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Multi-speed Europe, or the Visegrad Group’s existential conundrum

Multi-speed integration, EU core, two-speed Europe… All of these terms refer to one of the most debated ideas of European integration to date, entailing different levels of integration for EU member states depending on economic, social and political conditions, as well as the weighted focus on ‘deepening’ or ‘widening’ the European Union in terms of policy integration or accepting more countries to join.

Since 1991, 16 countries have joined the European Union, with the greatest enlargement taking place in 2004 when most of the former Eastern bloc became EU member states, crowning these countries’ “return to the West” policy. Fifteen years later, the EU remains deeply divided between proponents and opponents to deeper integration, and Visegrad Group countries stand at the forefront of this debate.

Commitment to Deeper Integation
Source: European Council on Foreign Relation, July 2018.

Multi-speed integration is seldom a welcomed idea in Central European countries, who often see it as being downgraded to second-class EU member states due to their opposition to deeper integration. Which begs the question: which of the Visegrad members is more likely to secure a place at the core of European integration, and which ones would theoretically stay behind?

As the Eurozone remains one of the most integrated platforms within the EU, this debate is, of course, closely linked to the question of euro adoption in Central Europe. The tug-of-war between an intergovernmental and a supranational European Union reveals a glimpse of how these countries picture their future role in the EU, keeping in mind their path will be closely linked to public perception on the issue.

Central Europe’s lack of enthusiasm towards the euro

Apart from Slovakia, the only Eurozone member in Central Europe, the other Visegrad Group countries (Poland, Czechia, and Hungary) are among the most reluctant countries in Europe towards adopting the euro.

Eurobarometer Euro Survey
Support of the EU V4 vs. EU 28. Source: Eurobarometer Interactive, EU Commission 2018

The graph above shows the different responses to the question of whether participants are “for or against a European economic and monetary union with one single currency, the euro”: the Czech Republic reported the strongest opposition to the adoption of the EU’s common currency, followed by Poland, whose current leaders have made no secret of their reservations on the issue. In both countries, openly advocating euro entry nearly amounts to political suicide.

Compared to its Central European neighbors, support for euro adoption was slightly higher in Hungary, although this prospect remains somewhat unlikely given the Eurosceptic policies and rhetoric of Viktor Orbán’s government. Last year, Hungary’s strongman clearly expressed the balancing act of Central European countries on the issue: “We want to be an integral part of the European community while at the same time remaining open toward other regions and communities. This will also have to be expressed in our decision about the euro”.

The Visegrad Group and the United States of Europe

One of the biggest and most recurrent disputes relating to European integration has been whether to establish a supranational or an intergovernmental Europe: “The United States of Europe” has been one of the many names inspired by the concept of a federalist, completely integrated Europe.

Critics of a supranational European Union argue that national governments will become powerless and will lose their sovereignty, and Visegrad Group leaders count among their most outspoken representatives. Viktor Orban, for instance, called for further regional integration within Central Europe instead of pursuing a “United States of Europe”.

Speaking at the GLOBSEC Forum 2018, Milan Nic explained the complexity of the perceptions among V4 members. Concerning a change to a more intergovernmental European Union, Nic, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, stated that “Poland has the ambition to put forward such a plan, and Hungary supports that, but the Czechs and the Slovaks are barely in the room.”

The Visegrad 4’s support for increased powers for member states could ultimately undermine, in the eyes of some Western countries like France and Germany, the ability of the EU to act and jeopardize the integration process.

Support for further integration: A multi-speed Visegrad Group

Growing Euroscepticism is the executioner of the European integration process, which cannot make any progress without a willing and supportive government and population. This is a struggle the EU continues to confront on a daily-basis. And when it comes to Euroscepticism, the Visegrád members contrast greatly.

In a 2018 survey conducted by CBOS, 87% of Polish respondents were in support of EU membership, making Poland one of the most pro-EU nations throughout the bloc. But although there’s high support for the EU, reluctance towards further integration persists and is repeatedly highlighted by the current Law and Justice ruling party. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki for instance made clear, addressing MEP’s during a plenary in Strasbourg last year, that he will respect the wishes of Polish citizens on their views regarding further European integration.

By contrast, the Czech Republic has the highest share of people dissatisfied with EU membership. It’s reported that “56% of Czechs don’t trust the EU, the third highest rate after Greece and the UK.” The trend and extent of Czech Euroscepticism has baffled many, with some analysts arguing the foundations may lie in the former presidency of the notoriously Eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus that has left a deep mark in the population. But while Euroscepticism remains high in Czechia, it’s worth noting that a decrease in the trend was nonetheless recorded from 2017 to 2018.

Hungary’s Viktor Orban doesn’t let his anti-EU sentiment go unnoticed. His policies and rhetoric, which include the rejection of non-European immigration and the defense of the nation-state against Brussels technocratic “diktats”, do not sit well and lead to repeated clashes with other member states and EU institutions.

Soros-Juncker
“You also have the right to know what Brussels is up to”. Source: Reuters 2019.

Orban’s government faced a backlash for his ‘anti-EU’ campaign, where billboards criticizing Islam in Europe, George Soros and Jean-Claude Juncker were positioned around Hungary. Despite the fear-mongering and anti-EU rhetoric, according to the November 2018 Eurobarometer, 41% of Hungarians have a ‘fairly good’ and ‘very good’ image of the EU, a 5 percentage point rise from 2017.

Slovakia, the only Eurozone member in Central Europe to date, also appears as one of the most pro-EU Visegrad members. In a statement titled ‘Strengthening the position of Slovakia in the European Union’, the Slovak government stressed that the key interests of Slovakia are pursued through advancing within the EU. Zuzana Čaputová’s recent election as president shows the potential for advancing the country’s status within the EU. However, Slovakia’s public perception of the EU remains surprisingly low, as 50% of Slovaks participating in the 2018 Eurobarometer claimed to simply have a ‘neutral’ image of the European Union.

Who will advance and who will fall behind?

At the moment, Slovakia has the best chance of reaching the ‘core’ of European integration, mostly due to its membership to the Eurozone and to a relatively high support for further integration among government members and decision-makers.

The Czech Republic could follow second to Slovakia towards the core of the EU. While public perception towards the European Union and euro membership remain extremely negative, a decrease in Euroscepticism in addition to a push away from the radical and clashing views of Poland and Hungary could hint to more progress for Czechia towards further integration. However, some analysts consider the Czech Republic is following, albeit slowly, the path set by leaders in Budapest and Warsaw.

And while support for the EU remains high in Poland and Hungary, the path set by both countries’ current leaders appear to strongly jeopardize their place in the core of a multi-speed Europe.

Visegrad Group countries therefore remain significantly divided on the issue of European integration, which might also threaten, in a foreseeable future, the reality and relevance of the Central European grouping.

Written by Lorna Radtke

Lorna Radtke is a student of international relations and European politics at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, and has previously also lived in Austria. Her desire to dive into European politics began during her secondary education years in the United States, her home country. Eager to pursue her interest in media and journalism by researching intriguing topics and creating original articles, she joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019.

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