WHAT characteristics do Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland want the Visegrad region to have in a decade or two? How can these four countries help other countries in neighbouring regions to firmly join the zone of political and economic stability? What issues can help these neighbours to forget their historical disputes and cultural differences and focus on things that make the region a stronger and more viable force to effectively defend regional interests?
Gábor Iklódy, state secretary and political director of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Emanuela Suprowicz, the Deputy National Coordinator of Visegrad Cooperation for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland, Peter Stano, spokesperson for the Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry and Milan Řepka, the spokesperson of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been seeking answers to questions like these and shared their views in interviews with The Slovak Spectator.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): In which fields can the potential of the Visegrad region as a whole be best used? Which areas of further cooperation do you consider a priority?
Milan Řepka: The presiding country of the Visegrad Group present a proposal for priorities and, after consultations and approval from the other countries, the program of the presiding country turns into the official priorities of the group for the next year. Hungary took over the presidency in July 2009 and among their main priorities are Euro-Atlantic integration of the western Balkan countries, the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership, cooperation in the economic development area and several forms of cooperation in the V4+ format, for example with Ukraine, Belarus, Japan or Benelux. As for the departmental cooperation, the leading issues are minorities, energy security and the financial crisis. The Czech Republic supports these priorities set for next year.
Gábor Iklódy (GI): We strive to effectively represent our common interests in the European Union or to make an active contribution to the development of EU policies. The four countries regularly consult about issues on the EU agenda as well as coordinate their approach to other significant topics. The Hungarian presidency, which started in July, will focus on the integration of the western Balkans into the Euro-Atlantic structures while maintaining the commitments to the EU and assisting the takeoff of the Eastern Partnership initiative. We wish to invigorate consultations in issues of energy policies and energy safety, as well as the development of North-South road, railway and energy corridors and connections with the use of EU funds. We would also monitor where we stand on common ground regarding the future of EU cohesion policies as well as in making use of EU resources more dynamic. More intense cooperation in the integration of the Roma community is on our agenda as well.
Emanuela Suprowicz: The V4 has a unique potential deriving from its ad hoc consultation mechanism that may be used for any purpose and which provides the much needed flexibility for effective cooperation in any field as required by circumstances. Cooperation within the Visegrad Group is not limited to the area of culture and education, although these are predominant areas in terms of projects carried out through funding from the International Visegrad Fund. Our countries cooperate on both the political and experts' level in all possible domains of public administration whether it concerns infrastructure, preservation of endangered species, military issues or sports and tourism. Currently, energy security in the region is increasingly assuming a top priority on the V4 agenda, just like the issue of stability of neighbouring regions, specifically of the countries participating in the Eastern Partnership and those of the western Balkans region.
Peter Stano: We see untapped cooperation opportunities in, for instance, the more successful promotion of common pragmatic projects in the areas of science and research or in better promotion of the V4 brand within Europe. We believe that in this time of global economic crisis the V4 could support even more regional cooperation among small and medium-sized enterprises and closer contacts between regional chambers of commerce. The Visegrad countries will remain, naturally, the first countries among which Slovakia seeks allies within the EU. We are not seeking to enlarge the grouping, but we definitely support cooperation with other countries and groupings.
TSS: One of the current priorities of V4 countries is passing on their experiences with integration into NATO and the EU to countries which are seeking to join the Euro-Atlantic structures in the future. What can V4 offer these countries?
MŘ: The V4 countries in this respect mainly focus on the countries of the western Balkans and countries that fall under the dimension of the European Neighbourhood Policy. In this area, the International Visegrad Fund plays a very important role, as its grant and scholarship programmes represent a significant tool to fulfil the aims of the V4 countries to support the democratisation and transformation processes in southeast and eastern Europe.
GI: The Visegrad countries have a shared interest in the democratization of neighbouring regions, especially the western Balkans and our eastern neighbours. The V4 countries have transformational and transitional experiences relevant for these partners. Then the V4 is an important forum for sharing experiences about regional cooperation, since cooperation between the regions might work as an important engine for the development of these regions. The support provided by the International Visegrad Fund is also an effective tool for sharing integration experiences. With the use of the Fund's resources we are able to run Belarusian, Ukrainian and western Balkan scholarships as well as a programme to support building democracies in Belarus, Serbia and Georgia.
