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International Visegrad Fund

Think Visegrad


The Visegrad Four: Further Room for Cooperation

Zuzana Svetlošáková

Central Europe has often been labelled as a troubled region. In the popular Economist jargon it has even been described as "bothered"[1]—in terms of its history, politics, economy and identity. The debate on the conceptualization of this part of Europe has always been problematic[2]. The Visegrad Group is its result—for some a visionary guide, for others a scapegoat for the region's flaws and failures. When discussing V4 cooperation and its future, it is crucial to explore the political background of the Group's foundation, the implications and consequences of the May 2004 EU entry, the problems Visegrad countries now face as well as the way the Group operated before and after the accession of Central European countries to the EU.

The formation of the Visegrad Group is closely linked with the specific historical and geopolitical aspects of the early 1990s. In 1985, the USSR welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev who launched his bold reformist program of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (renewal). His cancellation of the Brezhnev Doctrine in July 1989, which practically abolished the Soviet claim of domination in Eastern Europe, had a decisive impact on Europe's future.[3] Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland quickly took advantage of the changed situation. As early as late summer 1989, Hungary opened its borders with Austria, allowing thousands of East Germans to flee to West Germany.[4]

The end of the Cold War and the unanticipated speed at which the events of 1989–1990 unfolded, forced the world powers to reconsider their political and economic strategies toward the Central European region.[5] As a result, the post-communist countries suffered a severe blow to their political and economic systems as well as their identity and perception of the world.

The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolically overcame Europe's physical "East-West" polarity. However, by no means did it bring about an end to the mental dichotomy and to the actual—and painfully apparent—divisions in Europe. The post-communist states were politically unstable and economically unhealthy. In the aftermath of 1989, building democracy and coming to terms with the economic effects of state-controlled economy became the two main tasks for newly elected governments in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland.

In terms of national identity, Central European countries did not possess a clearly defined view of themselves as nations with specific characteristics. National identity is a complex issue, flexible and fluid, shaped by political regimes and circumstances of a given period. Communist propaganda was based on the construct of an ideological "Other". In the Soviet Bloc, the communist regime was portrayed to its peoples as natural and positive, while capitalism was described as fascist and negative. Political propaganda, permeating every aspect of public life, had an immense and long-lasting influence on the generations born after World War II.

The heavy communist propaganda also created the conditions for a dualism of opinion—presented in public and believed "in private". For instance, many intellectuals and active as well as inactive dissidents of the regime guarded a Western-style democratic and tolerant tradition in Central Europe. Works of Milan Kundera, Geörgy Konrad, Václav Havel, Adam Michnik and others demonstrate this belief, often based on a romantic or mythical vision of the region's history.[6]

The forty-year communist regime created a sense of shared real-socialist experience and produced an international stratum of dissident intellectuals and activists. After almost two years of political turmoil following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, it was only natural that intellectual leaders, then directly involved in politics and the formation of democratic institutions, sought to create a platform for further cooperation. Their aim was to resurrect or rather to create a concept of Central Europe and to furnish the new democracies with a framework designed to dock their burdened identities.

Despite the fact that the European Community proclaimed its devotion to democracy and its sympathy with Eastern European countries left at the mercy of the Soviet regime during the Cold War, after 1989 it became clear that the EC had no intention to accept the Soviet-divorcees into the European family. It was preoccupied with solving the "German issue", which began to haunt the former Western Allies yet again.[7] The priority was to integrate a united Germany in Western Europe. As for the other European countries, they were supposed to tackle their internal challenges on their own.

In this view, it was not surprising that the representatives of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland chose to create the Visegrad Group. They wanted to eliminate the remnants of the Communist bloc as well as their own historical animosities and cooperate in pursue of common goals such as future EU membership. The official cooperation commenced with a Declaration, in which the wish for democracy and free-market economy was voiced. The foundation of V4 was therefore driven by pragmatic intentions. Timothy Garton Ash stressed the Group's common belief "in the idea of Central Europe, which Havel and the new Hungarian president, Arpád Goncz, had preached in the 1980s", their wish to "preclude any return to the petty nationalisms of the interwar years", as well as their hope that "this tight little regional cooperation would win their countries favour in the West".[8]

The accession in Western European structures was eventually achieved, but it is key to note that the so-called "Eastern enlargement" was a traumatic and economically feared experience for most of the EU. By no means was it a surprise, similarly to the events of 1989. The enlargement was planned and anticipated from both sides. It was especially in the initial phase of its existence "that the Visegrad Group played its most important role during talks with NATO and the EU. In the following years, the intensity of cooperation between the V4 countries began to slacken due to the prevalence of the idea that individual efforts towards accession to the Euro-Atlantic integration formations will be more efficient. Visegrad cooperation was resumed in 1998."[9] Thus, why did May 2004 pose such a threat to V4's identity and future? Why did numerous journalists and politicians label the entry of Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia into the EU as the logical conclusion of joint Visegrad efforts?

