Interview: Role of Poland in the Visegrad Four

  • Antonín Beránek
  • 7.2.2017 10:08

After years of its existence, the Visegrad Four achieved all-European importance only in recent years when it took a stand against EU's refugee quotas. Does cooperation of the V4 have any other potential? And how is the group perceived by Poland? Our questions were answered by Lukasz Ogrodnik, an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (www.pism.pl).

The significance of the Visegrad Four increased after the strong joint statement on redistribution quotas associated with refugees to the EU. How do you see the possibilities, potential and perspective of the V4 from Poland's standpoint?

In the past this group dealt with sectoral cooperation among the V4 countries and cooperation within the "Visegrad Plus" format, which also includes e.g. Romania or Bulgaria, but also Japan or Korea. Another direction was the European integration. The goal was to join the EU by 2004. So together with the entry into NATO, we had already reached concrete achievements. But what's next? It was agreed to continue the Visegrad cooperation in Kroměříž (2004). The migration crisis became a new impulse. I do not know if it is the key change. But it is a new topic which is also very interesting for the people. Usually, they are seldom interested in start-ups or e-commerce. However, migration is for instance in the Czech Republic a huge topic that e.g. President Zeman talks about a lot. The V4's stance on migration in contrasts with other countries, especially with Italy and Greece. Former Italian Prime Minister Renzi said that if the V4 will continue to oppose redistribution quotas, Italy might block their EU budget.

How will the V4 cooperation continue? Do you think that the consensus among the V4 countries concerning migration was a one-time matter or will other issues come? What is the significance of the V4 for Poland?

The Visegrad is not unanimous in everything. There are differences. Look at the relations with Russia for instance. Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán and Slovak Prime Minister Fico are significantly more pro-Russian than representatives of the other two governments. We can see it, for example, on the attitude towards anti-Russian sanctions: Hungary and Slovakia oppose extending them. But let's look at the Polish perspective. I think that the Polish membership in the V4 provides a great opportunity to improve its negotiating position within the EU, as was confirmed by the migration crisis. Last year during the summit in Bratislava the V4 proposed the concept of flexible solidarity. The Slovak Presidency of the EU presented a different concept: effective solidarity. Poland, but I think that also the Czech Republic and Hungary, use the V4 brand to support their stances on the migration crisis. Then there is the topic of federalisation of the EU where the V4 also consistently opposes further federalisation. From the perspective of Poland, the V4 now more important than ever. Now we have the Polish Presidency of the V4. We are trying to solve the migration crisis, but not only that. Poland and the other V4 countries use the V4 as a support in negotiations in Brussels.

Did Poland enter the Presidency with a goal to lead the V4 somewhere?

Regarding institutionalisation, we only have the International Visegrad Fund. The question is whether the V4 should be more institutionalised. From Poland's perspective, it is an open question. Regarding cooperation, we want further expansion of the V4. For instance Via Carpatia – this is no longer only about the V4 countries, we want to interconnect the countries from the Baltic states to the south. Another vector of cooperation is the Intermarium concept. After the summit in Dubrovnik, the summit in Wroclaw awaits us this year. We'll see how it will continue. The Czech Republic's stance is positive, but it prefers the V4 Plus format. However, it is better to have more cooperation platforms.

Between the governments of the V4 countries there are two ultra-conservative (Poland, Hungary) and two social democratic (the Czech Republic, Slovakia). Can we overcome such a difference in values to find a common stance on issues?

When you look at how often Prime Ministers Sobotka and Fico meet or how often our Beata Szydło deals with Prime Minister Orbán, you will find that even the Visegrad operates at various levels. The Czech Republic and Slovakia naturally have special relations. But the fact that the social democrats rule in both these countries definitely helps that frequency, it is another impulse.

The V4 countries also cooperate in the defence sphere. For instance the so-called battle group, a task force composed of soldiers from the Visegrad countries. Is this an exception or the beginning of a broader collaboration in this area?

The battle group operates within the European Union structures. It is related to the idea of building a European army. Security specialists are sceptical about this project. But the presidential term of Donald Trump in the US has just started. We'll see what impact it will have on the concept of European military cooperation.

Is building unified European forces of interest to for Poland, or would it rather focus on the concept of strengthening its own defence?

There is currently no concrete proposal on the table concerning what this army should look like. It is a simply an idea. But Poland is not against it. However, such a project would be beneficial, especially for smaller countries, like the Czech Republic. Poland is one of the five NATO countries that fulfil their obligations and give 2% of their GDP. The Czech Republic is also heading in that direction.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has just announced that the United Kingdom will have a "hard" Brexit. It will affect many Poles, but also other Europeans. Access to the UK labour market is likely to be considerably more complicated. That's probably not good news for Poland?

I think it is bad news for the UK. There are seven members of the EU among the ten largest trade partners of the UK. We shall see how this process will continue. You probably know that there are about a million Poles in the UK. Czechs are also there but that is a completely different number. It's a big topic. Prime Minister May has previously stated that the rights of the Poles who are already there will not change. Now it is evident that the situation is worse for Poles. But we adapt easily. There is The Netherlands and Norway and the emigration of Poles to Germany is already increasing.

You mentioned that the V4 countries are more likely to oppose further federalisation of the EU. Has Poland any vision of what the EU should look like?

There are several aspects related to the Visegrad. For instance, Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimír Zaorálek has said that the V4 group cannot define itself against Germany. So it is hard to imagine that the Visegrad will be in opposition to countries such as Germany. Yes, when it comes to the main direction of European integration, all the Visegrad states are sceptical towards federalisation. However, the question is how to reform everything. We have a number of problems. The Polish side raised the topic of changes to EU treaties. It was not yet done in detail, but it is nothing less than that. The Czech side responded via Prime Minister Sobotka that at the moment it makes no sense to speak of those changes to the contracts. And maybe it is not too realistic. Germans do not want to hear about any changes at all. Neither towards federalisation, nor towards the strengthening of nations. So we find ourselves in a kind of stalemate, mostly because of Brexit. We have the Visegrad Declaration, a document presented at a summit in Bratislava in September 2016. The idea of strengthening national parliaments is there. But again, not in detail. But it could mean, for example, passing European Parliament laws in the parliaments of individual member states.

Would Poland prefer such a solution?

Yes. Not only Poland, it is a common opinion of the Visegrad. Changing European treaties is the right way. In this we do not agree within the Visegrad. In Poland we say that the Vatican's mills grind slowly. It is similar with the Brussels mills. Every decade some large European Treaty is made. Maybe it is time for a new one.

About author: Antonín Beránek

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