The ebb and flow in the importance of regional organisations has appeared on my radar screen during the last five months, since taking up my duties as Latvia’s Ambassador to Hungary in September 2012. Coming from a country that is embedded in Baltic cooperation, it has been fascinating to observe what is happening in Central Europe. So here are some preliminary impressions – I hesitate to call them anything more – on Visegrad cooperation as seen from my Danubian vantage point in Budapest.
Budapest is less than 50 kilometres from the Hungarian town that gives its name to the cooperation. Lying on the narrow bend of the Danube, Visegrad was the meeting place for the Czechoslovakian, Hungarian and Polish leaders in February 1991 – some six months before the three Baltic countries regained independence- when they founded the current cooperation structure. The venue, unsurprisingly for a country that holds historical legacy in high esteem, had been host to Bohemian, Hungarian and Polish rulers already back in the 14th Century when they agreed on a form of commercial cooperation. The splitting up of Czechoslovakia in 1993 allowed the cooperation structure to be referred to as V4, short for Visegrad 4, representing the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland.
The grouping works without a Secretariat and is issue driven with the presiding country offering policy priorities which are agreed on a consensual basis. Although there are no plans afoot to increase the membership of V4, it engages with neighbouring countries such as Romania and Slovenia by way of V4 plus arrangements.
During our own integration towards the EU and NATO in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was of course aware of the Visegrad group. The trio (without Slovakia) already joined NATO in 1999, whilst Latvia and the other two Baltic countries joined with Slovakia in 2004. We all acceded to the EU that same year. Inevitably, following the success of returning to the European fold, the need to cooperate with our regional partners may have slackened off, although in the Baltic case, regional defence and security cooperation in fact continued unabated. This was because certain joint Baltic projects for Defence studies (Baltdefcol), naval (Baltron) and air (Baltnet) cooperation were already well established and long term. Likewise the NATO Alliance’s decision to provide air policing capabilities from the time of our accession, for what became NATO’s airspace over the Baltic countries’ territory bound us together in a way that is absent in the Visegrad group.
Before arriving in Budapest I was given a copy of a publication “Visegrad Insight” produced in early 2012 by the only permanent institution of V4 cooperation, the Visegrad Fund. It opens with the editor’s Wojciech Przybylinski’s remarks that “The V4 has been proclaimed dead so many times that we are often surprised to find it still alive”. A few pages further the well known International Editor of the Economist Edward Lucas invites the readers to let the V4 rest in peace given that there are no issues that allow them to overcome the discrepancies in size, with Poland having a larger GDP than the other three countries put together.
My own sense is that the V4 is still very much alive and kicking. It has certainly made itself known in Hungary’s capital, going on my own recent experience. Let me explain how and why.
The fact that Hungary takes over the chairmanship of V4 from Poland in the middle of this year has already been well advertised in Budapest. A conference was held late last year by the Hungarian MFA at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs focusing on 2013 as Central European year in Hungary’s foreign policy. Hungary not only takes over the chairmanship of V4, but also began to lead the 18 member Central European Initiative(CEI) from January 1st. Hence there will be an overlap of the presidency of both institutions.
I have also noticed an interest in other regional groupings, whether this be the Nordic countries or the Baltic cooperation. This has been stressed on several occasions by Defence Minister Cszabo Hende both in Budapest, but more particularly during his visit to Latvia (and the other two Baltic countries) in January 2013. Indeed the Minister has also offered his support for the idea to hold in Budapest a conference later this year focusing on Baltic and Visegrad security and defence questions.
