Some commentators have been mocking the Visegrad Group even when its significance was rising. Today, with widely differing views on sanctions against Russia and the relocation of allied forces to Central Eastern Europe, this criticism has intensified. Even people who are usually quite enthusiastic Central Europeans are talking about the existential crisis of the Visegrad Group. Are things really so bad with our unique regional group? And what can the Czech Republic do to prevent Visegrad from descending into political insignificance?
Central Europe today lacks the will to overcome its divergent views about the events in the East. Repudiating Visegrad would however be wrong. Even though our opinions differ (as much as anywhere else in Europe), we are able to overcome these divisions thanks to our high level of mutual understanding and the intensity of our cooperation. If we look at the statements coming from the Visegrad capitals, it is the voices from Warsaw that differ most significantly. They are much sharper in their criticism of Russia and more position when it comes to an allied military presence in our region.
This approach is by no means surprising. The Poles have been seeking American soldiers on their soil for a long time and the history of their efforts to emancipate Ukraine from Russia is even longer. Even though Visegrad’s lowest common denominator has a lower value than the Polish-Baltic or the Polish-Swedish one, the Group has more opportunities to promote it. It is the only regional group that regularly meets the countries of the Eastern Partnership and the International Visegrad Fund disposes of modest, but efficiently spent funds for the development of civic societies in the post-Soviet region. The purposefulness of these projects and the credibility of the Fund are exemplified by the fact that among its donators are the Swedes, the Dutch and even the Japanese. Who would have thought even just a decade ago that such countries would give us money so that we could distribute them further in the East?
Although the Visegrad group was created as a reaction to the vacuum that appeared in the Central Europe at the end of the Cold War, it has long ago overcome the limits of dissident idealism. Between Prague, Bratislava, Budapest and Warsaw, functional mechanisms of coordination for European politics have been set up, despite differing views on the future of the EU. A similar situation exists in other areas, e.g. energy or defence and military cooperation, areas that can be developed regardless of different perceptions of the security situation.
Another important topic for the Visegrad Group is the improvements of infrastructural connections. Central Europe suffers from the legacy of socialism, which did not develop transport links between neighbouring countries, and from the legacy of post-communism, when most of the transport infrastructure development was oriented westwards. As trade intensifies, the north-south transport link is still missing and new EU instruments available for its financing require the cooperation of the countries involved. This is a great challenge for the Visegrad Group.
How many regional groups can Czech foreign policy bear?
In the past, Czech foreign policy elites identified themselves with the Visegrad format of cooperation. Today, there are however some voices coming from the Czernin Palace, which say Visegrad should be maintained, but alongside it regional cooperation should be developed with Croatia, Austria and Slovenia, for example to address the topic of the integration of Western Balkans into Euro-Atlantic structures. Rather than creating new groups it would be better to plug Vienna, Ljubljana and Zagreb into the already existing institutionalised cooperation of the Visegrad Group and Western Balkans. Like the case of the Eastern Partnership countries, there has been a high-level political dialogue going on between the Visegrad Group and the Western Balkans for some years. Wouldn’t it be easier to invite our Cisleithanian friends to these meetings, rather than create new bodies, which would not include Poland and Hungary? The new Slovak Presidency of the Visegrad Group made the involvement of these three countries one of its programme aims. Czech diplomacy should help in this effort.
The Czech search for new formats of cooperation has been met with concern in Poland. But it is precisely Poland, a big European country with ambitious diplomacy, which would suffer the least if it had to leave Visegrad. It can develop cooperation with Germany, Baltic states or Scandinavia alone. To maintain the Polish presence in the Visegrad group is in the Czech interest.
Klaus legacy lessons
Václav Klaus was convinced in the mid-1990s that the Czech Republic belongs to the West more than anyone else and dismissed Central Europe as a geopolitical category. This position damaged cooperation with our neighbours and we know the results of these solo-actions very well today: the second class initiative Partnership for Peace instead of a rapid enlargement of NATO, after which we were glad that the Poles were even willing to begin to talk to us about our joint entering of the Alliance; and the competition over who would join the EU sooner. We should not fool ourselves and think that the industrial Czech Republic belongs anywhere else than to Central Europe which also includes Poland and Hungary.
According to some economists the Czech Republic did not efficiently utilize the first decade in the EU. In the Doing Business ranking, the three remaining Visegrad countries outrank us in the index by many (tens of) positions. In the Global Competitiveness Report, Poland has surpassed us. We should not think that we belong to a different Central Europe. Our future is still in the Visegrad Group, we should take good care of it.