Central Europe has traditionally represented a geographical unit, where a number of small nations with different historical experience, beliefs and traditions have co-existed in a compressed environment. Though the relations between Central European nations have not always been amiable, local political and intellectual representatives have striven to formulate a concept of a common supranational political entity. The establishment of a larger political entity which would overcome multiethnic and geographical differences in the region has been viewed as a necessary shield from pressures from Eastern and Western powers as well as self-assertion on the continent.
The Visegrad Group—or V4—was founded as a non-institutional organization perceived by its member states as an effective instrument for achieving goals vitally important to them. Visegrad co-operation aimed to precipitate full integration of Central Europe in the West—in other words in the European Union and NATO.
Thus, the 2004 EU entry can be viewed as a fundamental breakthrough—not only in V4 cooperation but also in the development of individual member states. Having joined the EU and NATO, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have met the key target of Visegrad cooperation. After EU accession, member states have should seek to redefine priorities and find an orientation point for future cooperation of Central European countries. Furthermore, they should be kept not only in ideological terms but also in terms of contents.
Historical Overview of Visegrad Cooperation
The V4's existence has undoubtedly contributed to the integration of Central European countries in the European Union and NATO, which play a crucial role in the contemporary world. A historical overview of Visegrad cooperation might give us a chance to point out—or in other words to analyze—common and problematic moments of this cooperation. It is key to note that the positive activities of the Visegrad Group have been endangered by turbulent periods during which the group was dysfunctional (1993–1998) or struggled to overcome a crisis (for example in February 2002 when former Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban proposed to launch an investigation into the so-called Benes Decrees—directly related to the Czech Republic and Slovakia—and their compatibility with EU legislation).
Both cases demonstrate that Visegrad cooperation is—to a great extent—dependent on political leaders in respective countries and on their willingness to seek consensus. Furthermore, it has become clear that Visegrad cooperation has been reflecting bilateral relations between particular member states—i.e., the relations between Slovakia and Hungary or Slovakia and Czech Republic.
Despite all the ups-and-downs in 1991–1998, the revitalization of Visegrad cooperation in 1998 has proven that Central European leaders have come to understand the benefits of closer ties for both the Visegrad Group as a whole and the member states. Political representatives of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have become convinced that future prosperity and stability of the region would not be possible without Slovakia's participation in the integration processes into the European Union and NATO. The conviction has become reciprocal after Slovak 1998 parliamentary elections which brought to power a new government prepared to take part in the regional cooperation on the grounds of the Visegrad Group.
The history of the Visegrad Group has thus been marked by a development of solidarity as a key building block of regional cooperation. The solidarity of Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic with Slovakia, which did not join NATO along with the rest of the Visegrad countries in 1999, and common participation in the integration processes into the European Union, was expressed by specific and concrete steps such as transmission of information, experience and advice—predominantly from the Czech Republic and Poland. On the other hand, the final phase of pre-accession negotiations was not marked by the fellow-feeling approach. Every country was negotiating on its own despite the fact that their requirements were similar. Similar situation arose at the Summit of the European Union in Brussels in 2003 when the final version of the Constitution for Europe was negotiated. Though prime ministers of the Visegrad countries had previously agreed on the coordination of their positions towards this issue, in the end, each country tried to enforce its own priorities.
In conclusion, the non-institutionalized approach has required permanent confirmation and legitimization by the respective heads of governments. The cooperation was fully dependent on the political will of all four members. Moreover, in case of political disagreement caused by open issues, departments responsible for Visegrad co-operation in particular countries were primarily focused on their primary task—to defend governmental policies and positions. Therefore, the well-known thesis "The Visegrad Group is an artificial creation of the West" has not been verified. The label "Visegrad Four"—previously "Visegrad Three"—has been viewed by Washington and Brussels as a guarantee of stability and successful political, economic and social development in the Central European region. This is why the Visegrad Group can serve as an example for post-Soviet countries and for regions troubled by military conflicts such as the Western Balkans.
Visegrad Cooperation After 2004
2004 has been a turning point for Europe as a whole and especially for Central Europe. The entry of Central European countries in the European Union was a fulfilment of foreign policy priorities defined at the beginning of the 1990s in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Visegrad countries became a part of the West, an area believed to encompass democracy, stability and economic prosperity. In doing, so they fulfilled dreams of several post-war generations of Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and Slovaks.
Integration in NATO and the EU has stimulated the Visegrad countries to define new goals. It was desirable for the term Central Europe to become a synonym for progressive ideas that could turn heads in Brussels and older member states. EU accession gave the Czech Republic Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia an opportunity to directly shape and influence the policy of the entire Union.
The new Visegrad Declaration
, adopted by Prime Ministers of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic on 12th May 2004 at their summit in Kroměříž, reflected this vision. It was the first meeting of all participants as members of both NATO and the EU. The adoption of a common declaration has shown that the Prime Ministers are aware of the historical significance of the Kroměříž summit. The declaration was a well-prepared document, stressing the importance of the preceding cooperation among the Visegrad countries during the European and Euro-Atlantic integration processes. According to this declaration, "the co-operation of the Visegrad Group countries will continue to focus on regional activities and initiatives aimed at strengthening the identity of the Central European region; in this context, their co-operation will be based on concrete projects and will maintain its flexible and open character"
The necessity of a new declaration which would define the further steps of the Visegrad Group after its accession to the European Union has been widely recognized. "Nowadays the future of the Visegrad Group will depend on whether or not the member countries are able to transform the differences between their interests into a mutual strength rather than a mutual liability. In terms of foreign policy, the principal challenge again is for all Visegrad member countries to turn their traditionally different foreign policy ties into a common strength rather than a weakness."
