Activities of the Czech Presidency of the Visegrad Group
(June 2007 - June 2008)
The goal of the Czech Presidency of the Visegrad Group was to preserve the continuity and tradition of V4 cooperation while opening it up to new efficient approaches designed to promote mutual understanding, not only among V4 countries but also between EU Member States and the countries in transition neighbouring on the V4 region, especially the countries of Eastern Europe. In our opinion, the V4 proves a viable and useful tool as we work towards a clear and substantial policy on the future face of Europe and new forms of international cooperation.
The strong commitment to continuity and tradition is what helps the V4 to remain a vibrant, authentic cooperation forum, successfully avoiding the trap of institutionalization and self-centeredness. The V4 remains comparatively flexible in its choice of topics and objectives, as well as the strategic tools to handle them. Increasingly interested in new efficient approaches, it is seeking ways to put its joint decisions into practice as quickly as possible. Common positions, joint statements and food-for-thought papers are not an end in itself, but rather a basis for the development of project-based activities, especially under the new programmes of the International Visegrad Fund. Specific projects are the key to public awareness and understanding of V4 policies.
Openness and confidence is becoming a most crucial asset today, when the V4 dialogue can no longer just focus on issues that let themselves to consensus, such as accession to the Schengen area or the establishment of the European Nuclear Forum. Increasingly often, the four countries must anticipate situations where their interests will differ considerably, e.g. as regards the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) or some aspects of energy security. These issues, too, must be discussed, if only to clearly define the differences. The cultivation of V4 dialogue, even and especially in cases of disagreement, has an added value in helping V4 countries improve the communication skills necessary for forming ad hoc coalitions in the EU.
During the Czech V4 Presidency it became clear that in the nearest future, it would be most practical for V4 countries to promote their common interest in doing away with the asymmetry in the access of their nationals to labour markets, and their common interests in the area of visa policies. A longer-term topic is the development of a European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) equitably dividing the means and capabilities between the eastern and southern dimensions.
The building of the eastern dimension of the ENP involves much more than the simple taking over of the institutionalized processes that serve well in the southern dimension. During the Czech Presidency, V4 countries worked on the primary task, which is to build confidence and allay concerns - the concerns of some EU countries about strengthened cooperation with eastern neighbours, as well as the unfounded concerns of some eastern neighbours that the ENP is designed as a substitute for EU membership, barring them from EU accession. To this end, the Czech Presidency proposed to develop a new format along the lines of the existing V4+, which enabled the four countries to invite to their meetings one non-V4 guest to discuss V4 cooperation with his country. Under the new format, there would be at least two non-V4 countries invited to V4 meetings, one "old" EU member and one East European non-EU country. The first example of this adapted format was the V4 Foreign Ministers meeting where the Foreign Ministers of Sweden and Ukraine were the guests. Another efficient way of supporting transformation processes is through the International Visegrad Fund (IVF). Under the Czech V4 Presidency the IVF provided special scholarship programmes for countries of Eastern and South-eastern Europe, and prepared so-called flexible projects designed for countries that may feel isolated from the European mainstream. The first target group for IVF flexible projects consists of Belarus, Serbia and Georgia.
This two-track approach, combining strengthened cooperation with the "agreement to disagree", has made the V4 and its member countries more universal regional players and increasingly attractive partners for cooperation with other regional arrangements in Europe and beyond. The Czech Presidency has increased the openness of the V4 to broader cooperation, e.g. with the Baltic countries, Israel, Japan, the Nordic Council, and the GUAM. It has set in motion the process of formulating a clear and specific agenda for each of the formats. For example, the topics for cooperation with the Baltic countries are energy security and relations with the countries of Eastern Europe, while cooperation with the Nordic Council of Ministers will focus on sustainable development and the approach of the "old" EU Member States to the eastern dimension of the ENP.
