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Caught between Visegrad and Brussels, what will Romania do?

Romania’s relations with the V4 states have rarely been straight forward. This is perhaps best seen with regards to Bucharest’s enduring support for EU norms. Recent events, however, suggest the country could soon draw closer to the group.

October 27, 2021 - Cristian Roșu - Articles and Commentary

Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Lucian Aurescu talks with his Slovak counterpart Ivan Korcok at ameeting of EU foreign ministers, in Brussels in July 2021. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

The Visegrad Group, or V4 for short, was created in 1991 after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Czechoslovak President Václav Havel, Polish President Lech Wałęsa, and Hungarian Prime Minister József Antall all signed a joint declaration calling for mutual support regarding political and economic integration with the European Union. Romania’s entry into this format was denied because of violent miners’ strikes and ethnic conflict in Transylvania. This only contributed to an increasing level of isolation for Bucharest in terms of foreign policy.

Throughout the last few decades, Romania was always one step behind the V4 states. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO in 1999, while Romania had to wait until 2004, along with Slovakia. The Visegrad countries joined the EU in 2004, while Romania completed its accession in 2007.

The migrant crisis and the beginnings of Euroscepticism

Between 2004 and 2015, the Visegrad Group was not very vocal within the EU. Despite this, it was clear that there was a lot of frustration felt in Central and Eastern Europe during the EU financial crisis. In 2015, the migrant crisis began and the V4 states positioned themselves against migrant quotas. This decision was also initially supported by Romania, but then Bucharest reconsidered its position.

The agenda of the four states changed radically in 2015. They moved from a firm pro-EU position to one that challenged the European status quo. Beyond the initial disagreement over migrants, the V4 countries felt that they could have more of a say within the EU and wanted a real role in decision-making. Viktor Orbán became the informal leader of the group and one of the great critics of the traditional Franco-German model of action.

Trump’s victory in the United States and Brexit increased the illiberal current in the European Union. Hungary and Poland soon began to regularly criticise the European Commission. This was supported by more restrained criticism in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The latest crises were driven by LGBTQ-related laws and the decisions of the constitutional court in Poland.

Romania remained rather distant from the V4 group and this was especially true after the Social Democratic Party (PSD) left the government. Bucharest’s foreign policy has always been in line with Germany and France on issues related to the EU.

Power games in V4

Beyond some common outlooks, the members of the Visegrad Group remain divided on several important political issues. Relations with Russia tend to cause the strongest disagreement. Poland considers the Kremlin to be its greatest threat and has pushed for tougher sanctions against Moscow. Warsaw has also supported the reduction of the EU’s dependence on Russian gas supplies.

Hungary, on the other hand, has adopted a more than friendly policy towards Russia. Viktor Orbán seems to have a special understanding with Vladimir Putin and Budapest is expanding cooperation with Moscow in key areas, such as nuclear energy, COVID-19 vaccines and the purchase of natural gas.

The Czech Republic has also taken a confrontational line on relations with the Russian Federation. For example, a recent disagreement saw the two states engage in mutual diplomatic expulsions. Following the electoral defeat of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, there is a very good chance that the position of the Prague administration will change and become much more pro-European.

As for Slovakia, the progressive and liberal politician Zuzana Čaputová was elected president in 2019. Slovakia is also the only V4 member that is part of the euro zone, so it will automatically feel closer to the European core.

It is very important to mention that the policy of these states is shaped by their current governments and that a change in administrations can result in great policy changes.

Under these conditions, we have a group of four states that no longer share common goals or the same ideology. The Czech Republic and Slovakia seem completely disconnected from the illiberalism promoted in Budapest and Warsaw. At the same time, Hungary and Poland are separated by their diametrically opposed approaches to Russia.

In light of this, Poland could well campaign for the rapprochement of Romania with the V4 group. This would be motivated by Warsaw and Bucharest’s similar visions regarding the Russian issue, as well as their close relationships with Washington. However, this is difficult to envisage simply because there are currently no strong voices in Bucharest that would challenge the core Brussels agenda. However, some developments have shown that a partial shift may be possible.

What will Romania do?

The governments of Bucharest have always kept Romanian policy far away from the themes of the Visegrad Group. According to various Eurobarometers, Romania has long been the most pro-European country in the EU. Much of the V4 group’s ideas were also not taken seriously by the Romanian public. Despite this, things have changed radically in the last two years. The rise of the nationalist Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), the COVID-19 pandemic, and later multiple governmental crises all reduced the population’s confidence in the pro-European parties.

A recent survey in Romania shows that 63.1 per cent of respondents prefer traditional values ​​over modern rights and freedoms. At the same time, 68.7 per cent of Romanians would vote for a nationalist party that promotes religious values ​​and supports the traditional family.

The AUR now actively campaigns for Romania to draw closer to the conservative states of Central Europe. There is now a clear struggle on an ideological level regarding Romania’s relations with the V4 states.

At the moment, Romania is still facing a great amount of issues related to politics and the ongoing pandemic. If this continues, a paradigm shift is very much possible in the country. The presidential, local, parliamentary and European elections that will take place in 2024 will subsequently prove decisive regarding Romania’s position. Just as the Czech Republic and Slovakia’s changes in government moved these states away from Poland and Hungary, elections in Bucharest could see Romania draw closer to Orbán and Kaczyński. Of course, there are currently only tentative signs that this shift is happening. However, a failure to deliver resilience funding promised by EU officials and a lack of Western support regarding COVID-19 may well encourage the country to embrace a position more critical of Brussels.

Cristian Roșu is a communication consultant and political analyst with published analyses in multiple outlets in Romania, but also for well-established external publications such as The Huffington Post and New Europe. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Bucharest.

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