The Visegrad Group, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last week, helped Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to join the EU. Why do they still need the V4 then?
The Budapest–Prague train says it all about the Visegrad Group as it slowly makes its way toward Bratislava: instead of a slick ‘Visegrad Express,’ like the one bringing you from Paris to London on a whim, this train takes seven hours to make the much shorter distance. It is a patchwork: carriages are provided by the four state railways and the locomotive is often changed after crossing the non-existent borders. The train passes three Visegrad capitals and yet there is only the majestic view to the very castle that has lent its name to the cooperation to remind us that we are in ‘Visegrad-land.’
The V4, in many ways, is like that: not clear who or what drives it, the common ‘Visegrad-interests’ read like a collage of member states’ foreign policy documents, and it is hardly comparable to the close and well-functioning Benelux or Nordic Community.
However, the V4 never intended to become an institutionalised regional integration as its members were afraid that the EU would grab the opportunity to further postpone enlargement, were they to set up a formal integration. It made no sense economically either: their capital-poor economies depended on the EU’s Single Market already at the beginning of the 1990s while their trade relations with each other were negligible.
In fact, the V4 was formed to help its members’ speedy EU integration by demonstrating that rivalry aside they are also capable of cooperation. Thus, the EU’s influence was tangible from the outset even though ‘Visegrad’ was a symbolic reference to the Visegrad Declaration of 1335 when the mighty monarchs of Hungary, Poland and Bohemia first cooperated to profit from diverting East-West trade by creating a North-South axis. Indeed, V4 leaders are always ready to make grand statements about creating North-South linkages, but they rarely put their money where their mouth is: hardly a mile of motorway or railway has been built in that direction in the last 20 years. Instead of creating regional clusters or promoting their region together for investors, V4 countries have been in cut-throat competition for praise by Western institutions, EU membership, and foreign direct investment.
Despite all this, the Visegrad Group is not only still around but it has been given a new lease on life lately, ironically by the EU itself. The cooperation has become a fairly effective foreign policy tool for its members: in the EU Council, V4 states have as many votes as France and Germany combined, enough to punch above their weight. Poland’s increased European standing also helped the V4; in turn, the V4 gives Poland a bigger weight in the EU. In 2009, when President Nicolas Sarkozy of France warned the V4 not to make a habit of their pre-EU Summit meetings to align their positions, V4 leaders knew they were on the right track. So much so that other EU states and even the president of the European Commission visit their summits to gather support for certain proposals or to build ad-hoc voting alliances. In March last year, the four countries opened their first ‘Visegrad Embassy’ in Cape Town where diplomats of each country take turns each week to carry out diplomatic and consular work for the other three.
Their economic interdependence has also been steadily growing since EU enlargement but this phenomenon is driven by regionally active trans-national corporations; the V4 could perhaps play a role here by assisting domestic firms to enter the regional market as a first step in learning how to compete internationally. NGOs, schools and other institutions now benefit from common EU and Visegrad Fund-financed projects, promising to reinterpret the historically existing, currently rather elusive ‘not quite Eastern, not yet Western’ Central European identity.
Is V4 a success then? I would argue for a cautious yes. However, it may be true that to view the V4’s achievements optimistically, one shouldn’t set the bar of expectations too high. Just like when boarding the train between Prague and Budapest.
Dániel Izsák is a former BBC journalist and editor