Main Goals of the Czech V4 Presidency
The main goals of the Czech V4 Presidency were the following:
Joint preparation of V4 countries for the full implementation of the Schengen acquis starting from 31 December 2007,
Successful completion of negotiations on the Visa Waiver Programme,
V4 consultations on energy security as a contribution to the shaping of the common energy policy of the EU
The Czech V4 Presidency systematically monitored these and other selected political issues and reflected the results in its work for the development of regional cooperation in the areas concerned.
Following up on their previous negotiations, V4 countries declared their strong commitment to joining the Schengen system in October 2007 as originally planned. They rejected, in a concerted manner, efforts to postpone their entry beyond 1 January 2008. V4 countries joined the Schengen system on 21 December 2007, and together expressed to the Portuguese EU Presidency their appreciation for the support and assistance provided to them especially in connecting to the Schengen Information System. The V4 is ready to take full advantage of the Schengen system in developing its activities, namely the IVF projects and programmes.
V4 and B3 countries agreed on the need to continue their cooperation in the Coalition for Visa Equality and to use all available means to move the negotiations forward. In November 2007, Canada waived its visa requirements in respect of Czech and Latvian nationals. Negotiations on visa equality with Australia and the United States are under way.
Coordination of steps in the area of energy security
Following up on the tasks set by the V4 Prime Ministers summit, the Czech Presidency sought to organize a V4 Economy Ministers (Deputy Economy Ministers) meeting on energy security with a view to setting up a V4 working group on energy. However, the initiative failed due to lack of interest. Developments in this area centred on nuclear security and the establishment of a European Nuclear Energy Forum (ENEF) as a result of a Czech-Slovak-EU initiative. The ENEF met for the first time in Bratislava in October 2007 and for the second time in Prague in May 2008.
The V4 and the EU
The Czech V4 Presidency took an active approach to the current questions of European integration, namely the EU reform process. In connection with the debate on the new EU institutional framework, it encouraged V4 countries to consult on their positions and together work for a solution reflecting the interests of all EU Member States. V4 countries support the opening of the European perspective to countries capable of meeting the Copenhagen criteria. The V4 is convinced that EU enlargement, which builds up European stability and gives Europe more weight in the world, should remain an open-ended process. Within the EU, the V4 works for further liberalization of the internal market in line with the Four Freedoms. Another priority of V4 countries related to the EU is to coordinate their work for the lifting of transitional periods on the free movement of workers from the new EU Member States.
Cooperation between the V4 and EU Presidencies
Representatives of incoming EU Presidencies are regularly invited to V4 summits - after the Portuguese and Slovenian Prime Ministers, the guest at the official V4 Prime Ministers summit last June was the French President Sarkozy. The Czech Republic keeps its V4 partners informed about the preparations for its EU Presidency; the common denominators of the Czech EU Presidency priorities and V4 foreign policy priorities are being identified. One of the major topics should be a common position on the ENP, developed in consultation with the B3 and in other formats. On the Czech Republic's initiative, the Foreign Ministries of the V4 and Baltic countries held expert meetings on the issue (Tallinn 2007, Prague 2008).
Stepping up V4 cooperation within the EU
The permanent representations of V4 countries in Brussels are cooperating very intensively, including exchange of experience and consultations on their positions on current EU issues. There are ongoing consultations on COEST, COTRA and COASI issues. V4 officials meet to discuss the reform of the CAP, the Cohesion Policy and internal market revision, to coordinate their positions and steps in the European Defence Agency and in accession negotiations with candidate countries, to discuss cooperation on customs issues, visa facilitation for Belarusian nationals, the free movement of workers, as well as to develop a strategy that would improve their position within the EU as advocates of strengthened cooperation with the countries of Eastern Europe, and help them gain the broadest possible support for this initiative across the EU.
The following V4 documents were presented in EU bodies:
V4 position paper on the "Implementation of Strategy for a New Partnership between the EU and Central Asia" (June 2007)
Joint V4 non-paper on "The EU Policy and Assistance to Belarus - General Overview" (January 2008)
V4 non-paper in support of blanket unilateral reduction of Schengen visa fees for Belarusian nationals (July 2008).
V4 support for the strengthening of the eastern dimension of the ENP
As part of its concerted action for the strengthening of the eastern dimension of the ENP, the V4 made the following joint contributions and statements in EU bodies:
The Visegrad Group contribution to the discussion on the strengthening of the European Neighbourhood Policy (March 2007)
The Visegrad Group Position Paper on the Governance Facility and the Neighbourhood Investment Fund (April 2007)
Joint Statement made at the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of V4 countries and Moldova (October 2007)
Joint Political Statement of the Visegrad Group on the Strengthening of the European Neighbourhood Policy (November 2007).
V4 Foreign Policy Activities and V4+ Cooperation Formats
In the field of foreign policy, the Czech V4 Presidency supported mainly activities encouraging the integration and European orientation of the countries of Eastern and South-eastern Europe. It continued its cooperation with Moldova as one of the priorities of the Slovak V4 Presidency, its support for the democratization process in Belarus and its special programme of contacts with Ukraine. Attention was paid also to more distant regions, such as the Caucasus and Central Asia; cooperation with the countries of the Western Balkans was developed in consultation with Austria and Slovenia. In addition to political support, V4 countries provide candidate and potential candidate countries with technical support, in particular with know-how based on their own experience with the transformation and accession process. The emphasis on countries in transition is part of the overall effort to promote democracy and human rights in the world - the main motto of the Czech V4 Presidency.
In addition, the Czech Presidency sought to strengthen the present forms of cooperation in V4+ formats, and to establish new contacts if there is a specific idea regarding their content. At present, the V4 cooperates namely with the Benelux countries, the Nordic Council of Ministers, with Austria and Slovenia (in the Regional Partnership format), with the Baltic countries, Ukraine, Moldova, and Japan. Beside these formats, it develops intensive cooperation with the "old" EU Member States and newly with the GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova).
Strengthening V4+ formats
The process of strengthening V4+ formats has led to the following results:
Strengthened V4-Baltic countries cooperation (V4-B3 Foreign Ministers meeting at the sidelines of the a GAERC meeting in Brussels and joint statement of the ministers, V4-B3 Prime Ministers meeting at the sidelines of the European Nuclear Forum meeting in Prague)
Establishment of official contacts with Moldova (V4-Moldova Foreign Ministers meeting at Štiřín Castle and joint statement of the ministers)
Establishment of a dialogue with Japan (V4-Japan Foreign Ministers meeting at the sidelines of an ASEM meeting in Hamburg and joint statement of the ministers, V4-Japan expert workshop on development cooperation in Tokyo)
V4-Israel expert consultations in Prague
Meeting of representatives of the V4 Presidency with the Nordic Council of Ministers in Prague
Meeting of representatives of the V4 Presidency with the GUAM in Prague
Establishment of closer cooperation with the "old" EU Member States on activities concerning the countries of Eastern Europe (meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the V4, Sweden and Ukraine in Prague).
Stepping up V4-B3 cooperation on selected issues
As agreed by the V4 Prime Ministers, a V4-B3 Prime Ministers meeting took place shortly after the V4 Prime Ministers summit, at the sidelines of the December European Council in Brussels. The Prime Ministers agreed on the main areas of common interest (policy towards the countries of Eastern Europe with emphasis on Belarus, the eastern dimension of the ENP, energy security) and on the strengthening of cooperation in this format. Following consultations between the Foreign Ministries of both groupings, the Czech Prime Minister Topolánek met his partners from the Baltic countries at the sidelines of the European Nuclear Forum meeting in Prague (22-23 May 2008). A V4-B3 Foreign Ministers meeting took place at the sidelines of the European Council (19 June 2008). V4 and B3 countries agreed to jointly support the candidature of the former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga to the EU Reflection Group on the future of Europe and expressed their support at the December European Council meeting.
