New challenges await the Visegrad Group
The Visegrad Group (V4) was first formed as an informal grouping with one of the primary aims to support integration of its four member states, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia into the EU. That goal was fulfilled more than five years ago but since then the V4 has proven its viability by taking on new challenges in the further enlargement of the EU by cooperating with countries currently outside the union as well by pursuing energy security in the Visegrad region.
The Slovak Spectator spoke about the strategic importance of the Visegrad Group, its newest challenges and about cross-border cooperation with Tomáš Strážay, a research fellow working with the Research Centre of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How have the key objectives of the Visegrad Group changed after the admission of its members to the EU?
Tomáš Strážay (TS): The Visegrad Group, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2011, has proven that it is the most effective regional grouping in central Europe created first for cooperation by three and later four countries. Of course, there were some problematic moments and for a certain time the cooperation was halted, but later it was revitalised.
Now the V4 is in the post-EU admission phase and cooperation among the countries is gaining a new dimension. Before 2004 the main goal of all V4 countries was integration into Euro-Atlantic structures: accession to the European Union and to NATO. The key objectives of V4 countries began to change after this main priority was fulfilled. It took the V4 member states a certain time to define their new priorities. There were some declarations; specifically I have in mind the Kroměříž declaration of 2004 in which the V4 countries declared their determination to continue further developing their cooperation as member states of the EU and NATO. These included intensification of cooperation on the European as well as the regional level, searching for new themes, among which was, for example, cooperation with eastern neighbours of the EU as well within the V4 states, support to the further enlargement of EU and other themes linked with deeper and greater integration of V4 countries into the EU. These included, for instance, admission into the Schengen zone.
These were priorities which V4 defined during the post-entry period and I think that now there is a new shift because after 2004 there were also some sceptical voices doubting the need of Visegrad cooperation.
Fortunately, the pragmatic interests of V4 countries in cooperating with each other and creating a grouping, comparable in its importance with other regional initiatives as Benelux or the Nordic Council, overcame the sceptics. I think that this has been already fulfilled to a certain degree.
TSS: What are the main challenges which the Visegrad Group will face in the following years?
TS: The challenges we face now are to a certain degree inter-connected with EU policies or the operation of V4 countries within international organisations such as NATO and OSCE, but also within the EU itself. I think that the main European themes will dominate. This will include going forward in cooperation with eastern neighbours within the new initiative of the EU, the Eastern Partnership. This initiative was launched under the Czech EU presidency during the first half of 2009. Furthermore, it is support to countries of the western Balkans and their integration into EU. Here V4 countries can not only 'give them a lecture' but can also provide concrete information about problematic issues the V4 countries faced on the way to the EU accession so that the Balkan states can avoid these mistakes.
Energy security is a huge theme touching upon all of the V4 countries as well as Slovakia, within which new forms for greater cooperation are being pursued. I think that regarding this area, not all possibilities within the region have been fully used so far.
TSS: What challenges does energy security include?
TS: Searching for possibilities on how to make cooperation in energy security more effective is a distinctive theme. This is because cooperation within the V4 since the very beginning has been institutionalised only to a small degree. The Visegrad Group was in fact launched as an informal grouping which has had only one formal institution since 2000: the International Visegrad Fund. And now no political will exists to set up any other institutions. This has pros as well as cons. The pros are that in this way the group is flexible and able to respond more quickly to various challenges from outside as well as inside. On the other hand, a coordination body is missing which could better coordinate activities of individual partners. Because Visegrad cooperation is not more institutionalised, decisions taken on the V4 level have only the character of recommendations.
The Polish as well as the Czech presidencies of V4 endeavoured in some ways to institutionalise meetings of relevant representatives of V4 departments who would regularly discuss energy security issues. There are efforts to strengthen these consultation mechanisms also because of the possibility of a future energy crisis.
The natural gas crisis at the start of 2009, when the Czech Republic and other Visegrad partners helped Slovakia to tackle its gas shortage after Ukraine cut the flow of gas proved the need for better cooperation in this field. For example, transition networks between V4 states are not completely interconnected and that is a significant problem.
