Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the formation of the Visegrád Group (Visegrád Four or V4), an alliance of four Central European states: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. The original purpose of the alliance was to further these countries’ integration into Europe. In addition, the member countries aimed at improving their military, economic, and energy cooperation. The agreement was signed in the castle of Visegrád. Why Visegrád? It was there that in 1335 Charles I of Hungary, Casimir III of Poland, and John of Bohemia agreed to create new commercial routes to bypass Vienna and obtain easier access to European markets. Today the leaders of the four countries gathered in Prague to contemplate a plan that might isolate them from the rest of the European Union.
Michal Kořán, a Czech foreign policy expert who was interviewed today on the Czech public radio station, said that what concerns him is that “the Visegrád group was conceived as a means to overcome borders” but “today’s summit is aimed at recreating borders again.” He is not at all sure which way the Visegrád Four is heading. These countries are at a crossroads. They can either think about “how to make the region more competitive, more interconnected” or, and he is afraid the Visegrád Four is heading in this direction, take a stance of “being defensive, … being closed, and … being obstructive.”
Slovakia’s president, Andrej Kiska, reminded the members of the Visegrád Group of its original purpose: European integration. “The voice of four is more effective and more convincing” but, he added, “the member states must learn to make common decisions and take responsibility for the European Union as a whole.” Kiska, who in 2014 squarely defeated Fico in the campaign for the presidency, is a rare voice not just in Slovakia but also in the region. His counterpart in Poland, Andrzej Duda, holds a very different view. He is convinced that the views expressed by the current leaders of the Visegrád countries are “logical and well established.” According to him, “rich Western Europe doesn’t understand us. Since no one else helps us, we must help each other.” Mr. Duda’s memory seems to be very short. He conveniently forgets the European Union’s financial assistance as well as NATO’s protective umbrella over the Central European states, including Poland.
Yesterday Angela Merkel warned against the plan put forth by Viktor Orbán, which is now being contemplated by the Visegrád Group, to erect a fence to seal Greece off from Macedonia and Bulgaria. In fact, as Reuters reported, Berlin officials have already sent letters to the governments of the Visegrád Four expressing Berlin’s disapproval of the plan. This letter was most likely strongly worded because Martin Schäfer, the spokesman of the German foreign office, said in reply to a question by a reporter that “it is not a mistake to call [the letter] a démarche.” Schäfer also expressed the German belief that Greece should have been invited to the V4 summit. After all, a fence along its border is also Greece’s concern. Steffen Seibert, the de facto press secretary of the Chancellor’s office with the title of undersecretary of state, emphasized that it is a mistake to suppose that Germany wanted to prevent the meeting in Prague. “It only wanted to call attention to the common European responsibility,” which the Visegrád Group is ignoring at the moment.
How much do we know so far about the meeting? The four prime ministers released the “Prague Declaration” in which they called attention to their concern about a divided Europe. They fear that the West European countries will form their own Schengen zone and will leave them behind. The declaration emphasized that they, for their part, will do their best to prevent such an event, and they expressed their hope that “our European partners share our aspiration and will work with us in this spirit.” All that sounds innocent enough, but what Viktor Orbán said after the meeting is less promising. He recalled that in 1991 and for a while afterward the main aim was the integration of these former communist countries into Europe. But “now we want to be equal partners,” especially since the European Union needs these countries more than ever because they are the engine of Europe’s economic growth. In his opinion, whatever the EU has done up to now concerning the refugee issue “has failed.” The member states must “contemplate the erecting of a second line of defense” along the northern border of Greece. Hungary is ready to share all its resources to build such a fence. He predicted that 38.5 million refugees may descend on Europe in the future.
Orbán was strongly supported by Beata Szydło, the Polish prime minister. According to her, the “Prague Declaration” aims at achieving “a better European understanding of the common viewpoint of the Visegrád Group.” And Fico strongly supports Plan B, which Szydło found absolutely harmless as far as Greece or anyone else is concerned. Fico immediately offered 300 Slovak policemen who could stand by this second line of defense. The Visegrád Four wants “a strong Europe, and a stronger European Union needs a strong Visegrád Group.” This sentence echoes Viktor Orbán’s overblown ideas about the importance of Hungary and the region in general to the well-being of Europe.
I suspect that the Czech Republic is less sanguine about building a second line of defense, closing Greece off from the rest of the continent. I base this opinion on what Bohuslav Sobotka had to say after the meeting. He expressed his hope that the understanding with Turkey will bring results. He added that “the Visegrád countries support a common solution because the problem cannot be solved by any one country.” He emphasized that Greece must obey all the rules laid out by the Schengen agreement. I consider these statements an indication that the Czech Republic at least didn’t wholeheartedly line up behind Viktor Orbán’s dangerous, unworkable ideas.