The Visegrad Group (V4) consists of four culturally similar and similarly developed countries: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The group was formed in early 1991, less than two years after the collapse of communism, in order to rise above historic hostilities and to facilitate mutual cooperation. Important shared objectives included successful social transformation and joining the European integration process. The strength of the cooperation has varied over time.
The group aims to be a uniform bloc within the EU since its members have shared interests in a number of areas: for example, protecting the four freedoms of the union and the Schengen area, and strengthening the EU’s external borders. The V4 countries also have a hard-line stance on immigration (although their positions on the EU migrant quotas are not the same). Regarding other issues, however, the V4 is far from united; the attitude towards EU values and the relationship with Russia are but two examples.
Among the most important aspects of the Hungarian presidency of the V4, which started in July, are the debates about the EU’s institutional future. Following the European Commission’s release in March of a White Paper outlining five scenarios for the future of the EU, the V4 issued a declaration stating that it neither wants a strict single market nor federalisation, and that the concept of a multi-speed EU is especially unacceptable to it. In the view of the V4, such a structure would mean they would be second-class countries in the Union.
Despite this seemingly uniform stance on the issue, there are differences between Slovakia and the other V4 member states. Since the four biggest economies of the EU (Germany, France, Spain and Italy) announced their support for a multi-speed Union in March, this scenario has a good chance of becoming the future structure of the EU. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary have since repeated their objection to a two-speed EU, a concept which the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán called “most reprehensible”. Slovakia, however, has changed its position since the initial V4 declaration: in early June, Prime Minister Robert Fico said Slovakia is in favour of a more united eurozone and wants to belong to its core if it was indeed established. He stated that deeper integration of eurozone countries is unavoidable and stressed that other countries should be able to join it as well. This means that Slovakia, despite joint V4 rhetoric, has in fact embraced the idea of closer eurozone integration and thereby a two-speed EU.
While Slovakia is happy to be a member of the eurozone, the other V4 countries have a very different, although not identical stance on adopting the euro. The head of the National Bank of Poland recently stated that Poland does not intend to adopt the euro in the next 10 years, and the Czech Republic has made it clear that it has no intention of joining the euro area anytime soon either. Hungary, by contrast, is half-hearted about the idea. It is in fact worth noting that according to a poll from December 2016, opposition to introducing the euro is strong in Poland and the Czech Republic, while the majority of Hungarians is in favour of the currency. Given that Orbán often changes his positions and that Hungary is not far from meeting the requirements for introducing the euro, it is not inconceivable that in the next few years Hungary will announce its intention of joining the eurozone. Trying to join the euro area while continuing the “fight for freedom” against Brussels would be a hard sell for Orbán, but he might well succeed with the help of the government-controlled media.
The deeper eurozone integration Slovakia wants to be a part of has been proposed by the European Commission and by French President Emmanuel Macron (the Commission’s proposals include a de facto finance minister for the euro area, while Macron has called for a separate budget as well). Macron’s suggestions have been cautiously backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The V4 is opposed to this concept as well as to a two-speed EU because it fears that a core group would make decisions on its own that would affect all other EU member states. Furthermore, the existence of a core group or more than one level within the union would relegate other countries to a secondary status. The V4 also believes that a two-speed EU would lead to the Union’s disintegration and emphasise the importance of all EU member states participating in the discussions about the future of the Union – not only concerning the biggest Western member states and the institutions of the EU. The group wishes to see a strengthened role of national parliaments in the EU to ensure democratic control. As we have seen, however, these seemingly uniform concerns of the V4 are not shared by all member states: Slovakia wants to be a part of the EU’s core if it emerges as a separate group. In addition, unlike in the other three V4 countries, there is support for further EU integration among a number of Slovak public officials.
To summarise, the Visegrad Group is united in words only when it comes to the EU’s institutional future. While Poland is supportive of negotiating a new EU treaty, Hungary has shown little enthusiasm for the idea since the Brexit referendum, and Slovakia and the Czech Republic see no need for a new treaty. Regarding the concepts of a multi-speed EU and deeper integration of the eurozone, Slovakia obviously stands apart from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Poland and the Czech Republic are both clearly not interested in introducing the euro while Hungary’s position is undecided. All four V4 countries propose strengthening the powers of EU member states and intergovernmental cooperation at the expense of supranational powers given to EU institutions. However, this unity is not uniform: while Slovakia and the Czech Republic share these views in relation to migration, for example, both governments lack the ‘freedom fighter’ attitude towards the EU as a whole that the Hungarian and Polish governments exhibit.
Overall, the V4 is not united with respect to how the EU should be reformed and this raises doubts about how relevant the Visegrad Group can be in shaping the EU’s future. Furthermore, the ‘year of revolt’ (populist shifts in Western European elections) which Orbán envisioned 2017 to be has not materialised; meaning there are no like-minded governments in Western Europe who could become allies of the V4. The V4 unity displayed in their March declaration is hence not a real unity, and it remains to be seen how long it can be maintained on the surface only.
Adam Csenger was born in Hungary. He earned a degree at the College of Foreign Trade in Budapest before moving to Sydney, Australia, where he lived for 13 years. He completed a master’s degree in International Relations at Macquarie University in Sydney. Adam moved back to Hungary in 2017. He is interested in Hungarian politics, the European Union and the relations between former communist states and Western European countries within the European Union.