Visegrad Group as a factor of stability in Central and Eastern Europe

April 25, 2017

As Britain exits from the European Union, other member states are working to strengthen it. The Visegrad Group (V4), a cultural and political alliance of four central European nations (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), has long pushed for a stronger EU and now plays a role in ensuring the strength and security of Europe. As part of the Challenges to Security and Stability in Central and Eastern Europe Roundtable series, the European Studies Council hosted a panel on April 20 to address the “Visegrad Group as a factor of stability in Central and Eastern Europe.” (view video) The panelists included Zoltán Varga, Deputy Permanent Representative of Hungary to the United Nations; Jiří Ellinger, Minister Counsellor, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Czech Republic to the United Nations; Ambassador Bogusław Winid, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Poland to the United Nations; and Ambassador Frantisek Ruzicka, Permanent Representative of the Slovak Republic to the United Nations. The speakers were introduced by Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev, former Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations, and moderated by Thomas Graham, Jackson Institute Senior Fellow and managing director of Kissinger Associates, Inc.

Ambassador Sergeyev began with some background, nothing that the Visegrad Group was originally formed to solidify mutual support between the member states, to eliminate remnants of Communist blocks, and to facilitate the countries’ integration into Europe. To this day, the Visegrad Group plays an integral role in the EU by representing the voices of its members. Within the Visegrad, cooperation is vital. Ambassador Winid noted, “Because of the structure of the EU, the more cooperation in the region, the more results we can achieve in the EU.”

Ambassador Ruzicka described the numerous security issues the group faces. In addition to energy security, another security issue “is the European Union itself.” Establishing a strong EU is not only military in nature, but must include the protection of “the four freedoms,” a phase referring to the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. Ambassador Ruzicka also named Europe’s growing populism as a security threat, explaining that it threatens the joint future of the European Union, which is “supposed to protect countries from relapse of conflicts.”

Security threats also exist from the outside. Ambassador Ruzicka noted that the beginning of the 21st century saw a “restoration of old cold war situations.” There has been a destabilizing of countries around the V4, including the annexation of Crimea. As the war in Syria and the terrorist threat looms, there is growing confrontation between big powers, which have “stopped looking [out] for the interest of small countries.”

Ellinger echoed Ambassador Ruzicka’s sentiments, saying “The challenges and uncertainties and threats are really profound… it’s really difficult for countries like ours to cope with it.” At the same time, “Simply the fact that we continue to do and to preach… brings a sort of stability.”

He then noted the key role played by the United States. “Without America involved,” he said, “we cannot solve any of the issues expressed.” Although he recognized the hesitation to embrace the U.S. administration, he emphasized that “It is of our vital interest to have a strong relationship with any U.S. administration.” Due to this recognition, the V4 “brings a level of rationality” to the rest of Europe about how to cooperate and coordinate policy plans with the U.S.

Varga, whose country, Hungary, will assume the presidency of the group in July, was asked about his agenda for the next year. First, he noted that “For the last 3 or 4 years, the V4 corporation … and the perception of the V4 corporation was largely determined by outside factors” such as the Ukraine crisis and the migration crises. As a result, “the V4 as a brand became well-known” and the “visibility and cohesion of the Visegrad group strengthened.” Varga noted that Hungary’s presidency will build upon previous presidencies by representing the voice of central Europe in the EU, securing the stability of the region by improving relations with neighbors, and continuing to host V4+ meetings with countries such as Egypt, Israel, and Australia. Varga does not see the Visegrad group as merely a central European project, but a facilitator of a stronger European Union and a player on the world stage.

The panelists then discussed Brexit and its consequences for Europe. Ambassador Winid stressed the importance of reflection before moving forward. Before anything is done, “We have to analyze what went wrong.” Ambassador Ruzicka suggested that the Europe Union must be viewed as a common project. Paraphrasing President Kennedy’s famous quote, Ambassador Ruzicka said, “Don’t ask what Europe can do for you, but what you can do for Europe.”

Regarding what policy the U.S. should pursue toward Russia, Ellinger made two main points. First, another cold war must be avoided. He said, “we will never concede, again, to this sort of big power division of Europe or division of the World.” Ellinger also opposes a total disruption of Russian-U.S. relations, which would not be in his country’s interests. “Issues cannot be solved without all of us.”

A question from the audience asked about the Visegrad Group’s stance against refugee quotas in the EU. Ambassador Ruzicka noted that V4 nations are rarely the end destination for refugees. Just as refugees cannot be deported from an EU nation without breaking EU laws, those refugees also cannot be forced to stay. Thus, setting quotas with negative consequences if not reached is not a policy that the V4 supports. To Ambassador Ruzicka, the solution lies being able to directly address the root causes of the migration crisis.

Ambassador Winid remarked that the European migration crisis is not only due to refugees, but also economic migrants coming from places such as Sub-Saharan Africa. “When we are looking at what is actually happening to Europe, most of the people are economic migrants, not refugees.”

Ellinger recalled his recent visit to the Western United States and questioned why the U.S. does not accept more refugees when there is ample room to do so. The refugees “would rather live in Nevada than in the Czech Republic.” Ellinger resolved that for the U.S., as for European nations, “It’s not politically sustainable… to solve the problems of the dysfunctional Muslim world.” He further said, “If we want to sustain democracy and people deciding about what is going on in their own countries, we simply cannot take anyone who wants to come to Europe.”

At the same time, Ellinger noted that “We would love to help,” and that “We will help those in need … if they want to stay in the Czech Republic and don’t move to Germany.” Nevertheless, “the Czech Republic will not solve the crisis of 1.3 billion Muslims.”

Written by Julia Ding, Yale College Class of 2019.