Written by Gabriele Bertani
Since the new Czech government took office in December 2021, the Visegrad 4 (V4) alliance found itself evenly split between pro-European governments in Prague and Bratislava and right-wing populists in Budapest and Warsaw. Yet, the eruption of the conflict in Ukraine further fragmented the group, with Hungary adopting a distinct position from the other three. As a result, and following some seemingly positive developments in the rule-of-law dispute between Poland and the EU institutions, solid cooperation between the four Central European European Union (EU) members is languishing and is not expected to return anytime soon.
The V4 was formed in February 1991 by Lech Walesa, József Antall, and Václav Havel, the respective leaders of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia (Daniška, 2022). The three held a gathering in Visegrad, Hungary, that echoed a historical meeting organised there in 1335 between the Polish, Hungarian, and Bohemian rulers of the time. The three anti-Communist leaders had the desire to closely cooperate among themselves to successfully allow their countries to join NATO and the EU, which eventually happened respectively in 1999 and 2004. In 1993, following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, both successor countries Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the grouping, bringing the group to its four current members.
The four Central European states maintained their Visegrad format also after their inclusion into the Euro-Atlantic institutions, with the aim to increase their cooperation on several policies and to enhance their relevance in the EU. Cooperation between the V4 is based on periodical meetings of representatives at all levels, from civil servants to prime ministers and heads of state. The V4 has only one entity, the International Visegrad Fund. The fund was established in 2000 with the purpose to finance cooperation in fields such as culture, research, education, and tourism (Visegrad Fund, 2022). The apex of V4 cooperation and clout has probably been at the height of the 2015-16 migration crisis, when the four countries, all led by anti-immigration, populist, and Eurosceptic governments, most clearly expressed a joint stance, standing against the mandatory relocation proposed by the European Commission to help other EU members most affected by the immigration wave (Gabrizova et al., 2018).
Splitting of the alliance
Yet, in more recent years, electoral politics brought about a change. The first country to usher in a political shift was Slovakia. First of all, in 2019 the liberal anti-corruption activist Zuzana Čaputova became president of Slovakia, defeating the candidate of the left-wing populist ruling Smer party (Mortkowitz, 2019a). Čaputova was propelled to the presidency thanks to public outrage over the murder of a journalist in 2018, with the following investigation uncovering links between government officials and the men charged with ordering the killing. Subsequently, in 2020 the opposition won the parliamentary election and a coalition of centre-right parties was able to form a government, thus putting an end to the government of the long-dominant Smer, who stood accused of corruption and cronyism (Mortkowitz, 2020).
Afterward, in 2021 it was the turn of the Czech Republic to get rid of its populist government led by the ANO party of billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. Indeed, in the October 2021 elections, Babiš was narrowly defeated by a centre-right coalition that later formed a government together with other liberal-progressive parties (Mortkowitz, 2021). The new government has a clear pro-EU, pro-West stance, signalling a break with Babiš, who adopted a friendly position toward Moscow and Beijing and is accused of fraud over EU funds, an allegation that elicited widespread protests in the country (Mortkowitz, 2019b). As such, with Slovakia and the Czech Republic returning to the European liberal democratic mainstream, the fissure within the V4 was on stark display, with Hungary and Poland headed in the opposite direction in terms of support for further European integration and compliance with rule of law and democratic principles. These tensions in turn weakened four-way cooperation between the Visegrad members (Bayer & Cienski, 2022).
Though, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine additionally complicated the situation within the group. For three of the four members, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia are clearly taking a strong pro-Ukraine stance, while Orban’s Hungary adopted a much more tepid position. Indeed, since the invasion started, Poland became a crucial logistical hub to supply Ukraine with everything from weapons to humanitarian assistance, while giving shelter to around three million refugees fleeing Ukraine (Cienski, 2022). Moreover, the right-wing PiS-led Polish government has been at the forefront of the efforts to increase sanctions on Russia and even offered its MiG-29 fighter planes to Ukraine in a three-way swap deal with the U.S. that in the end did not materialise (Mcleary et al., 2022). Similarly, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, while not playing a pivotal role as Poland, reportedly sent heavy weaponry to the Ukrainian army, such as Soviet-era tanks and air defence systems, to better enable it to fend off Russia’s onslaught (Gramer et al., 2022).
