even the neighbouring Balkan member states are more interested in moving closer towards the core of the bloc – in particular by escaping from the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, entering the Schengen area, and adopting the euro – rather than joining together with the EU’s bad boys in a Polish Intermarium naughty corner.

Orban has welcomed Austria as a new ally following the entry of the far right Freedom Party into a coalition with the People’s Party. Austria is now likely to take a tougher stance on migration but it is not going to join the V4, as Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache has suggested. If anything cross-border co-operation might deteriorate because the Slavkov Triangle format between the once Social Democrat Czechia, Austria and Slovakia may wither away.

“It is going to be hard to forge serious co-operation between Austria and Hungary despite Austria’s newfound fascination with Hungary’s mafia state,” Christian Kvorning Lassen of the Europeum think-tank told bne IntelliNews at the IPS seminar. “It will be hard for Austria to balance Hungary and its more valuable partners in Western Europe, and it will prioritise those.”

People’s Party premier Sebastian Kurz, who has taken charge of EU policy, has reiterated that Austria will remain Western-facing. Germany is likely to remain Vienna’s key ally. He has also backed the EU’s sanctions against Poland for hollowing out democratic checks and balances, and has already stressed that Austria will argue that EU aid to Central and Eastern Europe should be cut in the next budget round.

"There are measures and initiatives where we have goodwill in Western European countries," he said on January 5. "There are others where we will perhaps get applause from the Visegrad countries, and still others where we agree with all other 27 EU member states."

Germany itself is set to try to reforge the relationship with Emmanuel Macron’s France following the agreement on a new coalition between Angela Merkel’s CDU-CSU bloc and the SPD. Relations with the V4 will remain a secondary consideration – despite the CSU’s warm relations with Orban’s Fidesz party. The Weimar Triangle format meetings between Germany, Poland and France will remain on ice until the Law and Justice party’s conflict with Brussels abates.

Growing differentiation

Thirdly, Hungary and Poland are likely to find their diplomatic position weakening this year as their disputes with Brussels escalate, and Slovakia and Czechia try to differentiate themselves more and more from their unpopular populist neighbours.

New Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki seems to have been selected by the country’s real ruler Kaczynski as a way of at least dialling down the tensions with Brussels, but so far this has not worked. So long as Kaczynski regards playing to the domestic gallery – with initiatives such as the recent bill on the Holocaust  – as more important than building bridges with the West, his prime minister will be put in an impossible position.

Orban, by contrast, has every interest in dialling up the tensions with Brussels, as he seeks a third consecutive term at the April general election.

Both countries are being investigated by Brussels over a host of issues and, whether or not the EU is finally ready to take strong action, the disputes are set to poison relations all year. Orban may partially back down after the election – as he has done many times before – but it hard to see Kaczynski doing the same, even if his domestic political position looks impregnable before the 2019 general election.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has played along with Orban and Kaczynski over the years to shore up his domestic support, whipping up hatred of Islam and lambasting the EU. But last year he began to increasingly differentiate himself from his two neighbours as their relations with Brussels worsened and the debate about the future of the EU started in earnest.

This is probably partly tactical. The Slovak parliamentary opposition is an unattractive hodgepodge of Eurosceptics, populists and neo-Nazis. Fico may be hoping to consolidate the country’s largely pro-EU voters behind his Smer party, or at least secure their tolerance as the least worst option.

He may also, given the difficulty he will have to form another workable coalition, be already thinking about his legacy, and putting Slovakia in the EU core would fit nicely. He is visibly exhausted after dominating Slovak politics for more than a decade and reportedly underwent a quadruple heart bypass in 2016.

He appears to be looking for a way out and there has even been speculation that, unlikely as it might seem, Fico harbours an ambition to take a senior post in the Commission. This would enable him to gracefully exit the bear pit of Slovak politics, as he tried and failed to do by standing for the ceremonial post of president in 2014. In a Central Europe where attention seeking populists such as Orban dominate the political scene, it might not take much to be embraced by the EU like a prodigal son.

Slovakia’s anti-immigrant stance was anyway as much rhetoric as substance. With little fanfare, Fico temporarily took in migrants from Austria, and just by accepting a few dozen migrants under the quota scheme, Slovakia avoided the EU infringement procedure launched against its V4 neighbours.

Fico has now declared his ambition for Slovakia to be at the heart of the EU project, something that it already qualifies for as the only member of the V4 that is in the Eurozone. He has also explicitly stated that if it came to the crunch, he would choose the EU over his V4 neighbours. As he said last June, “either we get in the integration express or we’ll be stuck in the depot on the second track”. In October the Slovak president, premier and parliamentary speaker joined forces to endorse this drive.

“What we want is to have a chance to be part of the EU core and keep good relations with the V4,” says a former Slovak ambassador, who adds that the country will continue to try to act as a bridge between the V4 and Brussels.  “We don’t see it as something mutually exclusive; in fact we see it the other way round, as something mutually supportive.”

But the problem with bridges is people walk all over them. As the smallest and youngest V4 member, and the only one now led by the left, being a bridge may become an increasingly difficult role for Slovakia to play, eventually pushing it to prioritise its relations with the EU core.

Pure pragmatism

Hungary and Poland may also find Czechia a less pliable partner in the future, despite the election of billionaire populist Andrej Babis. His predecessor, Social Democrat Bohuslav Sobotka, meekly followed Orban’s lead on migration because he feared that doing otherwise would be a gift to rivals such as Babis and the rightwing opposition parties. The centre-left government seemed to almost court the EU infringement procedure on migrant quotas by refusing to take in any new refugees, when it could easily have made a token gesture as Slovakia did.

If Babis is finally able to form a majority government, perhaps with Social Democrat backing, he will be in a much stronger position to take a purely pragmatic approach to the issue. A coalition with the far right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party or the Communists, with re-elected President Milos Zeman exerting more influence on foreign policy, would, however, be a very different matter.

Babis constantly voices criticism of Brussels, and has praised the V4, but he would be ready to change his position at the drop of a hat if he saw electoral advantage in it. He may try to keep triangulating between Brussels and the V4, but Fico’s shift West will make it increasingly difficult for him to cover both bases and could leave him exposed.

Babis is visibly enjoying strutting on the European stage and he would not want to exchange that for skulking on the fringes with the V4. “What would Babis gain if he ranks third after Orban and Kaczynski?” Vit Dostal, head of AMO, said at a seminar of the Czech foreign affairs think-tank in November. “His first steps indicate that we will see a continuity with what we have seen so far.”

Nevertheless he will not be able to play the big role he would like to until the Czech Republic adopts the euro, something that he has ruled out at least for this parliamentary term, largely because of voter opposition.

For Brussels, the widening division inside the V4 opens up the possibility of breaking off the Czech Republic and Slovakia, leaving Poland and Hungary effectively isolated. Macron already tried this gambit on his tour of the region last year and was able to make progress on the posted workers issue.

Whether it would be possible – or even desirable – for the EU as a whole to pursue such a divisive strategy is debatable, given the region’s sentimental attachment to the V4 format and the risk of damaging the still very strong backing of Hungarians and Poles for the EU. 

Yet if – and it is a big if – the migration issue can be defused, it should not be too difficult to win over the Czech Republic and Slovakia. That would then force Poland and Hungary to realise that they are on a losing team and should begin to play by the rules.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has already made efforts to patch things up with the V4, but it might require Babis and Fico to show a bit more independence from their neighbours to really concentrate everyone’s minds and begin to mend the breach.