What the Diplomatic Ice Age of the Visegrád Group Means for the Czech EU Council Presidency
Visegrád most likely no longer exists, a Polish newspaper commented on the canceled defense minister meeting of Visegrád countries Poland, Slovakia, Czechia, and Hungary (V4) at the end of March. Prague and Warsaw had canceled their participation with exceptionally sharp words, referring to Budapest’s attitude towards Moscow. It is a preliminary diplomatic low point, but the four Central European countries have been drifting apart for years.
While V4 had since 2015 been used to convey particular political interests against Brussels, the domestic political situation of some of its members has changed since then. With the change of government in Slovakia in 2020 and in the Czech Republic last autumn, the two former sister states have returned to a more liberal, anti-populist and pro-EU/NATO stance. Another close partner of V4, Slovenia, recently voted out its populist prime minister as well. At the same time, the Polish and Hungarian governments are further expanding their authoritarian policies, which is reflected in the ongoing EU infringement proceedings against their media and judicial reforms. While Warsaw appears to disapprove of the prospect of non-payment from Brussels, Hungary’s prime minister doubled down against Brussels in his recent victory speech after the parliamentary elections. At the same time, both sides need their respective veto to be able to continuously hinder the EU’s rule of law procedures.
In the second half of the year, the Czech Republic takes over the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Programmatic preparations are underway – albeit hampered by insufficient budget and staff numbers. At the same time, Bratislava takes over the V4 presidency in the summer. Prague must meet the ice age inside the Visegrád Group with pragmatism and realism: On the one hand, European politics currently offer many possible points for innovation, but, given the many current crises, it is also difficult to find a uniform headline to the EU’s agenda in the upcoming six months. In addition, most of the legislative procedures announced by the Commission are already taking shape or are nearing completion.
Against the background of the current geopolitical situation, Czechia’s conflicts with Poland in particular appear to have been frozen for the time being, as the Czech prime minister’s visit in Warsaw and the joint travels of both prime ministers to Kyiv have shown. However, a financial policy preparatory meeting was also recently held in Budapest. At the same time, Prague must win new partners in Europe outside of V4 to be able to cover the programmatic bandwidth of the EU Council Presidency. Especially when it comes to European societal issues, the new liberal-conservative government is more likely to win allies to the west and north. This also applies to economic and fiscal policy, where the Czech position within the EU often overlaps best with the Scandinavian countries or Ireland. The first informal connections are already forming here, which could be officially strengthened during the Council Presidency. Most recently, Prime Minister Fiala also sought political solidarity with Berlin. Regarding EU enlargement policy, Prague will have to find a clearer stance as well to effectively counter growing autocratisation and disinformation there.
Thus, a resolute and impactful Czech EU Council Presidency could not only breathe new life into the Union’s internal diplomacy but could also provide impetus for a sovereign Central European regional policy beyond the lines of V4 and the EU.
Felix Breiteneicher is a public affairs executive at Erste Lesung. He studied International Studies in Prague and has worked for the Czech Institute of International Relations. He is currently analysing the preparations for the upcoming Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union.