Brno, Czech Republic – The possible expansion of the Visegrad Group is a recurring topic in Central European politics, and has found a number of supporters among V4 leaders, as exemplified by Czech President Milos Zeman’s recent call for Austria to join the regional alliance.
Topics such as trade, energy, security, and military projects are among the most crucial for the Visegrad Group, areas in which it already closely cooperates with many other countries in the region despite persistent disagreements on a number of key policies.
This begs the question: Should the Visegrad Group welcome new members to its ranks, and if so, who? Are there any real tangible benefits for a larger Visegrád Group, an organization created in the 1990’s to fast-track those four countries’ EU and NATO memberships and which, according to many analysts, has already served its purpose?
While there are many potential candidates in the wider Central and Eastern European region to join the Visegrad Group, a handful of countries, all EU member states, are already closely cooperating with V4 countries and are worth closer consideration: this includes Croatia, Austria, Romania and Bulgaria.
The V4 cooperates with other countries that share the same interests and positions on important EU issues, such as migration, the EU budget or Europe’s social and agricultural policies, among others. Central and Eastern European nations also cooperate on defense and security issues – and, more generally speaking, usually defend common positions and work together to promote the views of Europe’s eastern half and the EU’s newest members in opposition to the older, Western member states (let’s only think of the recent EU-wide debate regarding the divisive reform of the posted workers’ directive).
The need for cooperation outside of the V4 is summarized best by the team of the Visegrad+ Studies: “Despite being geographical, historical and cultural neighbors, the Visegrád countries are far from realizing their full potential for successful cooperation. This incapability is especially visible on the European level where they perennially fail to protect their common interests against the bigger EU players.”
As talks about an East-West divide within the EU gain more weight, will the Visegrád 4 have to expand to be able to make a powerful statement within the EU? Or won’t it threaten and jeopardize the ability of the regional alliance, already divided on a number of keys issues and whose visibility mostly relies on their common anti-migration platform, to defend its own interests?
Croatia: why not Slovenia as well?
Last November, Croatia was invited to join the Visegrád group’s combat group, a regional defense cooperation project. This was announced along with the possibility of joint military purchases in the region, confirming the five countries’ relatively close relationships in the defense and security sector. Croatia, along with Austria, Slovenia and the V4 countries, joined forces in 2017 to create the Central European Defense Cooperation – a platform for cooperation between the defense ministers to discuss matters pertaining to military assistance, migration and the fight against terrorism.
But apart from that, Croatia and the V4 countries fail to have enough common ground that would justify the country joining the regional alliance in the near future – rather than, for instance, Slovenia or Austria.
Austria: the most obvious contender
Austria, which is and will continue to be a close partner for the Visegrád Group, may be the top contender if the V4 ever turns into a V5. Their main cooperation lies in transportation, as both passenger and commercial traffic flows is significant between the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria.
Modernization of transport infrastructure between the countries has been a reoccurring topic, which was brought up again during Czech President Milos Zeman’s visit to Vienna earlier this year. During his trip, M. Zeman even suggested that Austria should join the Visegrád Group to further “strengthen cooperation” between the V4 and Austria.
V4 countries have found a powerful and influential ally in Austria on the topic of migration. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who headed until last week a government coalition of conservative and far-right forces, commented on the issue during a summit between the Visegrad Group and Austria in Budapest last year. “We must protect European prosperity and security. That is why we will focus on the fight against illegal migration”.
However, a strong gap remains between V4 capitals and Vienna: an older EU member state, Austria belongs, if we look at the country’s wealth, living and social conditions or other economic indicators, to the Western part of the bloc rather than Central and Eastern Europe. The continued and regular clashes between Vienna and V4 neighbors (the recent clash with Slovakia over nuclear energy or family allowances are only two of many examples) should serve as a reminder that, despite their strong historical and cultural ties, these countries’ current political agenda and economic prospects widely differ.
V4+2: the Visegrad Group + Romania and Bulgaria
Romania and Bulgaria already have a number of common platforms to discuss issues and share positions with the Visegrád 4 countries, including the V4+2. Under their common strategy, they plan to work on improving the transport infrastructure, address environmental matters, and the development of technical networks, on top of defending shared positions regarding the EU’s social, budgetary and agricultural policies.
One controversial area where the V4+2 made headlines was the rejection of the EU environmental goals, which they deemed unreasonable and attempted to soften at the European level: according to their position, these environmental goals threaten the stability and sustainability of their economic development model.
The shift of Romania and Bulgaria towards closer Visegrád cooperation is criticized by many pro-EU activists and commentators, who fear Sofia and Bucharest might shift further away from the EU if they move too close to the ‘trouble-makers’ in Warsaw and Budapest.
Will the Visegrad Group expand: what do people think?
The responses of few Visegrád citizens to the question “Should the V4 accept new members in the future?” shed some light on interesting and perplexing aspects of the situation.
On the Polanda forum, for instance, the question of whether Serbia was a Central European state was argued. A big question that remains unanswered as of today regarding potential new members stems from the geographical criteria for being a Visegrád member. Those who disagree with the Visegrad Group’s expansion often state that some candidates, such as Croatia, aren’t part of Central Europe. Should being a Central European country be a precondition for joining the Visegrád Group? Can this criterion have any validity when experts, academics, politicians and citizens still have a hard time defining the exact borders of “Central Europe”?
A 24-year-old Czech respondent criticized those who were calling for the V4’s expansion and slammed the current activities of the regional alliance. “The Visegrad Group should call it a day and gain better connections with the EU as individual states.” Like mentioned before, many believe a bigger V4 could widen the gap opposing Central and Eastern Europe to Brussels and Western Europe.
But if the Visegrad Group grows to become a powerful force, it could either undermine the integrity of the European Union and widen the oft-debated “East-West divide” – if an upgraded Visegrad Group is primarily led by anti-EU rhetoric –, undermine the already-embattled integrity of the Visegrad Group itself, or could very well further anchor Central and Eastern European nations to the West – providing it adopts a constructive and proactive role within the EU under new leaderships.