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Germany and the Visegrad Group: It’s complicated

Brno, Czech Republic – In February, the four Visegrad Group (V4) leaders met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to mark the 30th anniversary since the fall of the Iron Curtain. On that occasion, they highlighted the successes and progresses each country made in the last three decades. In the joint declaration issued after the summit, the Visegrad Group and Germany claimed that “we intend to deepen further our relations for the benefit of our citizens, our countries and the European Union as a whole. Unity is key.”

However, this positive attitude, which might sometimes amount to wishful thinking, is not a consistent trend to portray relations between the Visegrad Group countries and Germany: ties between the EU’s biggest economy and its four Eastern neighbors remain, 15 years after their accession to the bloc, quite rocky, with tensions growing, flowing back or stagnating depending on the topic at hand.

Historically, geographically and politically, Germany has long taken over the role of mediator and bridge between Europe’s ‘East’ and ‘West’ but has recently found itself in quite of a fix trying to find consensus between the two. Western – and that mostly means German, in the eyes of the Visegrad Group – leadership in the EU is regularly downplayed and questioned by an unconvinced Central Europe.

What current issues are weakening the bond between the Visegrád 4 and Germany? German Chancellor Angela Merkel has often found herself in a face-off with Central European leaders over a number of policy disagreements: the great migration policy debate, climate and energy policies, as well as complicated relations with Russia are among the most significant matters that are weakening and jeopardizing their relationship, already dented by persistent historical wounds but made necessary by close economic bonds.

The great migration debate at the heart of Germany-Visegrad Group relations

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is, it’s a known fact, quite explicit about his feelings towards fellow EU leaders by condemning the push of ‘liberal’ migration policies, more often than not specifically targeting Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015.

His V4 partners in Prague, Warsaw and Bratislava have always backed him on this issue. Merkel’s controversial approach to the crisis, seen in Central Europe as a unilateral decision of Germany that put Visegrad Group countries on the path of migrants wishing to make their way to Germany, has created a firestorm between V4 capitals and Berlin, that has since then never really died out, despite the reduced flow of migrants.

Viktor Orbán is hell-bent on keeping Hungary’s ‘Christian illiberal democracy’ secured and expressed his unwillingness to cooperate with Germany on migration policies within the EU: “We are Hungarians, we cannot think with German minds. Hungary should have the right to control the impact of mass migration”.

Zeman Poster
2018 Czech Presidential Elections: “Stop immigration and (presidential opponent) Drahoš – This country is ours! Vote Zeman!” Source: Foreign Policy Council.

Germany received over 1 million refugees in 2015, which led to an overwhelming amount of criticism towards Merkel’s migration policies from leaders such as Viktor Orbán and Czech President Miloš Zeman. Her ‘open border’ policy was and will be continuously used as a pretext for Germany-bashing in the region, with V4 capitals constantly blocking and vetoing any attempt to implement an EU-based migration quota mechanism. Last December, EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said he was “slowly losing his patience” over the the bloc’s inability to introduce migration policy changes.

 Environmental policies

Germany and V4 countries alike are still quite reliant on fossil fuels and non-renewable energy sources, such as coal and natural gas. However, Germany’s push to accelerate a transition to cleaner energy fails to find consensus among its Eastern neighbors, including in neighboring Poland, that still heavily relies on fossil fuels or the Czech Republic, where nuclear power plays a significant role in the country’s energy mix.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš does not favor Germany’s ‘Energiewende’, that would support the transition to low carbon energy sources and promote the use of renewable resources in the energy mix. Babiš opposes phasing out biofuels due, some analysts claim, to the personal interests for his agricultural business empire Agrofert and because of its importance for transportation in the region. However, the recent election of former environmental activist Zuzana Caputova as Slovak president might signal growing support for a clean energy transition in the region.

Russia and Nord Stream II

An area that prompts mixed reactions among Visegrad Group members with Germany is the Nord Stream 2 project, designed to export 55 billion cubic meters of gas directly from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea. The Gazprom-led initiative, spearheaded by former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder who oversees the project, would allow for a cheaper, more reliable and direct source of gas to Europe, according to its proponents in Berlin and Moscow.

Despite this claim, a number of European countries including Poland and Slovakia have expressed their fierce opposition to the project arguing that Nord Stream II is meant to bypass neighboring Ukraine and presents a clear threat to the EU’s energy security policy by increasing its reliance on Russia – recently exemplified by the ‘contaminated’ Russian oil crisis.

The threat of Russian influence in the region is one of the biggest challenges facing the EU’s eastern half. During a meeting of the V4 in December 2018, Warsaw and Bratislava expressed their opposition to the project, stating “this project is not of a business nature, it has a political character; in fact, it is harmful to the European Union”. Although Poland has continuously urged Germany to consider this issue from the point of view of its neighbors and criticized Berlin for playing solo, German leadership has been consistent in its support to construct the pipeline, already underway despite growing pressure from most of its EU allies and from Washington.

Gas Pipelines

Less vocal than their two Visegrad allies, Czechia and Hungary have a few times denounced the project in a lukewarm manner, and any direct opposition stemming from Prague or Budapest appears unlikely anytime soon: the Czech Republic could play a large role in the transportation of fuel from the pipeline, while Hungary relies heavily on Russia for gas and is currently moving to increase its energy ties with Moscow.

What’s going to happen next between Germany and the Visegrad Group?

Disagreements on policies are driving the V4 and Germany to opposite ends and halts progress in common policies and stances within the EU. The V4 will scrap any common EU migration policy that comes their way, while energy policies and relations with Russia remain a source of constant bickering. But for the time being, the five countries located at the heart of the EU still manage to find common ground on certain policies, with trade relations being the most important and long-standing link. Merkel will be stepping down as German chancellor in 2021 and this could pave the way for the advent of a new leadership that could alter, for better or for worse, relations with the V4.

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