When the new government led by the social democrats assumed the office in the Czech Republic in January 2014, among its foreign policy priorities was a deepening of cooperation with its neighbours, in particular with Germany and Austria. Unfortunately, the past three years were anything but calm, and the situation made long-term planning an onerous, if not impossible, task.
Several events have had an effect on the Czech Central-European policy: the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the refugee crisis and the new Law and Justice-led government in Poland. Mainly, the two latter events have had greater influence on the image of the region. One can easily get the impression that the Czech centre-left government would now turn westwards, enhance its relationship with Germany and loosen its ties with the “nationally conservative” Visegrad Group.
Though, this is far from what has materialised. Any grumbling about the Visegrad Group can only be heard in the corridors of Czernin Palace, the seat of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is not shared by other political actors including important social democrats.
The Czech Redefinition of Central Europe
Petr Drulák, who was then the first Czech deputy foreign minister, said in one interview in June 2014, a few months after he assumed the office, that our conception of Central Europe was still constrained by the post-communist thinking and that we needed some definition which could overcome the Cold War divisions. He also developed the idea of Central European cooperation which would have included the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia.
This happened during the so-called crisis of the Visegrad Group after the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea and outbreak of the war in Eastern Ukraine. The Visegrad Group has been often criticized for its inability to act, when the four countries held divergent positions vis-à-vis important international affairs. Edwards Lucas wrote at that time that the Visegrad Group is “grappling with irrelevance” and enlisted a number of V4’s disagreements.
He, and many other commentators, was right that the Visegrad Group was not able to form a strong position on the Ukrainian conflict. However, the Czechs perceived the Russian behaviour less nervously than the Poles. Prime Minister Sobotka said that he was not calling for enhanced NATO presence in Europe; on the other hand, an enhanced presence of the alliance was exactly what Warsaw urged for. Petr Drulák, in October 2014 during the lecture at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said that the Visegrad Group does not hold any geopolitical role. It seemed that the Czech Republic was actually departing from NATO’s eastern flank, which was broadly calling for a reassurance of its security.
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