Other goals of the Czech V4 Presidency
In addition, the Czech V4 Presidency focused on:
Seeking ways to improve the efficiency of V4 cooperation mechanisms, including the development of mechanisms for mutual support and coordination of candidacies to EU agencies and international institutions;
Continuing the development of cooperation on V4 sectoral policies
Continuing the development of regional cooperation between V4 countries at the political as well as civil society levels, encouraging cooperation with civic initiatives
Supporting the implementation of the V4 communication and information strategy.
Mutual support for candidatures of V4 countries
The partners of the Czech Republic pledged to support its candidature for the seat of the European GNSS Supervisory Authority (GSA) in Prague. Hungary asked for support for its candidature for the seat of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), Slovakia for the seat of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EGI) and Poland for the award of EXPO 2012 to Wroclaw. During the subsequent negotiations it was agreed that support for candidacies should always be arranged in advance at the working level.
V4 Interministerial Cooperation
The ministerial meetings held under the Czech V4 Presidency included the meeting of culture, defence, agriculture, environment, regional development
ministers. Expert cooperation took place namely between the culture, education, industry and trade, interior, defence, finance, environment, transport, and tourism
ministries. V4 ministries also cooperate with the IVF
on projects and scholarships
; the Culture Ministries annually award the International Visegrad Prize for achievements in art.
The 17th Culture Ministers meeting presented the Literary Anthology of Visegrad 4 Countries, a collection of works by Central European writers, and supported the Visegrad Library project managed by Host publishers from Brno, which is to present the development of literature in V4 countries over the past fifteen years. The meeting discussed two topical European issues - the study on the Economy of Culture in Europe and the Commission communication on a European agenda for culture in a globalizing world. The regular guests at V4 Culture Ministers meetings are the Culture Ministers of Slovenia and Austria, as well as the Culture Ministers of Lithuania, Ukraine and the Russian Federation, and representatives of Belarusian NGOs. The 18th meeting of V4 Culture Ministers took place in Olomouc in June 2008. Krakow hosted an international conference entitled "Reclaiming Memory" on the rediscovery of cultural heritage of V4 countries in the process of economic and social transformation. A librarians colloquium is held every two years. In the context of the 2008 European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, Israel, Turkey and Mercosur members showed interest in cooperating with V4+.
The Defence Ministers meeting discussed the NATO Bucharest summit and defence transformation, supported the decision to incorporate the BMD project into the Alliance framework, welcomed the promise of NATO membership to additional countries, and expressed their wish to see Georgia, Macedonia and Ukraine moving closer to the Alliance. They agreed that complementarity between NATO and the EU is necessary, and discussed their current and planned participation in EU-led operations. The Czech Defence Ministry hosted a V4 expert meeting on the upgrading of military equipment and related issues, which included a visit to the CoE in Vyškov; a V4 expert meeting on the "21st Century Soldier" project; and several expert meetings to exchange experience on armed forces personnel management, professionalization and transformation. V4 Chiefs of General Staff met at an international conference to exchange experience regarding international operations. Defence cooperation develops also in the V4 + Ukraine format; the Ukrainian Defence Minister and Chief of the General Staff attended a meeting of V4 Defence Ministers and Chiefs of General Staff in Prague. On this occasion a joint statement has been adopted. Expert meetings are taking place also in the field of air defence and protection against biological weapons.
At their four meetings held during the Czech V4 Presidency, Agriculture Ministers discussed especially the future of the CAP and the "health check" of the CAP reform, rural development, the reforms of the wine and sugar sectors, milk quotas, the situation in the pigmeat market, protected designations of origin, the future of direct payments beyond 2013, the WTO DDA negotiations, and other agricultural policy issues.
The guest at the Environment Ministers meeting was the UK Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The cooperation focuses on waste management, climate change and energy policy, the "Environment for Europe" process, the next generation of EU environmental policies, the drawing of EU funds, cooperation in soil protection, and the exchange of experience regarding the implementation of the International Plant Protection Convention. The topics on this year's agenda included the transfrontier shipments of waste, green mobility, the environmental aspect of renewable energy sources, and environmental taxes. In the context of V4+ cooperation, the Environment Ministries would like to cooperate with the Nordic Council countries, in particular on protection of the Earth's climate system and air protection, adaptation, energy conservation, support of renewable energy sources and market-based instruments for the environment, new technologies, and the exchange of information on each country's positions in the EU.
