It was February 15, 1991, shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The new Polish, Hungarian and Czechoslovak leaders (Lech Walesa, Jozsef Antall and Vaclav Havel) meet in the small bastion of Visegrad, on the banks of the Danube, to seal their alliance. It was there, in Hungary, that in 1335, the kings of these countries decided to free themselves from the yoke of the Habsburgs by creating trade routes to European markets. The goal was not much different after breaking free from Communist power.
“Change of nature”
The “Visegrad triangle”, joined in 1993 by Slovakia separated from Czechia, then signed a “Declaration on a common and coordinated position for European integration”. The supranational organization won its bet by joining NATO in 1999, then the European Union in 2004. Then the “V4” continued to coordinate its positions in European budget negotiations, and to supply a regional cooperation fund, but without really finding a relay to its initial vocation.
In the wake of the 2015 migration crisis, the group became openly hostile to the reception quota policy desired by the European Commission, and once again made common cause. “It was reactivated after fifteen years of quasi-vigil, in an alliance which completely changed its nature”, underlines Cédric Pellen of CNRS, specialist in the effects of Eastern enlargements.
Rampart in Brussels
Jacques Rupnik, director of research at Sciences-Po, remembers the early Visegrad well for having been advisor to Vaclav Havel and host of a televised debate between the presidents of the four countries during the 1994 summit. “At that time, we were talking about democratic transition, of freeing ourselves from the hatreds and nationalisms that poisoned the interwar period, while now we are in a phase of regression of democracy at least in some of these countries ”, he emphasizes.
While Poland and Hungary are currently subject to a so-called “Of article 7” of the Treaty on European Union (EU) for violation of the rule of law, the “V4” is now perceived as an entity that acts as a bulwark against the breakthroughs of Brussels against the sovereignty of its members, including on societal issues (definition of the family, LGBT rights, abortion).
Visegrad did not, however, become a homogeneous political subgroup. “These four countries do not have the same economic structures, for example Poland is more agricultural, nor the same foreign policy, this is strongly felt in their practice of voting in the European Council”, says Cédric Pellen.
Poland, very suspicious of Moscow, does not follow at all the rapprochement of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And Slovakia, which has adopted the single currency, does not have the same interests as its allies, while a reform of the euro zone is being prepared.
The strength of a symbol
The group’s differences reappeared at the end of 2019, as Poland and Hungary vetoed the adoption of the 2021-2027 European budget and the post-Covid-19 recovery plan, with Warsaw and Budapest opposing the European funds are conditional on respect for the rule of law. The Czech Republic and Slovakia then dissociated themselves from this approach. In place since last April in Bratislava, Igor Matovic’s government, on the contrary, pursues a policy of strengthening the judicial system and the fight against corruption.
Visegrad remains, whatever happens, a benchmark. “Its symbolism remains a very strong marker of internal politics at the address of opinions, to show the diplomatic non-isolation”, continues Cédric Pellen. This is also true for the liberal opposition. In December 2019, the progressive mayors of the Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Slovak capitals sealed Monday, December 16 a “Pact of free cities” to weigh in against the populists in power in their respective countries, and to strengthen ties with the European Union. A sort of alternative V4 that reconnects with the spirit of the beginning.