Conflicts within the European Union are continuing to intensify, and one of the most successful regional projects in Europe – the Visegrad Group – is at risk. The initiative, which set itself the goal of promoting economic integration and easing interstate conflicts, is becoming one of the elements of the geopolitical struggle at the heart of Europe.
The Declaration on the Creation of the Visegrad Group was unveiled in February 1991 in Visegrad, the historic capital of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, at a meeting of the then leaders of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The aim of the group was declared to be the facilitation of countries’ integration into European structures. The break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993 increased the number of members in the Visegrad Group, but did not change its character. Neither did the accession of all four of the group’s members to the EU in 2004 become a reason for its abolishment. The Visegrad Group has been coordinating trade and economic strategies and project, and has served as a forum for the discussion of regional problems. Adopted in 2011 at a summit in Bratislava, the declaration of the Visegrad Group stated that the regional association is «a recognised symbol of successful political and economic transformation» and «a model for regional cooperation» .
Instead of improving the Visegrad model, however, Brussels, and particularly Warsaw, have decided to sacrifice it in order to resurrect the spirit of the cold war in Europe with new Berlin walls, military and political alliances, and aggressive anti-Russian propaganda. The problem of ‘controlling’ Russia has come to the fore, but not everything is working out.
Rather than associating themselves with the policy of Brussels and Warsaw regarding Ukraine, Budapest, Prague and Bratislava are discussing the economy, calculating their losses as a result of anti-Russian sanctions, and even criticising the European Union.
Warsaw’s dissatisfaction with the course of events is growing. A lengthy article published in the leading Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on 19 September puts the question bluntly: why is the Visegrad Group not united in its condemnation of Russia, and why is it not hurrying to rally its members around Poland as the main defender of Ukraine? Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks are accused of collective amnesia, what the newspaper calls exaggerated trade and economic links with Russia, and a propensity for asking Brussels «awkward questions». The countries’ heads of state are particularly at the receiving end. According to the newspaper, Czech President Milos Zeman ventured to tell the NATO summit in Wales that he could not see any «clear evidence» of a Russian intervention in Ukraine, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico dared to talk about the geopolitical conflict between the US and Russia, which it would be better «to keep out of», and his Hungarian colleague Viktor Orban spoke in general about «the end of the West» and the crisis of liberal democracy. And all rather than blindly siding with Washington and Brussels in a united anti-Russian front .
The fact that Poland is not comfortable with the current format of the Visegrad Group has long been a known fact. Warsaw sees the association as another tool to satisfy Poland’s hegemonic ambitions in Central and Eastern Europe. It was on the initiative of Poland in March 2013 at a meeting in Warsaw that the defence ministers of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic agreed to set up a joint rapid response military force numbering 1500 soldiers.
With the emergence of the crisis in Ukraine, however, the Poles decided that this was not enough. Warsaw practically issued its partners in the Visegrad Group with an ultimatum: either they acknowledged that a military focus was central to its activities, or Poland would leave the association. As a possible compromise, however, it was suggested that membership of the group be expanded to seven (using the 4+ formula) through the inclusion of the three Baltic countries, which ‘old Europe’ regards as yet another instrument of US control over Western Europe. According to the same Gazeta Wyborcza, as things are at the moment, «Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians are closer to Austrians» in terms of their military neutrality, while «Poles are closer to Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians», even despite disputes with the latter three regarding the situation of the Polish minority in the Baltic states.
However, many in Central Europe are already getting bored with the endless game of anti-Russian tin soldiers. As far as Hungary is concerned, for example, Russia is first and foremost an attractive and profitable business partner, and Budapest has no plans to change the tone of bilateral relations. But this is also not acceptable to Washington, Brussels and their closest allies.
Everything that is happening with the Visegrad Four shows that regional initiatives in Europe are only acceptable to Brussels if they are acceptable to Washington. Anything that does not meet this criterion is liable to be discredited and dismantled.