ES: The V4 is an active player in the region and sees itself as a natural partner for neighbouring regions undergoing serious internal transformation processes which differ from one country to another. The V4 countries wish to share their experiences both with western Balkan states--mainly Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as with countries of the Eastern Partnership. The International Visegrad Fund is the sole institution of the V4 and is responsible for carrying out special V4 projects in neighbouring regions in the fields of modern education (scholarships and training for teachers), promotion of V4 culture (publishing of V4 literature) and support to local administrations according to their specific needs. The V4 will maintain its support for political integration and negotiations of relevant association agreements between the EU on one side and Ukraine, and Moldova as well, on the other. V4 states are sharing their experiences of accession to NATO with Ukraine, we coordinate the input of V4 states to the allied debate on granting of the MAP (Membership Action Plan), and we provide professional support for the development of strategic defence policies.
PS: Yes, the countries of V4 are ready and willing to pass on our experiences from the successful integration process into the EU and NATO. The V4 countries are aware of their responsibility and solidarity with the countries of south-eastern and eastern Europe that have started the process of getting closer to the EU and NATO. We support activities and projects that help to develop democracy and build civil society and thus we are helping these countries in their efforts to make political and economic reforms. In this regard there are two lines of intensive dialogue - with the countries of the western Balkans and with the countries of the Eastern Partnership. From within the V4, sharing Slovakia's experience from the NATO integration process is the more valuable, as Slovakia has been--thanks to close communication and cooperation with the other V4 countries--the Contact Embassy of NATO in Ukraine for a second term already. There are many other ways in which the V4 counties can help the candidate counties. The transfer of experience happens on both the political and the expert level.
TSS: Despite the fact that V4 countries are culturally very close, history not only unites them, but also sometimes divides them--an example is the current tension in relations between Hungary and Slovakia. How can Visegrad cooperation help to solve these problems?
GI: It is absolutely true: the Visegrad countries are bound by historical and cultural heritage. Yet, it also is true that we are competitors in some of the areas. But it is quite important for us to see that alone none of our countries make up such a critical force that it alone would eliminate the risks affecting the region and would create a qualitatively-new situation for further development. Now when we all are seeking ways out from the global economic crisis at political, institutional and economic levels, the key question remains whether our region is able to represent a common value system. Or perhaps the question also could be: what form do we wish central Europe to have in 10-15 years? No one else will do this work for us inhabitants of the Visegrad Region. If we admit that, then we can assess the weight of responsibility and where to focus our energy. Yet, this will not solve the disputes existing within the region, for example in the Slovak-Hungarian relations. But what it does is help us understand how senseless is the view which wants to see one nation as the enemy of the other and which assumes that we can solve our problematic affairs only by 'conquering' the other or by exchanging messages.
PS: The Visegrad Group is not meant to solve bilateral issues among its member countries. Therefore it is in the interest of all the V4 countries to not burden our constructive and fruitful Visegrad cooperation with the potential divisiveness of open bilateral issues. Maintaining fluent and undisturbed cooperation among the V4 countries is our common interest. Slovakia does not want negative historical reminiscences to burden the development of contemporary Slovak-Hungarian relations. A mixed commission of Slovak and Hungarian historians is therefore preparing a publication about our common history, which should fulfil an important task to go through and sum up the problems and differences between the viewpoints of the Slovak and Hungarian historiography on past events in central Europe, which should help further work, discussion and cooperation between the neighbouring historiographies.
TSS: In the past the approaches of V4 countries (except Poland, perhaps) in finding solutions to problems shared by Roma have been criticised. What is the role of the V4 in solving Roma problems?
GI: The problems of the Roma community living in Europe, most of them in deep poverty at the margins of societies, enduring segregated housing and schooling conditions, must be approached through measures coordinated at the regional and European level. The cooperation then should be strengthened in harmony with this intention. The Hungarian presidency's focus is a joint proposal for the social integration of the Roma community and improvement of their access to European Union resources while these efforts should pursue the application of the principle of equality of chances in access to the support. The prime ministers at their Krakow meeting have already decided about the creation of a working group for the elaboration of the proposal.
