The Visegrad Cooperation is one of the most effective sub-regional cooperative arrangements in Europe established after the sweeping political changes of 1989. The reason for this, in part, stems from the distinctiveness of Central Europe, a region with its own identity and dynamism, one that brings a special value to the international arena. A common history and culture bind us together, and, despite some significant differences among us, we pursued the same path following the democratic transformations in our countries.
In my experience as ambassador, the importance of the Visegrad cooperation lies mostly in its effectiveness as an instrument for achieving specific goals. This is not new. The countries of Central Europe have pooled their efforts for specific objectives before. When the original Visegrad cooperation was founded in 1335 by the kings of Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland, it was for the purpose of uniting their forces against outside attacks, and - more specifically - for establishing a trade route around Vienna.
The Visegrad cooperation is also a forum that enables the participating countries to express and coordinate their positions on a whole range of issues of common concern. Visegrad countries often coordinate their policies to make a more substantial impact, and to achieve more substantial objectives. Obviously, the four countries are in a better position to further their goals together than by themselves. The Visegrad Cooperation is an obvious "coalition", although - as experience shows - it is not always obvious that the positions of the four countries converge for specific objectives. Keeping together on issues that profoundly affect national interests is not always easy.
Furthermore, the rotation of the annual presidency of the Visegrad Cooperation provides an opportunity for the country holding it to raise its own profile on international issues, and to make an impact on the direction the Visegrad Cooperation is taking.
The Visegrad Cooperation can claim a historic success in its efforts to win the trans-Atlantic community's embrace of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in the course of its outreach to Central and Eastern European countries after 1989. The most tangible result of this outreach was our invitation to join NATO in 1997. For us, joining NATO not only meant accession to a strong and stable political-military alliance, but it was also an historic step towards regaining our position in the community of democratic nations. (Slovakia did not participate in the Visegrad Cooperation during the 1994 to 1998 Mecˇiar regime, nor was it invited to join NATO along with the other three Central European countries, but instead joined several years later.)
Serving as the Hungarian Ambassador to NATO at the time when Hungary joined the Alliance was a very rewarding professional experience. From the mid-1990s onward I had the honour and the responsibility of being a part of the team in Brussels that implemented the accession process, ensuring that Hungary would join NATO on the best possible terms. During this time, cooperation and coordination with my Central European colleagues was an important element of our preparation for membership. We regularly exchanged views and experiences regarding the accession process. At the same time, there was a healthy competition among us, which resulted in even better preparedness for membership.
The Visegrad Cooperation was also instrumental in fostering the completion of democratic change, as well as in enhancing our preparation for EU membership. During the 1990s, the Visegrad Cooperation grew to be a strong and credible group and became a trademark.
Five years after joining NATO, the countries of Central Europe joined the European Union, opening up a new chapter in the history of the Visegrad Cooperation. The four countries brought a new dynamism to the EU. We share the same commitment to promoting the neighborhood policy of the EU towards Eastern Europe, and to helping the Balkan countries on their way to European integration.
The four Visegrad countries understand the importance of cultural exchange. We improved our cultural institutes in each other's capitals and even managed to open new ones following the political changes. These cultural centres not only help to preserve the language and cultural identity of our minorities beyond our borders, but they also represent a very lively artistic and cultural presence in their host countries. Apart from the historical aspects of our cultures, they help to convey important messages about today's Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and Slovaks.
In my current assignment as Hungarian Ambassador to the United States, I am experiencing a further aspect of Visegrad Cooperation. For a superpower like the United States, it is often easier to deal with a larger entity than with smaller countries separately, especially if it can build on a similarity between policy priorities and the cooperative nature of that entity. In the context of the Visegrad Cooperation there is a whole range of issues that the US can address with all of us as a group.
It is important to highlight that since the late 1980s the United States has built up a distinct relationship with Central Europe. Washington has regarded the Visegrad countries as reliable partners that were the engines of democratic transition in the region, and now as countries that are strong allies in the fight against terrorism. This distinct partnership can only strengthen each country's position and prestige, and we should capitalize on it to promote the trans-
Fifteen years after its establishment, the Visegrad Cooperation can claim success in having become a force for stability, a forum for coordination, and an engine of a more dynamic EU policy towards Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. As the international community faces new challenges in a new era, the Visegrad Four can serve not only as a bridge between democracies on both sides of the Atlantic, but also as a promoter of the spread of democracy and freedom based on the experience of these countries in democratic transition. We can be an example for others to follow. This might be a mission for the Visegrad Cooperation for the next 15 years.
Diplomat, political scientist, economist. Ambassador to the United States (since 2002). First Hungarian permanent representative on the NATO Council. Headed the Hungarian Liaison Office to NATO in Brussels (1995-1999). Deputy chief of mission at the Mission of Hungary to the European Communities and NATO in Brussels (1992-1995).