In simplified terms, during crises Hungary has traditionally looked towards Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia toward Russia and Poland to remote powers, such as France and Britain in the past or the United States at present. The Visegrad Group should not try to suppress these historic inclinations but rather use them to promote its common aims.
The EU and NATO integration processes took place simultaneously, whereby the main goal was to enlarge the geographical area of stability and economic prosperity by all countries of the Central and Eastern Europe. NATO and European Union are two different organizations with different organizational structure and different levels of cooperation. The coordination of Visegrad cooperation within the European Union is much more complicated than it is in the case of NATO. Central European countries prefer that European Union keeps its supranational structure civil while NATO remains the European security pillar. Within NATO, the Visegrad Group has introduced itself as a reliable partner—mainly via realized projects in the field of defence and security, such as the establishment of a common Polish-Czech-Slovak brigade with a command in the Slovak city of Topoľčany.
The Visegrad cooperation before and after EU entry has changed considerably. It has gone from centralized cooperation to differentiation of interests of individual countries in particular strategic issues within the EU. In the EU, The Visegrad Group represents an important forum for working meetings and exchanging views between the V4 countries, but it does not play a significant role in the enforcement of common interests. Examples follow.
The gorge between Poland and the rest of Central European countries was expressively unveiled during the negotiations on the Constitution for Europe. In relation to the enlargement of the European Union, one can also observe different positions of the Visegrad countries. Slovakia acts as the most important advocate of Croatia in its path to the entry in the European Union. The position of Slovakia contradicts with that of Poland, which has supported accession negotiations with Turkey. Poland has had a problem with Croatia due to weak cooperation between Zagreb and Haag.
First of all, it is key to note that the financial perspective of the European Union in terms of the framework of long-term financing of activities and projects of the Union is a very sensitive issue—not only for the Union as a whole but also for member states. It is analogous to the previous issues that the Visegrad countries didn't agree on with regards to common position and statement.
Common foreign and security policy of the European Union, the so-called third pillar, also represents an issue on which Central European member states cannot work out a common position. The Visegrad Group has become a group of states which proclaim their interest in further cooperation, but do not always communicate and even compete with one other. A good example of this tendency could be the strong involvement of Poland during the political crisis after the presidential elections in Ukraine in December 2004 or the military presence in Iraq.
It has become clear that individual Visegrad countries have different attitudes towards the Visegrad Group—in other words that the the Visegrad Group plays different roles in the foreign policies of its member states. The future of the Visegrad Group will depend on whether or not the Member States are able to transform the differences between their interests into mutual strength rather than mutual liability. This is also true for foreign policy. Furthermore, the Visegad group will have to avert becoming a geographical term or a toothless organization with annual meetings of Visegrad Presidents proclaiming solidarity and mutual respect.
Perspectives of Further Visegrad Cooperation
The future of the Visgead Group depends on its ability to function effectively within the Euro-Atlantic structures and on its will to act as a regional political rather than a mere geographical unit. The main factor which influences the Visegrad cooperation in a negative way is the preference of member states' foreign policy and interests at the expense of the policies and interests of the Visegrad Group and the bilateral relations as well as current political affiliation of the governments in particular Member States.
The Visegrad Group is a regional association lacking an institutional base. The cooperation is based on rotating leadership and regular meetings of the representatives of the four members on different levels. Only the International Visegrad Fund, quoted above, has formal headquarters in Bratislava. In order to strengthen the Group institutionally, it is necessary to create a framework which must be in compliance with the goals of the Group. In my opinion, political representation of Visegrad countries will remain an obstacle to effective regional cooperation within the Visegrad Group.
The Visegrad Group has further problems with some issues which have not yet been addressed—and which are of great importance to further cooperation within the Group. These issues are related to the nature of the Visegrad Group: the problem of the institutionalization of the Visegrad Four, the formulation and realization of set priorities, the possible enlargement of the V4 and, to some extent, the complementarity of the Visegrad Group with other forms of regional cooperation such as the Central European Initiative.
With regards to the question of further institutionalization of the V4, member states have found consensus because this issue is no longer of importance nowadays. On the other hand, establishing a mechanism requiring adherence to rules and treaties could lead to a rise in Visegrad cooperation's credibility.
Despite the declarative statements about the necessity of further cooperation, the Visegrad Declaration of 2004 has not set priorities comparable with integration into the European Union and NATO. The realization of set priorities is also characterized by insufficiency. Despite the willingness to coordinate approaches and activities, particular countries prefer to take individual steps.
The enlargement of the Visegrad Group by South and South East European countries was relevant in the period of revitalized Visegrad cooperation. The most suitable candidates were Austria and Slovenia, but, nevertheless, consensus on this issue has been never achieved. The open "Visegrad plus" format is to be used for cooperation with other countries or regional groups such as Ukraine, Slovenia, Austria.
In spite of all existing problems, Visegrad cooperation represents the most effective form of regional cooperation in Central Europe. Slovakia as well as other Visegrad countries is a member of two other regional groupings—Central European Initiative and Regional partnership led by Austria. Due to this fact it is necessary to clarify or divide tasks and roles between these three regional organizations.
Nowadays, the Visegrad Group has to deal with both the definition of new strategic interests and key priorities and the challenge of their practical implementation and application. The Slovak presidency of the Visegrad Four in 2006–2007 could introduce interesting proposals and an innovated agenda for the Visegrad Group. Should that be the case, Bratislava could become a place of the rebirth of Visegrad co-operation.
Declaration of Prime Ministers of the Czech Republic, the Republic of Hungary, the Republic of Poland and the Slovak Republic on co-operation of the Visegrad Group countries after their accession to the European Union. See 2004 Declaration.