The year 2004 was a breakthrough one for Europe, and especially so for Central Europe. The entry of several Central European countries to the European Union meant the fulfilment of the foreign policy priorities they had defined at the beginning of the 1990s following the collapse of the communist regimes and the eastern bloc as a whole. The Visegrad countries, simply put, became a part of the West, that area of democracy, stability and economic prosperity. In doing so they fulfilled the dreams of several post-war generations of Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, and Slovaks.
Visegrad is integrally linked to the term Central Europe. While other institutions and initiatives were founded in this region after 1989 and bearing some variation of the label "Central Europe", Visegrad was exceptional. While the Central European Initiative (CEI) now numbers 17 member countries, including Italy, Albania and Belarus, and the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) has Romania and Bulgaria as active members, the number of states participating in Visegrad cooperation - apart from following the breakup of Czechoslovakia - has not changed. The Visegrad Group - the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia - actually forms a common base for CEI and CEFTA, along with other regional initiatives.
Although the course of Visegrad cooperation following its birth in 1991 has not always been free of problems, and for a certain period was even suspended, the achievement of the most important goals of the Visegrad countries, namely integration into NATO and the EU, was not merely a significant success for the individual member countries, but for Visegrad cooperation as a whole. The Visegrad Group demonstrated its viability as a relevant form of cooperation for four Central European countries. The theory that Visegrad was "an artificial creation of the West" was proven to be mistaken. As a label, the Visegrad Four, and before that the Visegrad Three, was regarded in Washington and Brussels as a guarantee of stability and the successful pursuit of political, economic and social transformation in Central Europe. Today Visegrad is an example for other former Soviet-dominated countries as well as those countries marked by war in the West Balkans. Visegrad also managed to make its mark on the subconscious of the populations of Visegrad countries.
The year 2004 was not only a period in which the integration ambitions of the Visegrad countries reached a peak, but it was also, in metaphorical terms, a year of growing Visegrad scepticism. The reasons for this doubt lie in fears that Visegrad cooperation would become irrelevant with the entry of these countries to the EU and the completion of their main mission, as well as fears that Visegrad would disintegrate within the more heterogeneous environs of the EU - even though Poland was most frequently accused of being a potential Visegrad disruptor. Although fears of Visegrad's disintegration were not borne out, both of these fears have to be taken into account, as we saw from the preferences of various countries for solitary approaches on issues affecting the whole group. The reluctance of Visegrad countries to proceed together was seen for example in their inability to coordinate the introduction of visas for Ukraine during the entry process to the European Union, or more recently, when at the outset of entry talks between Croatia and the EU, Visegrad was unable to jointly support Croatia. On the other hand, following the fulfilment of their basic aim of gaining entry to NATO and the EU, it is natural that the period of euphoria gives way to a certain period of searching and redefining priorities. For the future it is promising that the individual Visegrad countries worked together so constructively on preparing the financial outlook for the EU from 2007-2013.
Integration with NATO and the EU required that the Visegrad countries define new goals. It would be desirable for the term Central Europe to become a synonym for progressive ideas that could turn heads in Brussels and in some of the older member countries. In gaining entrance to the EU, the Czech Republic Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia gained an opportunity to directly form and influence the policy of the entire Union. In terms of foreign policy, there already exists an area in which the Visegrad countries have an advantage over their "older" Union partners: their unique experiences from the transformation process, and their knowledge of the neighboring regions of Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans and their social, historical, economic and cultural ties from the past.
Both of these regions fall within the EU's foreign policy priorities - Eastern Europe, or more precisely Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Russia fall within the EU's neighborhood policy, while the countries of the West Balkans are a part of the Stabilization and Association Process that the EU started. The leaders of the Visegrad countries have already declared on many occasions the readiness to participate in the formation of neighborhood policy and pro-integration strategy towards Eastern Europe and the Balkans. By a joint approach and their activities in the abovementioned areas, the Visegrad countries can show that the Central European form of cooperation makes sense even following EU enlargement. Above all, the Visegrad countries can achieve consensus far more easily and quickly on mutual foreign policy goals than they can on other EU policy areas, such as agriculture.
It remains to be seen whether the countries of Central Europe are able to create a form of closer cooperation within the EU as well. However, talk of forming a coherent Central European bloc within the EU is both unrealistic and counter-productive.
We cannot expect that the interests of Slovakia, with its population of 5 million, will always correspond to those of Poland, with its 38 million citizens. And even if the Visegrad countries were able to speak with one voice within European institutions, they would still need the support of other countries to push through key decisions. As a form of regional cooperation, Visegrad can function effectively within the EU only as long as it complements other cooperation platforms and processes for deepening European integration. At the same time it can serve as inspiration for other models of regional cooperation in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. The unique geopolitical situation at the outset of the 1990s, when Visegrad was founded, together with the economic situation in individual countries, their cultural similarities and common past to a certain extent makes Visegrad a unique entity that cannot be reproduced in other conditions, but this is not true of select aspects of Visegrad cooperation. Apart from regular high-level political meetings, the deepening of mutual contacts at the regional level and support for cultural, especially educational projects, are all worthy of emulation. Much can also be learned from the mistakes of Visegrad, especially the period when developments in the Visegrad Group came into conflict with undesirable domestic political developments in individual countries.
The countries of the West Balkans, thanks to their more clear prospects of EU membership, are closer to the Visegrad model than the states of Eastern Europe. In view of the proliferation of regional initiatives, however, the thought of founding a new form of regional cooperation as a type of "Balkan Visegrad" seems undesirable. A more practical solution would be for the most viable of the existing regional initiatives to import know-how and experiences from Visegrad through meetings or working groups. In doing so they would not only help themselves, but they would also allow the Visegrad model to be tested out.
A common approach by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia in the creation of the EU's eastward foreign policy, and any aid they gave to the integration ambitions of the Western Balkans, could give Visegrad cooperation another lease on life. It would also bring Visegrad from the fringes of the Union into the center of affairs, and definitively end the role of Central Europe as a "buffer zone" between East and West. The Visegrad Four in this way could be about to embark on an interesting and productive period within the EU, whether in coordination with other regional groups or in the "Visegrad plus" format, which would benefit not only developments in Central Europe, but also the Union as a whole and the countries on its borders.
Political scientist, director of the Research Center of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. Former analyst with the Slovak Institute for International Studies at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Slovak Republic (1993-1995)
Political scientist. Involved in the Central and South-Eastern Europe program at the Research Centre of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. Since 2004 executive editor-in-chief of Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs.