In the wake of the Brexit vote, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán called for a reconfiguration of EU governance that prioritises the role of member states over institutions, arguing that democracy can “only be reinforced through the member states”. Orbán’s appeal comes at a time when eastern and central European states are testing their capacity to play a more decisive role in Europe through a number of new and reinvigorated alliances such as the Three Seas Initiative, based on the concept of Intermarium, and the Visegrad Group (V4) that brings together the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia in an effort to maximise their influence within the EU and the wider region by adopting joint positions on key policy issues.
This growing assertiveness has coincided with the decision of the British electorate to withdraw from the EU. Brexit will impact the V4 states in two main ways. It means the loss of a sceptical ally against an ever-closer political union and a possible push for federalism, and it changes the balance of power within the EU. This offers the possibility for the V4 states to act as a bloc and play a more prominent role within the EU, but equally could lead to a region that has historically often been marginalised by powerful neighbours, becoming further marginalised in a post-Brexit EU.
As a result of a close affinity with the UK’s customary Eurosceptic attitude, and as a practical consequence of sizeable numbers of their citizens living in the UK, the V4 states have a strong incentive to act together to influence the Brexit negotiation process. Yet, beyond the Brexit negotiations lies a wider debate over the future of the EU after the UK’s withdrawal. Should the integrationist ambition of a federal EU led by a resurgent Franco-German alliance, at last unencumbered by a cautious and insular Britain, be revitalised? Or should the EU fall back on an inter-governmental model that respects the individuality, indeed sovereignty, of its member states?
The UK’s disenchantment with the European Union
In 1975 the UK voted by a margin of almost two-to-one to stay in the European Economic Community which it had joined two years prior. At the time the main opposition to remaining came from the far left of the Labour Party and from the far right of the Conservative Party. In the main, the Conservatives, including their new leader Margaret Thatcher, finalising her plans for the UK’s neoliberal revolution, supported the EEC as a vehicle for free trade.
However, since that vote, enthusiasm for the EEC, EC and now the EU amongst much of the British electorate has dissipated to the extent that successive governments have been obliged, if for no other reason than electoral necessity, to embrace Euroscepticism. This has required renegotiating the UK’s financial commitments to the organisation and opting out of core projects such as the single currency that might be taken by the electorate as a further dilution of an already diluted sovereignty. However, this political pragmatism underestimated both the electorate’s deep mistrust of the EU and the capacity of the British media, and the Leave campaign’s spin-doctors, to sway opinion. On June 23rd 2016, David Cameron lost his gamble. The UK, or rather England and Wales, voted to leave the EU.
The UK’s scepticism over the EU’s political project is shared, to varying degrees, by the current governments of the V4 states. With the UK preparing to leave, it is now the V4, and in particular, Hungary and Poland, that are increasingly painted by advocates of ever-close union as the “awkward squad”. Indeed, the current Polish government, prior to the Brexit vote, designated the UK, rather than its neighbour and main trading partner, Germany, as its key strategic partner in Europe. The Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, spoke of a British and Polish “common perception of European problems”.
The UK as partner and ally
Brexit will also affect the V4 states in other ways. The formula used to calculate EU funding means that following the withdrawal of a wealthy state such as the UK, the V4 states will be designated as statistically more prosperous and, therefore, less eligible for funding. Additionally, as the UK remains a major net contributor to the EU budget, its exit will decrease the total amount of funding available to net beneficiaries. The UK is also a significant trade and investment partner of V4 countries. In 2014, the British economy was the third largest export market for Poland; the fifth for the Czech Republic; the seventh for Hungary; and the eighth for Slovakia. The UK is also a major source of foreign direct investment to the V4 states.
Cameron’s claim during the Brexit campaign that a UK withdrawal from the EU would make war in Europe more likely was widely ridiculed in the British media, but finds resonance in the V4. The UK is seen by the V4 states, and Poland in particular, as a staunch ally against Russian aggression, pushing for a retrenchment of sanctions against the Putin government, despite opposition from the European political mainstream. Britain has also deployed troops in Poland as part of NATO’s enhanced forward presence. The threat from Germany may not be military, however, the change in the balance of power within the EU, already tipped towards Berlin, will result in yet further German economic and political influence in, or potentially manipulation of, the V4 states.
Yet, the impact of losing an ally in the battle against an ever closer political union can be overstated. Whilst EU institutional encroachment on the sovereignty of its members finds the UK and V4 states sharing the same rhetoric in the debating chamber, for fear of being “left behind” or further marginalised in a “two-speed Europe”, the V4 have not followed the British model of permanent renegotiation and opt-out. In addition, Britain’s capacity to influence decision-making in the EU has either completely dissolved, or will be, at best, of a totally different quality depending on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
Moreover, there is one specific issue that ties the V4 closer to wider EU membership. The core principal of the free movement of people has led to serious tensions between the UK and the V4 states. Initially, respected for opening its labour market to workers from the accession states when France and Germany imposed transitional blocks, more recent efforts by the UK to delink the free movement of people from the free movement of goods, capital and services has sounded alarm bells in V4 capitals. And for good reason. There are an estimated 1.2 million citizens from V4 states living and working in the UK with by far the largest number coming from Poland. There are also sizeable V4 diaspora in other parts of the EU. Diaspora remittances are an important contribution to GDP which also have the benefit of disproportionately helping the economies of the less-developed parts of the V4 states. Therefore, prior to Brexit, the V4 as a bloc had a strong vested interest in opposing watering down the principle of free movement of people. This position remains unchanged as the Brexit negotiations continue.
The cohesion of the Visegrad Group
Yet, there remain doubts over the rationality, plausibility and durability of the V4 as a regional grouping. Intended to allow the four states to “punch above their weight” within the EU, its record has been mixed. The group can point to successes, notably when the interests of its constituent states intersect. For example, the vigorous opposition to the EU’s response to the refugee crisis has seen the V4 states successfully working in concert to oppose the plan for the mandatory relocation of refugees. However, in other areas, the four states have prioritised their own national interests. For example, divergent interpretations of the threat posed by Russia, as well as unequal military capabilities and defence spending amongst the V4, has led to only piecemeal efforts to work together as a security alliance. A further sensitive example of V4 leaders protecting their own interests was Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic’s decisions not to back Poland’s opposition to the re-appointment of Donald Tusk as the EU Council President.
In terms of a Brexit strategy, the V4 failed to construct a cohesive position for post-Brexit EU reform. The Bratislava Summit in September 2016 concluded with a vague and superficial wish list that reflects the bifurcation within the group with Warsaw and Budapest increasingly being seen by Prague and Bratislava as pursuing a different agenda. Poland and Hungary are deeply suspicious of supranational EU institutions, emphasising the democratic deficit implicit in these institutions and stressing concerns over the larger member states, notably Germany, using the institutions to interfere in the domestic affairs of sovereign member states. Poland and Hungary closely ally to the traditional UK position concentrating on the single market, restricting the authority of supranational institutions such as the Commission and limiting majoritarian decision-making in the Council of Ministers and European Council.
Slovak and Czech leaders also, publicly, fret about the democratic deficit and reject further integration. However, in contrast to Poland and Hungary, these states are not calling for a shift in competences back to the national level or for fundamental treaty revisions. The governments of the Czech Republic and Slovakia perceive their national interest to be best served by a supranational EU rather than a “Europe of fatherlands”.
Does this mean that the current V4 project will have a short life? Not necessarily. Pragmatic politicians from each of the group’s constituent states are well aware of the intrinsic, divergent interests within the group. Co-operation will continue, but continue to have boundaries. Indeed, it is quite likely that Brexit will offer the V4 states an opportunity to “punch above their weight”. As the first cards are dealt in the game of poker that is the Brexit negotiations, the V4 as a group finds itself with a strong hand, appealing to the wider EU membership by defending a core EU principle in the free movement of people, whilst still tempting the UK with the prospect of retaining some diplomatic and security influence in eastern and central Europe after it leaves.
Simon Massey is a senior lecturer at Coventry University and course director for two post-graduate international relations courses. His main research interest is conflict management and Africa’s peace and security architecture.
This text is part of the series titled: “Intermarium in the 21st century” based on the conference held on July 6-7 2017, Lazarski University in Warsaw.