It has been difficult not to notice the active leadership of the V4 currently being undertaken by Poland – a fact also readily acknowledged by the Hungarians. Foreign Ministers met with their NB (Nordic – Baltic) counterparts in Gdansk on 20th February, a meeting co-hosted by Sweden’s Carl Bildt with Radoslaw Sikorski. Reports indicate that the discussions focused on growth in Europe, the EU’s Eastern Partnership, relations with Russia and European security. Hungary seemed to have emphasised in particular the importance of the Euroatlantic integration of the Western Balkan countries. Other V4 meeting are planned at Prime Ministers’ level. In June they will meet with their Japanese counterpart. On March 6th., Poland made use of its engagement in the Weimar Triangle with Germany and France by organising the meeting together with President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel. A meeting of Weimar and Visegrad Defence Ministers took place in parallel. The opportunity for Central European leaders to meet with the leaders of France and Germany in this type of format is not something to be scoffed at and illustrates the way in which Poland has become a leading player in Europe. Meanwhile Gdansk also hosted the V4 Defence ministers meeting with NATO’s Deputy Secretary General Vershbow on 28th February and another Foreign Ministers meeting with their Eastern Partnership counterparts is scheduled for May.
Which in some ways means that Hungary will have a difficult act to follow when it takes over the V4 presidency on July 1st. The dynamism of Poland’s current foreign policy profile is probably due to the confidence of having come to terms with relations with two important neighbours – Germany and Russia. Whilst Hungary’s relations with their “big brother” Poland seem excellent, the same cannot be said of relations with neighbouring Slovakia. The visit to Hungary after a nine year time lag of Slovakia’s President in February this year brought to the surface differences over minority issues in the respective countries and the persistent reminder about Hungary’s sense of historical injustice that I have noticed since my arrival. Hungary’s loss of two thirds of its territory and one third of its population as a result of the 1920 Trianon Treaty has left deep ongoing scars with neighbouring countries that neither V4 nor NATO and EU membership have been able to heal. So whereas Hungary appears to have no controversial agenda items with either the Czech Republic or Poland, the same cannot be said of Slovakia. Does this adversely affect V4 cooperation? Apparently not and indeed perhaps V4 provides another forum at which to meet and discuss these bilateral problems.
Hungary’s presidency of V4 will probably have more emphasis on wider cooperation embracing the 18 countries within the Central European Initiative. The overlap of the two presidencies during the latter half of 2013 may mean, for example, that Hungary could host a type of V4+CEI Summit of Prime Ministers which would of course give a high profile to their hybrid presidency. The mutuality of interests with Latvia (and of course Lithuania, which will hold the EU presidency for six months beginning 1st July this year) could be witnessed if Hungary successfully prioritises issues such as the EU Eastern Partnership and energy security during its V4 presidency. An EU – Eastern Partnership Summit is planned in Lithuania in the second half of this year. What could V4’s additional contribution be to such an event? Poland’s particular interest in Ukraine (as opposed to Hungary’s greater focus on Moldova) could, presumably, offer some “added value”, but this would have to be offered as a joint approach agreed by all four countries.
The diversity and discrepancies between V4 countries of course prevent them from acting as equal partners amongst themselves . The essential question in considering how effective the group works together must surely relate to this question of what they offer as a group as opposed to on their own. Regional cooperation competition seems to prevail. There are apparently some 65 regional organisations in operation. But with no plans to expand its membership, V4 seems set to continue to operate as the leading cooperation forum.
The ability to reach consensus and present a united position inside the EU is certainly an added value. Ministers meet before EU Council meetings and indeed every Governmental Minister will meet at least once at the V4 level during every presidency. Although this may provoke concerns amongst some EU partners about a negative effect on the workings of the EU as a whole, we should not forget that the Benelux cooperation model has been there since the EU was founded and did not hold back the effectiveness of the EU speaking with one voice, but instead made a positive contribution to integration.
I anticipate that Hungary’s V4 presidency will be pragmatic and practical. Cutting the time of travel (whether by road or rail) between Budapest and Warsaw, for example, may not be achieved overnight, but any measures that work towards such an aim must be welcome throughout Europe. This of course has resonances with our own region, where the RailBaltic project within the EU has yet to achieve the desired result of reducing travel times from our capitals to EU capitals such as Warsaw or Berlin. Iceland’s volcanic dust cloud which grounded European air transport a few years ago exposed the inadequacy of other important European transport links.
The incentives to continue with regional cooperation models such as V4 exist and the political will to achieve specific added value also appears to prevail. Which would lead me to conclude that any rumours of the demise of the Visegrad 4 are entirely premature.
The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Latvia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Published 08 March 2013