V4 Transport Ministers discussed mainly the positions of V4 countries on the new EU legislative proposals in road transport and on other Commission projects, and issues related to rail and water transport. Transport ministry experts cooperate mainly in the combined transport working group and in the field of road safety. Informal talks were held to discuss some particulars of the EU road and rail packages and the Galileo system.
V4 Health Ministers met to discuss the development and reform of healthcare systems in the region. The meeting included a presentation of the priorities of the upcoming Czech EU Presidency.
The cooperation of V4 Education Ministries included an international conference on the prevention of socio-pathological phenomena in children and youth, and an international conference on augmentative and alternative communication in Eastern and Central European countries. There is an ongoing cooperation in teaching the common history of the Central European region. V4 cooperation with Slovenia in science and research included a conference on youth in Prague. In the field of sports and physical training, V4 countries implement a joint programme of competitions "Olympic Hopes".
V4 Industry and Trade Ministries cooperate in different industries, as well as on trade policies, development of trade relations, and cooperation in international organizations. Political and expert cooperation in energy focuses mainly on energy efficiency, EU energy legislation, the creation of an internal electricity market, energy security, the promotion of a realistic approach to nuclear energy, as well as other issues related to nuclear energy, oil, liquid fuels and natural gas, current issues related to renewable energy sources, cooperation in EU bodies, and preparations for the Czech EU Presidency. The V4 working group on energy meets regularly. The European Nuclear Forum has already held two meetings, in Prague and in Bratislava, organized in cooperation with the European Commission. There is an ongoing cooperation in the field of energy with Nordic Council countries.
The Interior Ministries launched a public awareness campaign against human trafficking. A conference of border protection services from V4 countries, Austria and Slovenia approved a memorandum and a new "Programme of Cooperation between the Border Services of V4 States, Austria and Slovenia in the 2007-2008 Period". Cooperation with Austria takes place in the working group on the fight against extremism. V4 countries work together on issues related to visa liberalization, regional cooperation with ENP countries, EU enlargement, support for the countries of the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, preparations for the Czech EU Presidency (the final stage of the Hague Programme, implementation of the Treaty of Lisbon, the Common European Asylum System and the development of a common migration policy, Schengen cooperation and visa policy, cooperation in the fight against terrorism and organized crime), police cooperation, security issues, as well as fire and civil protection. An expert meeting on public administration in V4 countries was held in Prague to exchange experience and information on successful public administration modernization projects financed from structural funds, and to exchange fundamental documents on the approaches of other countries to public administration modernization.
Experts and Deputy Ministers from Finance Ministries met to discuss mainly issues related to EU budget revision, investment protection agreements, implementation of the EEA and Norwegian Financial Mechanisms, consumer protection in the financial market, exchange of experience and knowledge, coordination of projects managed under the e-Customs programme, and tax issues.
A V4 meeting on tourism was held in Český Krumlov to discuss joint promotion and cooperation in 2007-2008. The second meeting on marketing, held in Poděbrady, discussed the activities included on the V4 Marketing Plan for 2008 and the budget required for them, and to select the destinations for European Quartet marketing activities in the coming years.
International Visegrad Fund
Following the increase of its budget to EUR 5 million per year, the IVF is receiving more grant applications, awarding more scholarships, and launching new programmes (Visegrad University Studies Grant
). Other target areas for IVF funding are being considered (so-called flexible projects). Following up on the V4 foreign policy priorities, the IVF reaches out to the countries of Eastern and South-eastern Europe, mainly with its strategic grants
reflecting the priorities of the current V4 Presidency. The priorities for this year's strategic grants are based on the Slovak V4 Presidency priorities:
Creating better conditions for scientific research
European integration process: Sharing V4 know-how with neighbouring regions
Good governance in the public sector
V4 promotion: Approaches to raising awareness of Visegrad cooperation.
