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The EU and the great powers: a stakeholder view from Visegrád

Whilst governments often claim to speak for their countries, the elites that constitute the majority of states’ political systems may take a more balanced approach. This is clear in the Visegrad states, where a recent survey has revealed many nuances regarding foreign policy.

January 4, 2022 - Pavlína Janebová Zsuzsanna Végh - Articles and Commentary

Flags of the V4 and the EU. Shutterstock.

As the multilateral order continues to change, the EU must also be ready to (re-)define its place in the world and its relations with key global powers. The most important of these actors are the EU’s traditional ally America, a rapidly rising China and a declining yet still relevant Russia. The formulation of EU foreign policy requires unanimous decision-making, which must accommodate the positions and perspectives of all 27 member states. This coordination process frequently faces challenges and some of these have originated in the Visegrad (V4) countries in recent years. The governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, however, are themselves not united on all external EU dossiers, including those on China and Russia. It is important to remember the divergent attitudes of Hungary and Poland toward Russia, as well as their relative openness toward China. Overall, both Czechia and Slovakia have adopted more reluctant stances regarding Beijing. There is still even more going on behind the scenes in the foreign policy communities of the four countries than what meets the eye at the governmental level.

By surveying members of the V4 states’ foreign policy communities, the “Trends of Visegrad European Policy” project sought to shed light on such nuances. In summer, close to 500 politicians, researchers and analysts, civil servants, journalists, and businesspeople shared their views and expectations on various EU-related issues, including external relations. The results provide an insight into the thinking of a significant number of people who participate in and shape the foreign policy debates of the four countries. Previous editions of the survey conducted in 2019, 2017 and 2015 provide insight into the development of these positions over time.

The four communities widely share the hope that transatlantic relations will develop positively in the coming years, even though the Hungarian and Polish governments openly supported Donald Trump against Joe Biden in the last US presidential election. The majority of respondents across all V4 countries believe that over the course of the next five years EU-US relations will improve in the area of economy and trade. On average, 69 per cent of all respondents share this view in the V4, compared to only 19 per cent in 2019. This positive development is also clear in the realm of security and defence, with 57 per cent believing that further cooperation will occur in comparison to 27 per cent two years ago. This belief might simply stem from the impression that there is now a stable president in the Oval Office who is experienced in matters of foreign policy. At the same time, however, in what might be a reflection of the Biden administration’s prioritisation of the Indo-Pacific region over Europe, 84 per cent of all respondents think that the EU should aspire to be less dependent on US security capabilities. More than 70 per cent of the respondents also believe that the transatlantic relationship will improve in the area of climate and energy policy.

In the eighth year of the Ukrainian conflict, majorities in all four of the Visegrad countries’ foreign policy communities still support EU sanctions against Russia. They believe that this policy should remain until a resolution to the conflict has been found. Only a small number of respondents support immediately dropping sanctions. This attitude is most prominent among the Hungarian respondents (20 per cent). Hungarian and Slovak stakeholders are the ones most in favour of the EU taking a more cooperative approach to Russia. Despite this, it is important to note diverging national trends. Whilst the share of respondents in Slovakia supporting rapprochement decreased from 66 per cent in 2019 to 56 per cent in 2021, Hungary witnessed an increase from 40 per cent to 58 per cent over the past two years. Although these results might be interpreted as a reflection of Budapest and Moscow’s currently close ties, it is reassuring that not even the Hungarian foreign policy community seeks to disrupt the EU’s common sanctions policy or accept the annexation of Crimea.

Stakeholders are also reluctant to see the EU pursue a more cooperative approach with China. Only among Polish respondents is there majority support (55 per cent) for such a course of action. At the other end of the spectrum, only 24 per cent of Czech respondents think that this would be a favourable development. China is widely seen as a threat to both the EU and the individual V4 countries in all four communities, with Czech stakeholders the most cautious regarding Beijing. All four foreign policy communities are divided on whether the EU should ratify the investment deal with China. On average 43 per cent of respondents are in favour of such a decision, while 39 per cent oppose it. The V4 foreign policy communities do not have a great appetite for attracting more Chinese investments either, with more Hungarians (33 per cent) and Poles (34 per cent) enthusiastic about such an approach compared to Czechs and Slovaks.

Meanwhile, most stakeholders in all four countries would support the EU imposing sanctions on both Russia and China as a reaction to human rights violations. This exemplifies the countries’ continued support for upholding a rules-based global order. In the case of Russia, the biggest share of respondents in favour of such sanctions are not surprisingly Poles. Slovaks are the most enthusiastic when it comes to potential sanctions on China.

The survey results overall suggest that even if Visegrad governments sometimes disrupt EU-level foreign policy making, the broader foreign policy communities in the Visegrad states tend to take more moderate and cautious stances. This is clear with regards to both Russia and China. These officials are also overwhelmingly in favour of the EU developing a more independent stance in the area of security. The differences between official governmental positions on the one hand and broader foreign policy communities on the other are a reminder that debates in the V4 countries are more nuanced than they might appear at first glance. Due to this, it is clear that official positions may even be contested within the states themselves.

Pavlína Janebová is the AMO Research Director. Her research focuses on Czech foreign and European policy and on politics of Central European countries. She is a graduate of European Studies which she read at the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, where she currently pursues a PhD degree in the same field. 

Zsuzsanna Végh is a researcher and PhD candidate at the Chair of Comparative Politics of the European University Viadrina and an associate researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations. She was a Rethink.CEE fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in 2019/20. She holds MA degrees in international relations and European studies from the Central European University and in international studies from the Eotvos Lorand University. Her research interests include Hungarian EU and foreign policy, regional cooperation in Central Europe, and the radical right in the EU.

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