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The Visegrad Future in Question

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The Visegrad countries have been integrated into Nato and the EU. Is this the end of cooperation, or are there still common aims to strive for?

Critics argue that motives for close cooperation between the Visegrad Group countries(Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) are gone. All of them have achieved what they desired: They are members of OECD, Council of Europe, WTO, NATO and the European Union. So, “mission accomplished, now go home”? This attitude presumes that international relations are static. They are not; the international situation is always changing. For example, the Central European states aspired to enter a “Cold War” NATO guaranteeing “Cold War” security, and an EEC that could guarantee economic growth. Now they are members of a “new” NATO and the EU, which seeks a new identity and raison d’être. The perception of security has changed, too. No more are Soviets threat No. 1 but the terrorism NATO is fighting with much difficulty. The EU is preparing its 4th revision of the treaties since 1990, trying to cooperate in non-economic areas such as defence and foreign affairs.

Common experience, common interests

The Visegrad states should therefore cooperate. But objectives need to be redefined. They will not be as obvious as the first “join the West” motto. It will be a continuous and often monotonous process of cooperation in order to preserve a certain institutional and financial setup of the EU: they all want to join the Eurozone and the Schengen zone. They all want to keep taxation out of EU control. They all opt for close relations between Europe and the US. They all have specific interests in the former Soviet area.

Also, their unique common recent historical experience means that they all have, or should have in the near future, a specific attitude towards human rights. The four are living proof that a successful pacific refolution is possible (to use Garton Ash’s combination of both revolution and reform). The message to the world is simple: abandon your totalitarian regimes, introduce democracy, cherish it, respect human rights, transform your economies, believe and invest in yourself. Only then can you succeed.

Obviously, close cooperation by no means stands for uniformity in behaviour; the four do not have to agree on every issue. As other European close cooperation mechanisms show, states sometimes disagree fundamentally and this never puts an end to their special status. Look at the Nordic states: Norway and Iceland remain outside the European Union. Finland is the only Nordic member of the Eurozone. Only Denmark, Iceland and Norway are members of NATO, while Sweden and Finland are neutral. Nevertheless, Norway and Iceland joined the Schengen Agreement thanks to the help of the EU Nordic states.

These points could and should be raised in the case of the Visegrad. All except Poland have clear interests in the Danube issues, whereas the latter is involved in the Baltic Sea region. Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are considered as small or medium-sized countries in EU, whereas Poland aspires to play big. The recent Visegrad disagreements on Iraq or the Constitution should not dictate the success or failure of the project, though. There is a fear in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary that their northern neighbour is drifting towards other big European states. On the other hand, there is a fear in Poland that the three other Visegrad states are moving closer together and towards Austria, and will recreate some sort of 19th-century Austro-Hungarian state.

Working together

What can be done, then, to enhance the cooperation between the Visegrad states? First of all, it should take place on a social, not simply intergovernmental, level. There should be support for more contact between NGOs, youth groups, schools, etc. Governments should consider a mini-Schengen among themselves as long as the four are not in the “Big Schengen”.

Secondly, states should coordinate among themselves as a matter of course positions on every issue at every level, especially before the European Council meetings. The Visegrad states can exert a big influence in that together they have more voting powers in the Council than Germany and France combined. If they know what they want and they stay united, their negotiating position will therefore be a lot stronger.

The governments should also propose joint annual sessions of government between the Visegrad countries, as well as the creation of special Visegrad commissions in their national parliaments. When one of the four engages in other organizations or fora, it should always represent the entire group. Poland has no means of being an equal partner to France and Germany in the Weimar Triangle, and therefore needs to seek the support of its Visegrad friends.

What the four states have to gain by working together far outweighs the cost of cooperating with each other. And there is much more uniting the Visegrad states than dividing them.