As summer slowly winds down, European leaders – both in Brussels and national capitals – are going to be exposed to challenges which they had temporarily shelved aside to be solved at a later date. Some of these issues, notably the refugee crisis and the upcoming EU referendum in the UK, are of a particular relevance to the region of Central Europe, and more specifically to the so called Visegrad Group (V4) countries – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. This piece analyses how (if at all) the V4 can better coordinate their positions as a region at the EU level on the aforementioned issues.
Refugee Crisis: Fear of the Unknown
Italy and Greece have been struggling with the consequences of the massive inflow of refugees for months. Increasingly, the problem is spilling over to other parts of Europe as refugees migrate from the European southern shores to regions further north and west. The country that has been hit the most by the refugee crisis in the region is Hungary. The first half of 2015 alone has seen as many as 120,000 asylum seekers cross the country’s border with Serbia (a figure that is expected to rise to 300,000 by December). The substantial number of border crossings has prompted the government to construct a barbed-wire fence to prevent more people from coming through and to close down one of the country’s busiest train stations to refugees who might otherwise board the international trains en route to Vienna and beyond.
In light of the difficult situation, the European Commission is in the process of fast-tracking an emergency aid package for Hungary.The situation in neighbouring Slovakia as well as in the Czech Republic is much less dramatic in terms of the sheer number of refugees. However, what these countries lack in real problems is made up by their hysterical reaction to the situation. This response is to a large extent driven by fear of the unknown as well as concerns for the integration of refugees into societies that are highly unfamiliar with Western-style multiculturalism.
Poland, being for now neither a transit nor a destination country, has remained somewhat isolated from the mainstream debates. The main group of refugees coming to its territory consists of Ukrainians fleeing their war-troubled country. However, Prime Minister Kopacz has accepted that Poland might have to budge and accept more refugees currently landing on the southern shores of Europe.
Moving Beyond Non-Solutions
The current refugee crisis is a global issue that will require a European solution. The V4 countries therefore cannot pretend they are or will not be implicated.
Moving away from a reactive and passive approach – best demonstrated by their rejection of the EU’s mandatory quotas – the four countries in question will have to quickly adapt to the evolving situation and enhance regional cooperation both inwards and outwards.
National governments will have to better coordinate their measures so that, for example, the construction of the fence on the Hungary’s border with Serbia does not just simply shift the problem onto the Polish border. Instead, the V4 capitals should strengthen their exchange of information and intelligence in order to combat organised crime that profits from human trafficking.
UK Referendum on EU Membership
Another issue that will make it on the radar of the V4 leaders is the UK’s referendum on its EU membership. Following the UK parliamentary elections and the victory of the Conservative party, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that his country will hold a referendum on its EU membership by the end of 2017.While the polls have recently swung more towards the UK remaining part of the EU, much will depend on the renegotiation of the terms under which the referendum will take place.
And it is precisely this point – the potential to change the functioning of the whole EU – that the V4 will have to heed.
Not being burdened by negative historical sentiments towards the UK,the V4 can pragmatically approach London’s demands on a case-by-case basis. While they might show support for some measures there will be other measures where Cameron will find no allies in Central Europe.
This is for two reasons: First, the V4 countries will fight any effort to weaken one of the EU’s fundamental principles from which the region has benefited significantly – the freedom of movement of labour. With some 800,000 Poles and tens of thousands of Slovaks, Czechs and Hungarians currently living and working in the UK, the region is very unlikely to agree to undermine the rights of its own citizens.
Second, Cameron’s struggle to persuade the V4 leaders may lie with his own lack of interest in coalition building. While prepared to negotiate on issues of relevance, the V4 countries may show little appetite for helping Cameron, for example, to protect London’s financial sector.
Will Poland Lead the Way?
Ten years after their accession, the V4 countries are now firmly integrated into EU structures and potent enough to shape its policies. However, their success lies within the group’s unity. Given Poland’s stakes in the negotiations it is perhaps not too bold of a prediction to foresee that if any cooperation between the V4 is to come to fruition, it will most likely be under Warsaw’s leadership. With Slovakia and the Czech Republic opting for a less confrontational approach and with Hungary’s high level of unpredictability, Poland will have to step up its game to not only iron out the V4’s common position in detail but also to effectively communicate the message to the rest of the EU.
V4 Positions in Need of (Better) Public Diplomacy
On both issues,the Visegrad Group can achieve its goals only if more extensive cooperation between the four countries is fostered.
As regards the refugee crisis, the V4 countries will either stick to their current brief of limited help to refugees – something that will spur increasing pressure from other EU members – or they will be forced into changing their position. In such a case, the V4 would be better off focusing their efforts on developing a set of proactive solutions including combating human traffickers and drafting a blueprint for a comprehensive and long-term refugee integration strategy.
While it is yet unclear where the V4 stand on the issue of refugees, the challenge posed by the UK’s renegotiation efforts is politically more comprehensible. However, for the Visegrad 4 to be able to capitalise on the issue, the region will not only have to align and iron out their similar but certainly not identical positions, but also better sell the common position to its EU partners and theUK in particular.
Frank Markovic is a European citizen and Slovak national. He graduated with a BA in politics at the University of Exeter and an MA in European Public Affairs at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He is currently working in Brussels and is a former Communications Officer of YPFP Brussels.