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“The ‘Hungarization’ of the Visegrad Group is harmful to the rest of Central Europe”

This week, we spoke with Vít Dostál, director of the Research Centre at the Association for International Affairs (AMO), a Prague-based think tank specializing in European affairs and Central European cooperation. He shed some light on the current dynamics within the Visegrad Group and its relations with the EU and told us what we can expect from Central Europe this year.

How does the Visegrad Group see its role in Europe today? Do Central European countries have a clear vision of where they stand and in which direction they want to go?

Contrary to what many people, including in Western Europe, seem to think, the Visegrad Group countries don’t have a clear vision and shared agenda regarding their European future. You’ll hear very different opinions and aspirations whether you talk to people in Prague or Warsaw, in Bratislava or Budapest.

That being said, some countries do have a very definite idea of the path they should take and their role in Europe. This is the case of Hungary, for instance: Viktor Orban’s vision, which could be labelled both as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘revisionist’, is based on the defense of Europe’s Christian roots, the rejection of non-European immigration and the implementation of illiberal policies at home. But this vision, which has evolved over the years, ultimately serves Orban’s own personal rule and aims to keep him in power for as long as possible (let’s not forget that his popularity was starting to fall before the 2015 refugee crisis).

A similar observation could be made regarding Poland, where the Law and Justice party also has a clear vision – influenced by Fidesz’s own – of the role in should play in Europe. But that path remains closely linked to Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s dominance over Polish politics and a lot hangs in the balance of his succession. The scope and result of the infighting that can be expected after Kaczynski steps down will certainly have a strong influence in shaping Poland’s European future.

A likely candidate to become his ‘successor’ would of course be current Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. He’s often depicted, due to his past career as a banker, as the representative of the “pragmatic”, pro-business faction of Law and Justice, in opposition to the historic, ideological faction. It’s important to put this into perspective, as pragmatism and ideology often go hand-in-hand in Poland today. And this couldn’t be truer in Morawiecki’s case.

His personal background – his father, Kornel Morawiecki, was the founder and leader of Fighting Solidarity, one of the most radical and violent splinters of the anti-communist Solidarnosc movement in the 1980’s – and academic years as a historian make him a strong national-conservative figure. The main problem, and primary reason why Morawiecki isn’t respected and is even resented by some of the party’s apparatchiks, is that he isn’t familiar with local dynamics and spent a lot of time in business, at a time when Law and Justice was struggling in opposition and suffering defeat after defeat.

There’s been a lot of talk about whether Donald Tusk, a strong opponent of the current conservative government, will come back to national politics after his European mandate ends. What’s your take on the issue?

Donald Tusk will most certainly come back to Polish politics, but it’s hard to know in which capacity: he may simply come back as a kind of political commentator or behind-the-scene player, but this doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll run for president.

Let’s not forget that he has very bad relations with the current leader of the Civic Platform (PO), Grzegorz Schetyna. He’ll probably wait and closely follow the results of the European elections in Poland, to see if change is possible, and whether he can be a part of it.

You’ve mentioned Poland and Hungary, but not Slovakia or the Czech Republic, often described as the Visegrad Group’s two most moderate members, compared to the ‘renegades’ in Warsaw and Budapest. How much credence should we give to the idea that the V4 is truly more of a V2+2?

I don’t think the V2+2 narrative works anymore. When you listen to what Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis says and his approach to European affairs, there aren’t many differences with what Orban would say. Their approach and stance at the European level are much more similar than before. What differs, however, is their domestic policy, and how they rule at home. But let’s be clear: this isn’t due to fundamental ideological differences, but to the gap in how much personal and institutional power they wield: with his constitutional majority, Orban has the means to push the reforms he wants. This is not the case in Prague. And it’s also one of the main aspects in which Law and Justice is hoping to mimic Fidesz in Poland.

Slovakia currently holds the presidency of the Visegrad Group. What are the key takeaways?

The interesting thing about Slovakia’s V4 presidency is that we almost don’t hear anything about it. We’ve witnessed more activity and discussions surrounding Slovakia’s OSCE chairmanship, for instance. But this “laying low” strategy might actually be a good thing. More than that, Slovakia might be, on purpose, trying to tone it down and “downgrade” the Visegrad Group.

Because whenever the V4 and its member states start making the headlines, it’s usually in a negative light, and pertains to their anti-refugee stance or rule of law infringements. This ‘Hungarization’ of the Visegrad Group is harmful to the rest of Central Europe, and the ‘East-West divide’ rhetoric, on which Viktor Orban relies to present himself as the savior of a new Europe, is a disaster for Slovakia – the only Eurozone member of the Central European bloc.

Slovakia’s desire to shield itself from all the noxious stigmas surrounding the Visegrad Group is a sound strategy. Let me give you an example. Last November, Slovakia hosted the ‘Friends of the Cohesion Group’ meeting in Bratislava, gathering V4 countries and other European partners with similar interests on the European cohesion policy.

And even though the Slovak presidency was directly involved in organizing the meeting, it didn’t use the “V4 brand” or “V4 marketing”, probably not to spook other participating countries, like Portugal, and reach a wider audience, unencumbered by the V4 stigmas. For Slovakia, migration is only a symbolic issue and doesn’t rank high on the list of its most pressing challenges. But the cohesion policy, along with other issues like digitization and robotization, is one of the most important topics for Slovakia.

Apart from migration, do Central European countries have a common agenda? And if so, do they really have the means to push it at the European level? Let’s not forget that the four ruling parties in Central Europe all belong to four different European political parties: is this an obstacle for a common platform?

It’s true that currently none of them is part of the same party in the European Parliament: Smer is part of the Party of European Socialists (PES), ANO is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), Law and Justice is in the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists (ACRE) and Fidesz, as we all know, is still a member of the European People’s Party (EPP). But I wouldn’t say that this a real obstacle for cooperation among Central European countries. visegrad group europe

What’s really at stake is that Visegrad Group countries disagree on several important topics, from relations with Russia to the agricultural policy and energy issues. And in order to bridge those differences and agree on a common agenda, the Czech-Polish axis remains the most important one for the Visegrad Group. As a diplomat eloquently summed it up to me once: if Poland and the Czech Republic reach an agreement, the Czechs shouldn’t have too much trouble convincing the Slovaks to come on board, and Hungary will eventually join for fear of being left alone. But the rapprochement and alignment of views between Hungary and Poland makes it more difficult to act this way. And the article 7 procedure launched against both states only reinforced their alliance, cementing it into a pact of mutual assistance.

‘Czexit’, ‘Polexit’, etc. How likely is it that we might witness a Brexit-style exit from the EU in Central Europe?

It’s not very likely. It’s important to remember that in both Poland and Hungary, the support for the EU is strong among the population – actually among the strongest in Europe. And leaders don’t go as far as to suggest an exit from the bloc. But there is of course the risk of an exit “by accident”. That’s more or less what happened in the U.K.

Poland and Hungary are pretty self-confident about what they can bring and achieve within the EU, even – or all the more – if it means clashing with European partners. On the contrary, the Czech Republic, one of the most Eurosceptic countries in Europe, doesn’t have this confidence. Many Czechs believe that the country would have performed much better outside of the EU. As irrational as it may sound for one of the most dynamic economies and safest countries in Europe, it’s deeply engraved in many people’s minds, and is probably one of the most tangible legacies of the Vaclav Klaus era.