Just what is the Visegrád Group?

It’s the Silly Season in Britain, where Parliament has gone into hiding recess for the summer. However, politics does not sleep – especially on the Continent, where Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orbán, makes further threats to Brussels ahead of next year’s European Parliamentary Elections…but you’d have to look pretty closely to find anything about it in the British news, so, once again, Politically Wasted sets to explain it for you.

Formed in the wake of the collapse of Western Communism, the leaders of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia met in the historic Hungarian town of Visegrád – a location of historical importance for all three nations – to form a grouping that would take the town’s name: the Visegrád Group. Links to both the East and the West were next to non-existent: the Group was formed after the Soviet Union relinquished its grip on Central Europe, ten days before the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, years before NATO membership, and well-over a decade before being admitted into the European Union.

Since its creation in February 1991, the Visegrád Group claims to be an alliance of the four countries with the aim of furthering political and cultural cohesion. All four nations were accepted into the European Union in 2004, further aiding their unity. Recently, the V4 have been synonymous with euroskepticism, following their refusal to accept their role in providing asylum for refugees since the summer of 2015.

Viseflag GroupTo call the V4 euroskeptic, however, is somewhat of a sweeping assumption, which is probably based on our (by which I mean, the UK’s) own attitude towards the EU and of migration. In fact, the Visegrád nations’ current ruling parties are all pro-European, believe in the European project, welcome the further integration of European nations, and the Bloc’s expansion eastwards – particularly into the Balkans.

If the Visegrád Group stands for the political and cultural cohesion of its members, so does the European Union. Surely this idea of the cohesion of smaller states is antagonistic to the ideas of the EU as a broader entity, as it smacks of exceptionalism. How is that Central Europe – consisting of mainly East Slavic countries – can form a cultural and political conservation group, while being part of a group that does the same thing on a larger scale?

The answers are scant, the theories numerous. In order to understand the Visegrád Group, closer inspection of the constituent members is advised: what is the cultural/political threads that link these four countries? Of the four, only Poland and Hungary make into the British media, and usually for negative reasons. The forced early retirement of independent judges in Poland under the Party of Law and Order (PiS), and the “illiberal democracy” being constructed in Hungary by Orbán’s Fidesz party have been reported on – albeit in limited detail, and not within the context of the Visegrád Group. Many outside of the V4 consider these parties and their leaders to be right-wing populists, however the PiS and Fidesz are merely representative of the centre-right in their respective countries, and are actually deemed the establishment.

Both Poland and Hungary had been ruled by the respective main centre-left parties for a period in the early 2000’s, and this had not changed the course of the Visegrád Group’s mission goals. Both centre-left parties, however, did suffer humiliating defeats due to ineptitude or complacency, and are looking unlikely to regain power – particularly considering the political developments within Poland and Hungary that are creating difficult conditions for opposition parties. Indeed, Poland’s two main parties are both of the centre-right, and differ – nearly solely – on the minutiae of EU membership terms, while Fidesz in Hungary increases its supermajority in an electoral system designed to produce coalition governments. Both countries are fervently opposed to communism and communist parties are all but banned.

As for the members of former Czechoslovakia, both countries have held strong to their left-wing ideals: in Slovakia, the Social Democratic party has been in power since 2006, while in the Czech Republic, the centre-left ČSSD has ruled since 2006 until 2013, since which it is a junior partner with populist centrists ANO, and backed by the Czech Communist Party in a Confidence and Supply arrangement.

So, a “political union” it ain’t. What about culture? Three of the four countries are identified as East Slavic on account of the native languages – of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, Czech and Slovak are mutually intelligible. Hungary however, is an isolated linguistic island within Europe. The language’s nearest relatives are Estonian and Finnish, and is part of the Uralic-Finnic group of languages. As for the culture itself, it is considered “Magyar” (Hungarian for, well, Hungarian), and in no way Slavic.

Many would say that the ongoing refugee crisis has brought the four nations together in their joint refusal to accept people fleeing the Middle East and North Africa. While a generalisation, this theory does have its merits, and they are linked to the Group’s religious population. Very nearly half (49.25%) of the Visegrád Group’s population count themselves as Catholic, but that picture is rather general:

  • Czech Rep.      10.5%
  • Hungary          37.1%
  • Poland             87.5%
  • Slovakia          62%
A Beautiful Fence

So the theory that refugees are being refused simply on the grounds of religion seems to flounder when put against the Czech Republic’s 35% atheist population, or even Orbán’s own 37% Catholic population. Andrej Babiš, the Czech President and leader of ANO, has noted that the popular consensus is to disallow refugees and migrants from outside the EU. Being a centrist populist, this fits in well enough with his party’s narrative. Similarly, Slovakian President Robert Fico, of the ruling Social Democrats, has attempted to link refugees and outside migration to terrorism in Europe. Combine these with Poland’s Catholic hegemony, and Orbán’s continuing rhetoric about defending “Christian values” of Europe, and the general consensus – regardless of motive.

So why is it that the V4 still exists, with no discernible political cohesion, loose linguistic ties, intense politics of religion alongside the nigh-atheist, and twelve years after its constituent members’ integration into the EU?

The answer, perhaps, lies in the action that the European Union’s legal institutions are trying to put into action against the Group’s members. Hungary are facing increasing pressure to relinquish state control over the media, Poland – as mentioned – have ceased to maintain the independence of its judiciary, and all four refuse point-blank to accept what the EU terms as their “quota” of refugees and extra-European migrants.

In reaction to these transgressions, the European Union had enacted formal proceedings and withhold the voting rights of Poland in the European Union. In response, hungary promised to exercise its veto over the matter, effectively prolonging or even quashing the EU’s attempts to punish Poland.

This, then, is perhaps the strength of the Group: the ability to stem the flow of EU power of member states to protect national sovereignty. Indeed, Hungary was the UK’s only supporter in David Cameron’s attempt to get a good deal prior to the Brexit Referendum later that year. Both Hungary and Poland are bitterly disappointed to see Britain leave the Bloc.

Soft-euroskepticism is perhaps the correct label, but it does go further, and the Group’s current President, Hungary, has been making noises – prior to Slovakia’s takeover of the rotating presidency – to reform the EU’s migration policies, threatening Brussels of a takeover and warning the EU that the Bloc’s right-wing reformist parties will hold the power after the EU Parliamentary Elections in May next year.

As a member of the EEP – the same parliamentary group as other main centre-right parties including Angela Merkel’s CDU – Fidesz would have a tough time trying to takeover, and none of the Visegrád Group’s governmental parties share the same EU Parliament Group. It seems that for the time being, the Visegrád Group’s power is limited solely to the nation-state.

Considering recent electoral upsets to the establishment, however, May 2019 could realise all sorts of hitherto unforseen happenings…

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