The Eastern enlargement certainly brought about a period of existential reflection if not "angst".[10] On the EU level, this was linked with the issue of the European Constitution and structural reforms. Within the V4, it concerned the issue of the Group's future. The struggle to define V4's future was clearly visible in the Group's 2004 Declaration which acknowledged the admission of the Visegrad countries into the EU and NATO as a "significant step towards the reunification of Europe" and put further cooperation in "regional activities and initiatives aimed at strengthening the identity of the Central European region" on top of its list of future plans.

Although EU membership has been on the agenda of the V4 since its foundation, it has not been the sole purpose of Visegrad cooperation, which means that its accomplishment does not call for an end of the Group's activities. Throughout the years, the Visegrad Group and the Visegrad Fund have come to play an important role in the region's developments. There have been joint efforts in the fields of culture, environment, internal security, defence, science and education as well as justice and criminality, transport, tourism, energy and information technologies. Recent joint activities include a joint strategy on energy, wine and sugar production.[11]

One should not forget that the V4 functions differently than the EU. It is not institutionalised and therefore unrestricted by bureaucratic agenda and protocols. The agenda of the group is managed via both highbrow politics at summits and annual meetings as well as lowbrow politics at formal and informal meetings and ad-hoc committees on governmental, non-governmental and professional levels. For example, in 2004 more than thirty meetings between the four countries took place. While the V4 has a framework of policies, it tackles problems ad hoc. This might give a confused impression but, on the other hand, it allows the Group to be flexible.

This, of course, does not mean that the Visegrad countries do not face serious political, economic and social problems. For fifteen long years, the prospect of EU membership was not only a goal but also a political instrument shaping public opinion and political agenda. The EU was in such a position that enabled it to exert political pressure on its Eastern candidates who then felt obliged to adjust their legislation to EU standards and keep extremist and eurosceptic parties under close surveillance. After EU entry, the political will to compromise has withered, giving way to nationalism, political extremism, populism, and euroscepticism.

It is problematic to draw a clear parallel between EU entry, V4 and the above mentioned problems. It rather seems that they are due to a variety of factors. Nationalism and—most often—right-wing political extremism is a phenomenon that has been evident across Europe for a long time. Right-wing parties have not won any seats in parliaments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland or Slovakia. On the other hand, they do have seats in German Bundessländer.[12] Nationalist parties have been on the rise in Austria, Holland and France. Slovakia's Slovenská Národná Strana, is by no means an exception.

Rising populism and euro-scepticism can be attributed to some misguided steps of the pre-EU 25 members as well as to Visegrad governments. After fifteen years of waiting for admission to the European club, it is difficult to count on EU-enthusiasm. The breach of the Schengen Treaty, which imposes restrictions on the freedom of movement and labour, has impaired the confidence between "Old" and "New" Europe.[13] Similarly, the structural subsidies have so far not been comparable in amount to the subsidies supplied for years to Ireland, Portugal or Greece. This has created a feeling of "second-class" citizenship which has in the meanwhile taken over public opinion in the V4. In addition to these particular "wrongdoings", the general Euro-malaise that has been spreading across the EU since the 1990s, has left us with a political and economic cocktail that leaves many heads sore.[14]

Hitherto cooperation of the Visegrad countries in their joint efforts to join the EU has so far paid off—further support is certainly desirable and necessary, for example in the administrative branches of the Visegrad countries in the EU and NATO. According to the official website, the Visegrad Group sees itself anchored within the process of "all-European integration" and "wishes to contribute towards building the European security architecture based on effective, functionally complementary and mutually reinforcing cooperation and coordination within existing European and transatlantic institutions."[15] However, the link works both ways: the general disappointment or weariness with the EU passes onto the V4. Not to mention the automatic reflection of failings of a particular Visegrad country to cooperate with the rest in the workings of the V4 as a whole.

Despite these numerous problems, the Visegrad concept has great potential for success in areas of international and regional politics, economy and culture. On the international level, the V4 could prove itself as a valuable partner in solving the Kosovo issue. The wars amongst the former states of Yugoslavia have demonstrated EU's incapability and unwillingness to solve problems "at its own doorstep" and its lack of knowledge of the region.[16] The 2004 Declaration clearly states that the Visegrad countries "are ready to use their unique regional and historical experience and to contribute to shaping and implementing the EU's policies towards the countries of Eastern and Southeastern Europe." This has already been taking place at the V4 + meetings, for example in 2004 with Slovenia. The Visegrad countries, especially Poland, have also proven to be useful partners in the democratisation processes in Ukraine and the stabilization of the Eastern and Southern regions.

