Visegrád Four: Surviving, not thriving, amidst discord

Central Europe's press this month, reviewed in partnership with Display Europe, highlights the widening rift among the Visegrád Four (V4), Hungary's invitation to Chinese police, and Austria's anxious grip on neutrality.

Published on 27 March 2024 at 14:32

Conceived in the wake of communism's demise as a conduit for Central European collaboration, the Visegrád Group, encompassing the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary, aimed at weaving these nations into the Euro-Atlantic tapestry. Now, the quartet seems bifurcated, as if by the formula V4 = V2 + V2, split by their strategies towards Russia's aggression in Ukraine. The Czechs and Poles champion military aid, whilst Hungary and Slovakia contend that more weapons will not solve the conflict in their view. The schism within the Group has reached such a level that there has been talk of a de facto break-up.

However, in the aftermath of the Visegrad Group's summit, convened amidst palpable tension in Prague this February, a consensus has emerged across the Central European media landscape, transcending both regional and political divides, that the alliance endures and must press on with collaboration. Writing in Pravda, Slovak political thinker Tomas Strazay dispels the spectre of the V4's demise, asserting that the conclave of prime ministers did not spell the end for the 33-year-old initiative as some had prognosticated. The V4, after all, “has never aspired to be a monolithic regional entity, singing in chorus.

It is precisely the lack of rigid institutions that bestows upon the group the latitude to entertain a plurality of viewpoints, even on matters of strategic importance.” This very absence of uniformity permits pragmatic coalitions on fronts deemed mutually advantageous—take, for instance, agricultural support, energy, or migration. Echoing this sentiment, Ivan Hoffman, in an adjoining column in Pravda, characterizes the V4 as a conclave of Central European states, “bound less by economic ties or shared political ambitions than by a collective memory of existence behind the Iron Curtain—a fraternity of nations united by kindred geopolitical fates on the eastern fringe of the West”.

"Anticipating a funeral in Prague, the V4's revival emerged," heralds a headline in Hungary's conservative daily, Magyar Hírlap, accompanying an interview with Ágnes Vass, Research Director of the Hungarian Institute for Foreign Affairs. Vass contends that the bloc's Achilles' heel and its most formidable asset is its malleability—a trait that, despite the chasms carved by the Ukraine crisis, still sanctions pragmatic consort in realms like energy and migration.

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Martin Ehl of Hospodářské noviny offers a similar diagnosis from Prague: "The Visegrad Group is not dying, as some might imagine, but has just recalibrated to perhaps the most pragmatic approach in its three-decade tenure." In the wake of the summit, the Group's prime ministers were quick to rebuff any rumors, asserting Visegrad's potential as a potent advocacy block within the European Union.

The four nations find rare accord on a dilemma that threatens to stir future discord across Central Europe: the influx of low-priced Ukrainian produce. It is an issue that resonates in the here and now, amid agrarian protests, and casts a long shadow over the European Union's financial framework, where a generous third of the budget nourishes the agricultural sector.

On the broadsheets of Poland's newspaper of record, Rzeczpospolita, political scientist Tomasz Kubin espouses a similarly utilitarian stance, penning a missive headlined "Let's not kill the Visegrad Group—it may still prove very useful." He advocates for a "freeze" in V4 activities rather than a full stop. Kubin posits that the alliance could be a significant player in debates over EU treaty reforms or in diplomatic dalliances with nations beyond its fold—engagements often conducted in the expanded 'V4+' format. Kubin underscores the practicality of reviving an existing framework over the laborious task of assembling a new coalition from the ground up.

Budapest opens doors to Chinese police presence

The Hungarian administration, with a penchant for nationalism and having last year enacted legislation—allegedly flouting EU norms—to shield itself from foreign political meddling, is poised to cede a slice of its sovereignty to Beijing, sanctioning Chinese constables to tread Hungarian soil in an official capacity. Világgazdaság, a Budapest business daily, finds no cause for alarm, framing the police partnership as a boon for bolstering security in tourist hotspots during the high season and at mass gatherings.

Yet the weekly Heti Világgazdaság strikes a more dissonant note, wary of the implications that extend beyond mere tourist safeguarding. It highlights concerns that these officers' remit will also encompass surveillance over the local Chinese community and the Asian labor force in the burgeoning Chinese battery plants dotting the Hungarian landscape. For years the journal has chronicled the surreptitious operation of so-called 'service stations' across at least three Hungarian cities—establishments that, activists argue, are in reality Chinese police outposts exerting pressure on the diaspora.

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EU and Austria’s Neutrality

Ralph Janik | Die Presse | 13 March | DE

In the shadow of Russia's Ukrainian incursions, Finland and Sweden have cast aside their storied neutrality to join NATO's ranks—a stark testament to Nordic nerves frayed by Moscow's belligerence. Austria, nestled among NATO nations, appears an island of detachment. The Kremlin's gambit has scarcely ruffled the Alpine republic's political feathers, nor has it spurred a reevaluation of its neutral stance in today's fraught geopolitical theatre.

Ralph Janik, an international law researcher writing for Die Presse, notes that Austria's EU membership entangles it in the Common Foreign and Security Policy web, somewhat at odds with Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner's assertion of non-intervention should an EU ally be attacked. Neutrality, while not negated, has morphed; Austria retains the prerogative to sidestep certain EU actions, like funding Ukrainian arms. Yet EU membership widens Vienna's diplomatic leeway. Austria's brand of neutrality has become a nuanced hybrid—flexible, yet bound by the collective actions of the EU. It could, if it so chose, extend military support, in a gesture of solidarity rather than neutrality.

In partnership with Display Europe, cofunded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate‑General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

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