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Think Visegrad


Hárs, Gábor: Visegrad - A Personal Memoir of Cooperation

The space available to me is too small to recall all the events of the past decades or even of the most recent 15 years. Therefore, allow me to recall several important events from the time when I represented Hungary in Warsaw as an ambassador, and when we developed the true "Visegrad" cooperation with two colleagues and friends of mine, Karel štindl and Marián Servátka, the Czech and Slovak ambassadors to Poland.

In March 1995, not long after I presented my credentials to Lech Walesa, I was invited to the residence of the Czech ambassador with my wife and the Slovak ambassador couple. Our Czech colleague meant this to be an explicitly "Visegrad" dinner, emphasizing that he attributed great significance to our meeting in this "Visegrad" circle on a regular basis. He argued that our countries are dependent on each other because of both our historical roots and our common ambitions today. The important events of the recent past, such as the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia or the signing of the Hungarian-Slovak basic treaty following long but very efficient work, justified our cooperation. The ambassador referred to his earlier unsuccessful attempts to organize such a meeting, and proposed to make our meetings regular.

A few weeks passed before the next meeting was held at the Slovak residence, this time attended also by Stefan Meller, Undersecretary of State (now Minister of Foreign Affairs in Poland) in order to make the V4 circle "complete". Here we again pledged to embark on a wide-ranging Visegrad cooperation. Meller told us he would hold the next meeting in the guesthouse of the Foreign Ministry, and so he did.

In the course of my visit in November 1995 to Bronislaw Geremek, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Polish parliament, we talked primarily of Visegrad cooperation. The Polish participants were worried that we Hungarians were about to withdraw from the "Visegrad idea". In answer to my question concerning recent Polish criticism of Hungary on the score of Visegrad cooperation, he told me that from the fall of the communist regime until now, in the opinion of the main players in Polish foreign policy, Hungary like Poland had been an active promoter of regional cooperation, including Visegrad. It was pleasing that Prague's reservations regarding Visegrad had recently vanished. Prime Minister Václav Klaus seemed to have recognized that regional cooperation would not cast a shadow on bilateral relations with Euro-Atlantic organizations, but that on the contrary, a "common voice" might improve the chances of each country. There was consensus between the Polish government and the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, although opinions differed within the coalition, on integration. There was also full agreement on the importance of Hungarian-Polish relations.

In November 1996, Andrzej Towpik, Undersecretary of State for foreign affairs, told me that Visegrad "does not exist, but it works". And I quoted the words of Gyula Horn, the Hungarian Prime Minister, who said that the preservation of "the Visegrad Four" was important not only for us but also for the West. Other representatives of the Hungarian government also emphasized the importance of cooperation on every occasion they got, given the fact - among others - that the West preferred us to operate as a group. On the other hand, mainly because of the former Czech position, we were frequently told that the content rather than the appearance of cooperation was key. The Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), built on the Visegrad principle, was also aimed at enhancing this cooperation.

The morning of 22 August, 1997, found me in Kraków where a long overdue meeting of the Visegrad Prime Ministers was to take place - on that occasion without Slovak representation, as the country's government seemed unconcerned by NATO expansion and indifferent to EU expansion. Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz was the first to arrive from Warsaw, and I and my Czech colleague welcomed him together. We did not expect too much of the meeting because of some recent Hungarian declarations that had been received poorly by the Polish side. The Polish Prime Minister was supposed to ask a small circle of top delegates: "If this is what friendly relations are like, what do unfriendly ones look like?" But instead he engaged me in a friendly conversation in which we first touched on the flooding that was happening at the time, as well as the economic situation. When the Hungarian aircraft arrived, the two Prime Ministers greeted each other cordially, with nothing suggesting there had been any trouble. A little later the Czech delegation also arrived, and we left for the Forum Hotel.

At ten sharp we were seated around a large round table. After a brief introduction by Cimoszewicz, Horn took the floor and praised the cooperation between the three countries. "Now we have to discuss concrete issues," he said, "among them the treatment of those not invited to participate in the first round of NATO expansion." Klaus responded that we had to decide what issues we would handle on our own and what we would do together. Regarding the negotiations scheduled for September, Cimoszewicz proposed that we remain in direct contact, and that Poland coordinate matters. Following the referendum in Hungary, the Visegrad defence ministers should make a joint trip to the US. Horn spoke up again, saying that efforts in the ratification process should also be coordinated. The Hungarian army needed to be modernized, and this would cost many times more if Hungary did it on its own than if it modernized as a member of NATO. We considered it important that during entry talks, NATO should take the economic capacity of each country into consideration to the maximum extent possible.

Klaus surprised us from the outset. He said that the three countries did not regard each other as rivals, and referred to the Washington Agreement that obliged them to mutually support each other. The Czech party did not want to submit membership to a referendum, he said, but the referendum in Hungary had made their position more difficult. He added: "If Prime Minister Horn had had the strength to quash this idea before November..." He asked us about our neighbors: "What can we do together? We should be very careful to prevent bad feelings from developing" (a reference to Slovakia). He imagined that the ratification process might be difficult. According to Horn, ratification was not in danger in the US. "We were not happy with the referendum, either," he said, adding with a smile that he would think over Klaus' proposal. Concerning Visegrad's neighbors, he said that if there were a second expansion round, only Slovenia and Rumania had a chance to join; NATO was unlikely to reach an agreement on the Baltic states, Slovakia or Bulgaria (he was wrong in this prognosis, as we of course discovered later). Klaus was more cautious, saying he didn't have the right to rank the chances of countries in the second round.