PS: Slovakia regards the issues connected with the position of Roma citizens to be an all-European problem and sees its solution in this context. It is necessary to say that perceptions of Roma problems have changed after the EU enlargements in 2004 and 2007 when Roma became the largest European minority. Slovakia is aware that the main responsibility for social exclusion of Roma rests on the shoulders of individual EU member states, but sees the V4 platform as a proper forum for formulating concrete suggestions for the coordination of active approaches to solving the problems of Roma. These suggestions could then help a positive shift in dealing with problems of Roma on the European level. During the ongoing Hungarian presidency, the V4 wants to launch a discussion which would lead to creating a central European Roma Strategy. Its aim should be the improvement of the position of Roma in society also by using resources of the International Visegrad Fund.
MŘ: The so-called Roma strategy belongs to the priorities of the Hungarian presidency of the V4. Its importance was stressed by the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the meeting of foreign ministers in Warsaw in May 2009. The common interest in establishing a working group to deal with Roma issues was then confirmed by the summit of the prime ministers in Krakow in June 2009. The Czech Republic will be represented in the working group by the deputy minister for human rights and minorities.
TSS: Currently, the issue of climate change and environmental protection has become one of the biggest global problems. In the beginning of July, V4 environmental ministers met in Krakow. What was the result of the meeting? Has any agreement been reached on a joint approach by the countries?
GI: Environment ministers of the Visegrad Four countries stood up for an ambitious, new and all-embracing global agreement at the December Climate Conference in Copenhagen. While acknowledging the necessity of obligations on emissions reductions, V4 countries maintain that efforts of the developed countries must reflect the financial strength of particular countries as well as their responsibility flowing from their share in pollution. Regarding cross-border waste management, the department heads agreed that though the volume of the illegal waste transports has not increased since the countries have joined Schengen, not much progress have been noticed in returning waste illegally transported to V4 countries back to the countries of the waste's origin. In order to solve the problem, the V4 countries will turn with a joint proposal to the European Commission. Meeting the air quality directive presents considerable challenge for all the Visegrad countries, thus the V4 welcomes the extension of the deadline for application of the directive.
PS: The V4 ministers have also stressed the need to realise the mitigation measures needed to achieve the long-term 2ºC temperature increase restriction and recognised the criterion of comparability of the reduction attempts for all the advanced countries based on the principles of ability to pay and the duty of the polluter to pay.
TSS: Migration--currently issue No. 1 in western European countries--has not yet been defined as such a problem in V4 countries and has not been a part of public debate. However, experts say that soon migration will essentially affect all central European countries.
GI: It is necessary to bolster the cooperation of V4 countries in the area of migration, since the countries, almost to the same degree, must face the migration challenges coming from the east and the southeast, first of all challenges of illegal migration and organized crime. Thus it is crucial that the geographical balance is kept within the migration issues, which are gaining even more significance within the EU: along with the interests of the southern member countries, which are more impacted by migration, attention is paid to the interests of the eastern and south eastern regions as well.
ES: The V4 is a grouping located in the vicinity of two very important regions--the western Balkans in to the south and eastern Europe with its biggest player, Ukraine. The visa liberalization process has political implications but also very practical ones in regards to the freedom of movement of citizens. People to people contacts are part of the integration process and should be allowed to develop and flourish around the continent. Yet the perspective of big migratory flows is a very tangible one and the V4 countries will have to make necessary adjustments to meet those challenges as well. In this respect the V4 fully supports the program "Building Migration Partnerships" launched by the Czech Presidency in spring 2009.
PS: Migration is becoming a more and more visible issue on the agenda of the whole EU. For this reason, the EU passed a strategy, the so-called Global Approach of the EU to Migration, geographically-oriented to the south (the Africa and Mediterranean area) and east and southeast from the EU. It represents the common framework for dialogue and practical cooperation by the EU with other countries and includes three dimensions: management of legal migration; a fight against illegal immigration; and strengthening the synergy between migration and development. This approach mirrors the basic change in the global approach to migration, a shift from the approach closely-oriented on security and reducing migration streams to an approach which tries to include all aspects of migration and perceive it as a phenomenon with positive potential. The application of such policies and using the tools of the Global Approach are reflected in V4 cooperation. Slovakia has the ambition to enrich the V4 discussion by also examining the interconnection between development and migration policies.