Regarding European politics, further cooperation within the Visegrad countries is necessary in the field of energy, environment, migration and acquirement of "full-member" EU rights. The Visegrad countries depend on Russian gas supplies more than other EU members, and it is in EU's common interest to reach an agreement. Most of these energy sources used in the V4 region have negative effects on the environment. There is room for discussion on alternative sources of energy and cooperation projects, which would promote for instance hydroelectric power and benefit the region. Migration is equally important since the Visegrad Group is at the Eastern EU borders and legal and illegal migration into it is likely to rise.[17]

Economically, recent economic growth in Europe has greatly benefited from the 2004 EU enlargement.[18] It is not surprising that the "old EU member states", which hoped to protect their markets from Central and Eastern European workers, are now starting to reconsider their conservative attitudes. Most recently, the Dutch Minister of Social Affairs Henk van Hoof has proclaimed that the opening of the Dutch market is "desirable". Thanks to its generally low taxes and relatively skilled and well-educated labour, the Central Europe region has become an attractive destination for international companies. Central Europe enjoys the highest economic growth in the EU, and if reforms of the market and investments in technologies and education continue, it could become EU's new economic engine. Hitherto V4 cooperation in accession to the eurozone has so far been deficient and certainly needs more incentives.

It is clear that the Visegrad countries have a lot to tackle and to offer both politically and economically, however, it is cooperation in the social and cultural fields that could be of more benefit to the people living in the region. Coming to terms with the past is a task that all countries of the V4 have to fulfill. It is a process that has not received enough attention so far. I believe that the archives in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia still have a lot to tell. The conceptualization of the region's Nazi as well as Communist past could play an important part in the development of identity and should not be neglected. Comparative studies offering different points of view on the region's history and toleration of mutual differences could become a valuable means of spreading awareness of heritage and responsibility of the Central European region to its younger generations as well as the rest of the world.

Thanks to the Visegrad Fund, various educational projects including student exchange programs, research and science programmes, and information campaigns are already running in the region. The development of libraries and history and sociology research centres as well as attempts to raise the quality of education and people's access to information could be the next step forward.

Similarly, there is need for more cooperation in the cultural realm. Efforts to promote common modern cinematography—which could not flourish without the donations from the Visegrad Fund and the EU—are particularly interesting. Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have shared positive cultural and intellectual values and common religious traditions which they should definitely try to strengthen and advocate. These countries should not restrict their new identities on economic strength and political neutrality.

The initial era of the Visegrad Group owes much to the circumstances of the 1990s. To a great extent, V4 was founded on pragmatic needs, similarly to the European Coal and Steel Community, though the latter was clearly defined by common economic goals of well-developed and established countries. The countries of the V4 had in the 1990s neither a clear sense of their national identity, nor a well-established democratic political culture. Hitherto cooperation has started to pay off. The entry of Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia into the EU marks the countries' joint efforts in building democratic societies and more stable identities for their countries and their region.

Visegrad cooperation has thus played an important role in the development of the "bothered" Central European region. It has created a forum for discussion about the region's history, identity and future. It has been offering a framework for a wide range of activities that have allowed the four countries to influence the quality of life of their peoples and the EU. It has created a political platform for democracy and prosperity, and a means for deeper cooperation within the EU and other Western structures. The future of the Visegrad project depends on the ability and willingness of its participants to critically engage with their history and approach current issues. V4 countries have to breathe in the past, and breathe out the future, not vice versa.

  1. The Economist 2007, see articles Hot and bothered, Mar 8th 2007; God-bothered, Mar 15th 2007.
  2. See Timothy Garton Ash, "Does Central Europe Exist?", The New York Review of Books, October 9, 1986
  3. O'Dochartaigh P., Germany since 1945 (2003), p. 178; Weber, J. Kleine Geschichte Deutschlands seit 1945 (2001), p. 281.
  4. O'Dochartaigh, Germany, 180, Weber, Geschichte Deutschlands, 258; Romania and the GDR were in the only European countries that distanced themselves from change of the Soviet attitude.
  5. T. Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (2005), p. 451.
  6. Timothy Garton Ash, "Does Central Europe Exist?", The New York Review of Books, October 9, 1986.
  7. O'Dochartaigh, Germany, p. 192-193.
  8. Timothy Garton Ash, "The Puzzle of Central Europe", The New York Review of Books, March 18, 1999
  9. visegradgroup.eu
  10. The Economist 2006.
  11. euractiv.sk
  12. e.g. 2006 local elections in Saxony and Brandenburg, in which the DVU gained 5.9 % and NPD 9.4 %.
  13. J. Gillingham, European Integration 1950-2003 (2003), p. 312.
  14. D. Dinan, Europe Recast. A History of the European Union (2004), p. 287.
  15. visegradgroup.eu
  16. G. Schöllgen, Der Auftritt. Deutschlands Rückkehr auf die Weltbühne (2003)
  17. euractiv.sk
  18. For example, the growth in imports rose in the EU from 2004 to 2005 by 7.6% and in exports by 6.9%.

The author has an B.A. from Cambridge University, UK. The essay won the 2007 Visegrad Essay Competition organized by Global Politics journal as part of a grant provided by the International Visegrad Fund.

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