While Britain under Cameron’s Tories threatens to uncouple from the heart of Europe, are there similar tensions brewing in Central Europe?
Firstly, what is Central Europe? After the fall of the former communist regime and the establishment of the Czech Republic, the central European concept was not really applied. People often spoke of Western Europe and of the Czech Republic joining the club. After entry into the European Union, however, this concept became a concrete reality.
But what is the area called Central Europe? Let’s look at four different perspectives. Firstly, Central Europe is a cultural concept, a “multinational space” with a predominantly German culture in the many spheres of life. Geographically, it is the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Bavaria and Saxony.
Secondly, Central Europe can be viewed as a geo-strategic space between Germany and Russia. Thirdly, it is an institutional space of three legacies – Austrian, communist and of the European Union.
And finally, Central Europe can be viewed as an area of transactions which means an area with the greatest intensity of economic trade (according to this criterion it is the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia. By contrast, Poland does not fit into this concept).
So clearly “Central Europe” is not exactly an easy concept to grasp, given the many overlapping identities and meanings, there is a considerable asymmetry between the countries.
On one side there is Poland, conceivably a “superpower” within post-communist Europe, and on the other, the triad of countries: Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia. There is also certain interdependence between these states, and yet at the same time they each still depend on an external state – in most cases, Germany.
And lastly, another term for this Central European space and these four countries is Visegrad Four (or V4), which in its own right raises further questions about how we can understand the dynamics of this area on the European mainland.
The Visegrad Four
Why is the V4 an important platform of four Central European states, and how has it managed to gain awareness within European structures?
Several factors are involved: political support from representatives of various countries and focus on joint cooperation; flexibility in cases of disagreement; finding a narrative of cooperation and shared strategic objectives; which ultimately delivered greater self-confidence for this group.
Consequently this format has become well established and such cooperation is a key priority for Czech diplomacy, both between neighbours and at the wider EU level.
Has EU influence over the V4 grouping weakened?
Visegrad is a single group that survives partly due to a common vision of joining the European Union.
Early optimism from EU integration now gives way to forces driving states apart. The profoundly precarious euro-zone situation and associated efforts at further integration only within the euro area may threaten Central European states’ interests.
The disparity between the V4 countries becomes clearer against the backdrop of the debt crisis. Slovakia is a member of the euro-zone and participates fully in integration. Meanwhile Poland, with its pro-European stance, albeit a non-member of the euro area, is closely linked to EU processes. Then again, Hungary is increasingly moving away from European structures, due both to the political stance of Viktor Orbán’s government and an increasingly difficult economic situation.
Only Poland seems capable of strategic thinking and successful negotiation tactics. V4 is also slow when responding to EU developments. Contrast this with the dynamic cooperation between the German and French leaders, when a joint statement can be drafted in a matter of hours.
In relations between the V4 states and Germany, a key player in the region, each country has its own approach and so there is little chance of formulating common interests. Contrast the reserved, inward-looking Czech approach, seeking an institutional opt-out, with a very pro-active Polish government strategy. And Germany is the most important neighbour, and co-operation within the EU represents 85 percent of the common agenda.
In this space, Czech political leaders are struggling with this dual concept and act like someone balancing between two stools. To further complicate matters, how will Czech Republic deal with Austria? Might it look to form relations between Austria and Germany, a modern day Weimar triangle? And what of Slovenia in the northern Balkans, an EU member soon to be joined by its neighbour Croatia with the latter’s accession to the EU later this year?
Czech Republic in the Visegrad Four
While the division of Czechoslovakia led to the weakening of both countries and despite the current excellent relations between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it is evident each country is already looking to a new future, especially regarding their attitudes to European integration.
As an example, when the Fiscal Pact was concluded at the European level in March 2012, the Czech Republic and the UK were the only countries which decided not to join. This caused relatively sharp criticism within the V4 nations, because it was felt that in a time of trouble the Czech Republic wanted to escape, rather than show solidarity and responsibility.
Another case is the current negotiation on the new multiannual financial perspective of the European Union. All V4 states are group members supporting EU regional policy but the Czech Republic has also joined a group trying to radically cut the European budget.
We lack political will
European policy and foreign policy in general often stands on symbols and perceptions. We may work at different levels and it can lead to new formats and we can show good results, unfortunately only at the executive level. At the political level, however, we are witnessing either indifference or an incorrect grasp of foreign policy by the Czech Republic and all that on the background of the European Union membership.
Recently we see negative attitudes towards the EU from right-wing Czech governments, saying that without the EU, the Czech Republic would do much better. They don’t seem to understand that for a medium sized state, its national interests are best served in the EU.
The right has forgotten how little can be achieved either globally or with near neighbours if a state is on the outside. There is a danger that the Czech Republic may become an unpredictable partner for other Central European countries.
Here there is a wider, serious lesson for the United Kingdom. David Cameron’s Conservative Party has lost none of its anti-Europeanism, which threatens to further diminish the UK’s influence at the heart of Europe as well as on the wider global stage. They would do well to learn the lessons of Central European’s return to a dangerous inward-looking nationalism.
Kateřina Bocianová is a PhD Candidate at Charles University, Prague
Note: This article first appeared in Denik Referendum.