Austria, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic: An Increasingly Central Europe?
On Saturday 13 January, Czech citizens went to the polls for the first round of the presidential election. Miloš Zeman, the current Head of State, who is eurosceptic and strongly opposed to EU migration policies, came out first and will be facing pro-Europe Jiří Drahoš at the second round.
In this complex central Europe, where borders have evolved with successive Kingdoms and Empires, an ideological convergence seems to be appearing amongst the region’s governments. 100 years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s disappearance, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic share political views: criticism of Brussels’ policies, promotion of nationalism, and firm opposition to extra-European immigration.
Towards “Visegrád 5”?
Heinz-Christian Strache, the chairman of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), who became vice-chancellor of Austria after he signed an agreement with Sebastian Kurz’s conservative party (ÖVP), declared he supported his country’s entry into the Visegrád group during the campaign for the 15 October 2017 legislative elections.
The group - commonly called “V4” - was created in 1991 by Lech Wałęsa’s Poland, Václav Havel’s Czechoslovakia, and József Antall’s Hungary. In 1994, after Czechoslovakia’s partition, the group comprised four countries. The name refers to the alliance agreement signed by the Polish, Hungarian and Bohemian kings in 1335 in Visegrád.
Ironically, the deal was an economic agreement aiming to redirect commercial roads towards Bohemia, in order to escape from Vienna’s control!
Despite Heinz-Christian Strache’s declarations, Austria’s accession to the group does not seem to be on the agenda. The 2015 migration crisis has enabled the V4 to gain influence within the EU. After the arrival of hundreds of individuals coming from Turkey and transiting through the Balkans towards Germany, the four countries came together to oppose the migrants relocalization mechanism proposed by the EU. This political alliance provided the group with high visibility within the Union, and increased their attractiveness for a number of eurosceptic political movements.
However, the four countries are not united on all major political issues. Emmanuel Macron has incidentally been able to ingeniously obtain Slovakia and the Czech Republic’s agreement over the reform of the EU Posted Workers Directive, despite Poland and Hungary’s strong opposition.
Despite their potentially matching views, a number of major political options are triggering discrepancies among the V4 + Austria countries. Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Bratislava are members of NATO, while Vienna has been reluctant to join the Alliance and has been “neutral” in terms of foreign affairs since 1955.
Last October, Poland has reaffirmed its support to Turkey’s accession to the EU, while Austria - which keeps a vivid memory of the war against the Ottoman Empire - is opposed to it. Similarly, Poland has traditionally shown hostility towards its Russian neighbor, while Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy seems to be largely influenced by his proximity with Vladimir Putin.
These five countries are not similarly integrated within the EU and only Slovakia and Austria have adopted the common currency. Finally, let’s note that only Vienna is a net contributor to the EU budget, while the four other countries receive more financial transfers from the EU than they contribute to the European budget.
A radical challenge to the EU?
In Poland, the change of Prime Minister in December and the cabinet reshuffle in January seem to indicate the country’s desire to appear more accomodating within the EU since the European Commission triggered Article 7 of the EU treaty against the country (foreshadowing a potential voting rights suspension at the Council in case of breach to EU values and following a specific procedure). Indeed, government members who were most vehemently criticized by Paris, Berlin and European institutions have been dismissed.
This possible willingness to accommodate could be indicative of the paradox characterizing the region’s governments. Although they can be philosophically opposed to the project of an "ever-closer Union" as defined by the EU Treaty and prove to be the strongest opponents to Brussels’ migration policy, these governments have clearly understood the economic advantage they derive from their participation to the EU and its internal market. Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico thus declared in July 2017 his intention to pursue regional cooperation within the Visegrád group, but that the EU was in "the vital interest" of his country.
The defense of an outright exit from the EU - on the model of Brexit - or of ‘sovereignism’ as advocated by Florian Philippot, who worked alongside Marine Le Pen in the Front National during the French presidential campaign, is not exactly in line with these countries’ ambivalent stance. The fear of being reluctantly dragged into a federal Europe, led by France and Germany, is as real as that of being politically undermined. These governments thus oppose the option of a multi-speed Europe, often promoted by the Union’s founding countries and presented as a solution to current governance problems, as they deem it the expression of an unwillingness to involve them in the future of the continent.
This paradoxical position explains why regional integration within the EU itself is the option chosen by these countries. Their aim is to increase their influence within the continent in order to effectively impact the future of the Union and common policies. In the same logic, these countries wish to spread their influence in France and Germany. Viktor Orbán's recent visit to the powerful Bavarian CSU is the most striking instance.
It seems that the Visegrád Group still has a bright future as a major political force in the EU. With the possible return of a grand coalition in Germany, the question now is whether the V4 will manage to cultivate its unity and to gain the support of Austria to constitute a counterbalance to the increasingly strengthened Franco-German couple.