Another theme related to energy security is the use of nuclear energy within which Slovakia and the Czech Republic have already created a tandem approach supported by other V4 states.
These all are themes which are also interesting for Russia and Ukraine and to which V4 can provide a certain 'added value'. These all are directions in which V4 cooperation may further develop.
In fact, all themes and projects related to transmission of electricity or hydrocarbons, for example the Nabucco pipeline, are touching upon all central European countries with regards to their position on the outer borders of the EU. Closely connected with this is the significant engagement of the V4 countries in the Eastern Partnership (EaP), which was inaugurated in Prague in May 2009. The main aim of the partnership is to improve the political and economic trade relations of six post-Soviet states of "strategic importance"--Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia--with the European Union.
TSS: Since there is no political will to create new V4 institutions, how can further cooperation develop?
TS: Within the V4 there is a tendency to create new mechanisms for cooperation within the existing framework. There is being discussed, for example, the principle of a priori solidarity. This means that if a V4 member state has a dispute about a specific topic with a third party, a country outside V4, it would get certain a priori support from other V4 partners. Today, this does not exist.
The Visegrad partnership also offers space to better utilize the presidency of the EU among the V4 countries for strengthening regional cooperation and also to raise regional themes created within V4 to the EU level. I think that the Eastern Partnership project also shows that central European countries may be able to make a significant contribution also to EU policies or for policies of other international organisations, for example, the Council of Europe, OSCE and NATO.
TSS: What is the importance of cross-border cooperation in economic development of the region?
TS: With regards to cross-border cooperation, this is a very fundamental theme within V4, but the dimension I would like to stress is cross-border cooperation with countries neighbouring the EU and V4, especially Ukraine. Here V4 countries can contribute in a more significant or more innovative way because they know these border regions. There is also no fundamental language barrier, except for in Hungary, and the number of joint projects has been increasing.
The V4+ mechanism also has a great perspective because it enables countries outside V4 'to associate' to V4 for a certain period of time and cooperate intensively in fields interesting for both the V4 countries and countries outside the group. This is a format which serves for better communication with countries outside V4 and, paradoxically, these are not only countries neighbouring the Visegrad region, but also, for example Japan and Israel. Cooperation within this mechanism is variable, for instance in economic issues or agriculture, but its objective may also be the EU accession agenda as is the case of the Balkan countries. It depends on the needs of the external countries and the interest of V4 countries to accept or not such offers for cooperation. Here the space for cooperation is very extensive.
TSS: Before EU admission the V4 countries helped each other to jointly reach this goal. To what extent should such V4 solidarity be in place with regards to efforts to gain, for example, foreign investments?
TS: During the pre-entry period solidarity existed among the V4 countries, but each country also fought for itself. And now a very natural rivalry exists in the region. I would not employ any models of solidarity or continuity here. These belong, rather, to strategic decisions and strategic frameworks where a consensus should exist and does exist. V4 states do not agree on many issues but this does not mean that they will accommodate each other. For example, Slovakia is the only V4 country which does not recognise the independence of Kosovo while the other countries have done so. V4 countries also have differing views on agriculture politicise as well as in ways to handle the economic crisis. But I see this as fair competition.
The place where a more internal support from the V4 may be expected is in supporting the candidates of V4 countries for various international posts. I think that this is an area where the potential of the V4 could also be used.
I think that it is already appreciated since the launch of the V4, and especially since the admission these states into EU, that the Visegrad region is not only a geographical area in which citizens of four countries live, but also a region in which political leaders are able to agree upon many issues and cooperate and that, along with natural national interests, there is a certain regional interest. The Visegrad sceptics have also realised that a viable path to EU politics is led many times via the Visegrad region. Of course, coalitions are created in many ways, but always a voice is more powerful when it is of four countries supported by a joint declaration than a single voice, for example, Slovakia as one country.
TSS: Relations between Hungary and Slovakia have become tenser right now. How might this influence cooperation within the Visegrad Group?
TS: Compared with the 1990s, when problems within Slovak-Hungarian relations contributed to a complete halt in Visegrad cooperation, it seems that these current bilateral problems are not conveyed in a significant way to the Visegrad level.