So far, the IVF has been involved in more than 2,000 projects and granted over 500 scholarships, which makes it one of the greatest donors in the region. The only V4 institution, it puts into practice what the V4 has prepared in theory. The number of projects implemented outside the V4 region is growing every year (in 2007, almost 15% of IVF funding went to non-V4 countries). For example, the IVF has been one of the largest scholarship providers in Ukraine and in the Balkans.
V4 cooperation improves with growing human contacts and mutual awareness within the group. Beside regular increases of contributions to the IVF and expansion of its scope, the development of human contacts is encouraged by a project for efficient V4 public awareness and communication policy. Public awareness of V4 cooperation still does not match the real results and range of its activities. The external communication strategy project, combined with good internet presentation, should bring the V4 closer to the general public in the four member countries and beyond.
The Czech Republic regards the V4 as a key arrangement developing regional cooperation in Europe. In its opinion, the strength of the initiative is in the development of specific projects (interministerial cooperation, human contacts in V4 countries, etc.) and in political cooperation wherever the four countries have the will to agree on common positions. Despite minor differences, V4 countries have many interests in common and are committed to strengthening their ties. They have already gained considerable experience in using their dialogue to agree on common positions whenever possible, while fully respecting each country's foreign policy activities. With their unique regional and historical experience, V4 countries can make a major contribution to the shaping and implementation of the EU policy towards the non-EU neighbours of V4 countries. V4 cooperation can enhance the identity of the Central European region and assist in identifying and defending regional interests within the enlarged EU.
List of V4 High Level Meetings during the Czech V4 Presidency (June 2007 - June 2008):
18 September 2007 - Meeting of V4 Ministers of Agriculture, Porto (Portugal)
20 - 21 September 2007 - V4 Presidents Summit, Keszthely (Hungary)
11 - 12 October 2007 - Meeting of the V4 Ministers of Culture, Bratislava (Slovakia)
25 October 2007 - Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the V4 countries and Moldova, Štiřín (Czech Republic)
8 - 9 November 2007 - Meeting of the V4 Ministers of Transport, Prague (Czech Republic)
9 - 10 December 2007 - Meeting of V4 Prime Ministers, Ostrava (Czech Republic)
10 December 2007 - Meeting of Prime Ministers of V4 Countries and Slovenia, Ostrava (Czech Republic)
13 - 14 December 2007 - Meeting of Ministers of Agriculture of the V4 countries, Romania and Bulgaria, Český Krumlov (Czech Republic)
14 December 2007 - Meeting of the V4 Prime Ministers and B3 Prime Ministers, Brussels (Belgium)
3 - 5 March 2008 - Meeting of Ministers of Agriculture of V4 countries, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia during the SALIMA Food Fair in Brno (Czech Republic)
10 - 12 April 2008 - Meeting of the V4 Justice Ministers, Tatranská Lomnica (Slovakia)
23 April 2008 - Meeting of the V4 Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Prague (Czech Republic)
23 April 2008 - Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the V4 countries, Sweden and Ukraine, Prague (Czech Republic)
25 April 2008 - Meeting of the V4 Ministers of Defence, Prague (Czech Republic)
9 - 11 May 2008 - Meeting of Ministers of Agriculture of V4 countries, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia , Bucharest (Romania)
14 May 2008 Meeting of the Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers with representatives of the V4 Presidency, Prague (Czech Republic)
22 May 2008 Meeting of the V4 Prime Ministers, B3 Prime Ministers and Slovenia with the President of European Commission, Prague (Czech Republic)
3 - 4 June 2008 - Informal Meeting of Ministers for Regional Development of the V4 countries, Romania and Bulgaria, Prague (Czech Republic)
15 - 16 June 2008 - V4 Prime Ministers' Meeting in the V4 + France format, Prague (Czech Republic)
16 - 17 June 2008 - Meeting of the V4 Ministers of Health, Prague (Czech Republic)
19 - 20 June 2008 Meeting of the V4 Ministers of Culture, Olomouc (Czech Republic)