Meanwhile, Hungary’s support for Ukraine has been more lukewarm. Although Orban, who recently won a fourth consecutive term at the helm of the country, allowed NATO troops in Hungary and backed the initial rounds of sanctions against Russia, his government refused to supply Ukraine with weapons or even to allow arms deliveries from other countries through Hungary, which borders Ukraine. Moreover, pro-government media in Hungary promoted Russia’s narrative over the conflict, Orban himself tussled with Zelensky over his country soft line on Moscow, and the Hungarian government held hostage for almost a month the EU’s sixth sanctions package against Russia, relenting only after having carved out for the country important exemptions on the Russian oil ban (Rankin, 2022). The Hungarian position could be explained by the important economic and energy ties with Russia, the close relations between Orban and Putin, and an uneasy relationship between Budapest and Kyiv due to disputes over the language rights of the Hungarian minority living in Ukraine (Bayer, 2022).
These divergences within the V4 went into the spotlight in late March when a Visegrad defence ministers meeting was called off after the Czech Republic and Poland refused to join in a sign of frustration over the Hungarian’s stance on the ongoing conflict (Jack, 2022). A few days later the powerful leader of the Poland ruling party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, strongly criticised Orban for its refusal to condemn Russia for war atrocities in Bucha, where several civilians were brutally murdered (Scislowska, 2022). The rebuke was significant insofar as Poland and Hungary usually are bedfellows in supporting each other against Brussels’ reprimands over democratic backsliding. Thus, V4 cooperation is under serious strain in the context of the war in Ukraine, as wide discrepancies surfaced in the position of its members.
Rule of law’s deviations
In addition, Hungary could soon be further isolated. This is because the European Commission in April formally triggered a new conditionality mechanism against Hungary that could see Budapest losing EU money due to rule of law breaches (Radio Free Europe, 2022). For the same reason, Hungary has so far not been able to unlock the first tranche of its share of Recovery Fund money (Follain & Nardelli, 2022). This is in contrast with Poland, who despite scuffling for years with Brussels over democratic regressions, as yet it is not subject to the procedure to cut EU disbursements. Furthermore, there are signs that Warsaw is making small steps toward smoothing out its quarrels with the EU institutions, something that would probably allow the country to free its Recovery Fund grants (Bobinski, 2022). Therefore, if Poland were to ease some of its disputes with Brussels, Hungary would end up being even more marginalised.
Even though V4 countries maintain some policy areas in which their respective interests are closely aligned, such as the Mobility Package trucker reforms (Gotev et al., 2019) and on the expansion of nuclear power (Alderman & Reed, 2021), there are tensions on fundamental matters, such as rule of law or the war in Ukraine. The propensity for the group to reach a shared understanding is limited and so the odds that the group will be able to influence the future path of the EU according to its preferences will be very low.
An important moment will likely come in 2023 when Poland will hold its parliamentary election. A third consecutive term for the right-wing populist PiS would encourage the party to double-down on its fight against Brussels, this time from a position of power conferred upon it by the new electoral success. That would favour a rapprochement with Budapest, yet widen the divide between Bratislava and Prague, hence cementing the split in the alliance. On the other hand, a victory for the centre-right liberal opposition in Poland, led by former European Council President Donald Tusk, would bring the country closer to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, effectively isolating Hungary for the time Orban remains in power. In both scenarios a renewed four-way cooperation into the V4 format, as happened at the apex of the migration crisis, will be equally difficult to envisage.
Image credit: “Mateusz Morawiecki spotkał się z liderami V4 w Budapeszt”, Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland / CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)