The significance of the Visegrád Group for the EU

From the new book by Emil Brix and Erhard Busek

If you take a look at the identity politics of Central European EU Member States today, you could be forgiven for thinking that those states with socially conservative attitudes define Europe’s identity as a cultural community which sets itself apart from “non-Europeans”. Yet when it comes to formulating national interests, today’s Central European politicians seem to have little concern for all other matters that affect the region as a whole. We are living in a region where the nation states are still undergoing a period of transformation. At the same time, Central Europe forms a bridge to East and South-Eastern Europe, whose potential the European Union can no longer afford to undervalue.

The decision of several Central European governments to favour an anti-communist over an anti-Putin stance may seem extremely anachronistic and populist to Western Europeans. At best, this approach has a certain charm reminiscent of Don Quixote’s battle against the windmills, because in reality today’s Europe is at least as far from the threat of communist ideology as Spain was from the advancing hordes conjured up in Don Quixote’s imagination. However, what we are actually witnessing here is a farcical attempt to come to terms with the communist past.

Reduce reservations, strengthen bridging function

The memory of the right-wing populist and authoritarian movements in the interwar period in countries such as Austria, Poland and Hungary should in particular alert us to the fact that a nationalist and populist mindset will not bring us security in the long term, either domestically or in terms of foreign policy. As the Visegrád Group is currently the only regional alliance with any influence on foreign policy, whose formation was mainly motivated by a shared experience of the communist system, expanding the group to include Austria and Slovenia would help allay the fears of Western Europe, strengthen the group’s role as a link to the Western Balkan states and give a major overall boost to the group’s leverage within the European Union.

It is, of course, a cause for concern that in countries such as Austria, right-wing populists are the loudest advocates for joining the Visegrád Group, while those on the left of the political spectrum are the fiercest critics of this kind of closer cooperation. One cannot deny the existence of simple party-political truths according to which nationalists prefer to cooperate with like-minded people and progressive parties prefer to draw clear lines of demarcation when it comes to illiberal developments. However, is it not the duty of Europe to scrutinise overly simplistic truths and to join forces to ensure that democracy can also prosper in Central Europe?

Mitteleuropa Revisited

The text published here is an excerpt from the current book project by Erhard Busek and Emil Brix “Mitteleuropa Revisited – Warum Europas Zukunft in Mitteleuropa entschieden wird” (Central Europe Revisited – Why Europe’s future is decided in Central Europe).

In 1986, Erhard Busek and Emil Brix published the book “Projekt Mitteleuropa” (Project Central Europe), which presented a connecting, cross-border utopia in a world of hostile extremisms. For many dissidents in East and Central Europe, this idea was a cipher of hope against the system steered by Moscow until 1989 when the Iron Curtain fell.
Thirty years after their last book, the two political experts once again focus on the region and come to the conclusion that today Europe needs a new reflection on Central Europe in order to come to its senses.

In light of the expansion of the EU and NATO towards the East, it is understandable that Russia views the “shifting” of Central Europe to the East with increasing scepticism. What is less easy to understand, however, is how politicians in neighbouring countries to the West, such as Germany and Italy, continue to lose interest in this region. German President Steinmeier recently noted with a palpable air of relief: “Our country has somehow finally made it into the West”. Even in Austria, official foreign policy after 1989 was based on the assumption that the sole objective of the new democracies in the former East was to become part of the West. It seemed wise, therefore, for Austria to focus on becoming a Member of the EU itself as quickly as possible. This would make Austria more useful to its Eastern neighbours than if it were an “isolated” Central European state.

Simplified view of the East

However, this belief was based on a fundamental miscalculation of Austria’s chances after joining the EU. One could be forgiven for thinking that Austria itself was only interested in becoming part of the West. Austrian foreign policy thus became the stepping-stone for a policy approach that left the country stranded without any reliable partners in Europe. In post-war Europe, this unilateral focus on the West was a formula for success, yet today it only serves to maintain a simplified view of the East. Regional cooperation in Central Europe can no longer let itself be constrained by stereotypical narratives, which paint a picture of American soldiers in Austria at the end of the Second World War handing out nylon tights, while Red Army soldiers were busy stealing watches. Even among experts in the Baltic States, there is a growing awareness that the foreign policy of smaller countries should not be confined to a choice between the West and the East.

Regional cooperation within the EU is, in fact, essential to ensuring that the interests of smaller states are represented. It is not always necessary for partner states to adopt identical policies. What is important, however, is an ongoing exchange of information between civil servants and politicians to compensate for the resource deficits in smaller countries when compared to larger EU states or existing regional alliances, such as the Benelux countries and the Nordic Co-operation. If decisions within the EU are made as “package deals”, then the leverage of a regional group is key to advancing interests.

Peace Project European Union

In 2017 Europe officially celebrated the 60th anniversary of European integration, which began in Rome in 1957 with the treaties creating the EEC, the ECSC and EURATOM. On the one hand, there was reason to celebrate, as it marked the beginning of fundamental changes to the continent. The enduring goal was, and is, to ensure peace in Europe. It was, of course, distressing to witness developments such as the wars sparked by the collapse of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the conflicts in Moldova and the Ukraine. However, many problems have also been solved, such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland and even the South Tyrol question.

Other trends, such as Brexit, Catalonia’s bid for independence and, ironically, developments in Scotland, signal a lack of cohesion on the European continent. What is being neglected here are overall global developments which ultimately mean that Europeans now only make up 7 percent of the world’s population, yet wield over 20 percent of its economic power. They are, however, still trying to establish what role they should play in this process. Despite all this critique of developments in Europe, the fact remains that generally speaking it has been possible to maintain peace on the continent, the expansion of the European Union following the collapse of the Soviet Union has created prospects for the Warsaw Pact power bloc, and the aspiration of the Balkans to play a role in European integration remains as strong as ever.

Original in German. Excerpt from the book Mitteleuropa revisited – Warum Europas Zukunft in Mitteleuropa entschieden wird, published in March 2018 at Kremayr & Scheriau, Vienna.
Translation from German to English by Rebekah Smith.

This text is protected by copyright: © Kremayr & Scheriau / Erhard Busek, Emil Brix. Imprint with courtesy of the publisher. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Infobox: Erhard Busek and Emil Brix © Manfred Weis/Kremayr & Scheriau; Cover picture: © Mark Lakomcsik/iStock.

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