Cimoszewicz established that a common position had been reached on three issues: 1) there would be cooperation among the Ministries of Defence and Ministries of Foreign Affairs on joining NATO, 2) new lines of demarcation must not be allowed to develop in Europe, and 3) there would be cooperation on the modernization of military forces. Issues concerning the European Union followed. The Polish Prime Minister regarded the future cooperation as very useful and proposed that information be exchanged every day. The pace of negotiations should be maintained, while the long process of EU expansion should be shortened. He referred to a promise by French President Jacques Chirac concerning the year 2000. We could help each other a great deal in the harmonization of legislation, he said, and should not try to weaken each other in negotiations, but instead consider joint lobbying.

Horn pointed out in his contribution that our voice was stronger in relation to the EU than to NATO, which was why it was especially important to decide on a common position now. He too made proposals: 1) we should not argue on the details of the Commission's proposals, 2) we should reinforce the structural and cohesion funds, 3) the PHARE programme needed a new concept, 4) we should consult more in the fields of education, communication, legislative harmonization, etc., 5) the EU already expected us to present our demands regarding the timing of membership, 6) the EU should clarify what support they would offer in implementing the Schengen Agreement, and 7) we should develop a final position on the depth of cooperation (commission seats, voting ratio, etc.) once we are members of the EU. As far as the timing of admission was concerned, we expected it to happen in 2000, since negotiations could be concluded in two years. Concerning our neighbours, Slovakia was the biggest question. It was important that we not lose the chance to continue negotiations. We had better - he added - act jointly on this issue as well.

Klaus agreed that the EU negotiations required more work than the NATO talks. It made a big difference, furthermore, that the US was not involved in the former process, as the acceleration of the NATO process had been attributed to the Americans. Concerning the date of admission, he too often referred to 2000, but as we see today, this date was unrealistic.

In response to Klaus, Cimoszewicz said we must not allow the date to be constantly pushed back. To his mind, Horn's tactic was worth trying. In Poland, there was a lot of debate on the EU, including a number of errors in the EU's evaluation that made the value of the whole assessment process questionable. Horn claimed we should push for the date we wanted in the course of negotiations, and that 2005, mentioned recently by the Germans and the Italians, was unacceptable. The philosophy of different speeds for different countries used by the EU in relation to the countries waiting for admission could send both good and bad messages. As far as the evaluation of the Commission was concerned, we concerned ourselves less with the details than with the overall tone of the evaluation. We had reached a new stage, but the EU was not responding to this, and was treating us as if we had already joined the Union. At the same time, we were unable to meet the economic criteria. He suggested that we support Slovakia in fulfilling the requirements set by the EU. It would not benefit anyone if Slovakia turned towards the east!

Cimoszewicz noted that in the course of his visit to Bratislava the previous day, President Aleksander Kwaśniewski had declared support for Slovakia. Klaus said: "Slovakia will find no better advocate of its interests than the Czech Republic". The EU's evaluation of Slovakia was rather unjustified, he felt, as our common neighbor was more advanced in many respects than many other countries with better chances of integration. According to Horn, it was in our interest that Slovakia fulfilled the Euro-Atlantic criteria.

Cimoszewicz attempted to summarize what had been said. He asked Klaus first to sum up what could be jointly communicated to the press. The Czech Prime Minister "passed the ball back," saying that Cimoszewicz had enough "diplomatic charm" to do it himself. Our common position was that EU negotiations should start; that expansion should not be postponed unreasonably; and that the EU should not impose solutions upon us, but rather allow us to influence the criteria. It had to be stressed that we were not rivals and that we did not want to build new barriers with our neighbors. Horn agreed with all of this and added that we had agreed to exchange information and to consult among the delegations, and that every country should start from a position consistent with its level of preparedness, meaning that each would be sovereign in representing its own position. Klaus recommended that our working groups should meet to exchange information. "We have not spoken about serious issues today," he continued, "and maybe we have different ideas on certain issues." In his opinion, such meetings had to be prepared better in future by means of documents and government positions. Horn added that it should be made clear that our three countries had a common basis (NATO, EU, OECD) from which to start in developing good relations with neighboring countries. At this point, Cimoszewicz tried to close the session, and said that this unconventional meeting had made a great impression on him. Horn said the next meeting should be organized in Hungary in the spring of 1998. Cimoszewicz and Klaus thanked him for the invitation, and Klaus added that he had wanted to suggest Prague, but that he imagined there would be another meeting after the signing of the NATO entry treaty in December. The Prime Ministers agreed, although none of them was still in office by the spring of 1998.

We left the hotel shortly after one o'clock and went to the Wawel Castle, where President Kwaśniewski invited the whole company for lunch. The atmosphere was very good, with the President and Klaus pulling Horn's leg over the referendum, and Horn trying to defend himself humorously but unsuccessfully. After lunch, President KwaÊniewski accompanied the group through Wawel, and finally to the castle promenade for a joint photo op. Now that we have been members of NATO for several years and are together in the European Union as well, I am gratified that the Visegrad Four cooperation has not diminished, but on the contrary seems to be growing stronger. I believe that in a world that is shrinking and growing at the same time, Visegrad cooperation, like other forms of regional cooperation, is a must. Because if it is true that power lies in unity, as demonstrated by both NATO and the EU, then it is also true that we can achieve more together.

Gábor Hárs
Diplomat, politician, writer. Former Ambassador of Hungary to Poland (1995-1998). Member of the Hungarian Parliament.

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