The V4 as an Anti-German Coalition

In the refugee crisis a new dynamic emerged between Germany and the V4—all members of the Schengen area. If in the euro crisis the EU was divided between north and south, in the refugee crisis it was divided between east and west.

In 1991, as they transitioned from communism, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland formalized their cooperation as the Visegrad Group. Since the four central European countries (as they became after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993) joined the European Union as part of the “big bang” enlargement in 2004, they countries have sought to use the group to amplify their influence within it. But the V4 have generally struggled to cohere as a group and failed to have a significant impact on the EU—until the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, when they joined forces to oppose a German plan to “relocate” refugees between member states on the basis of mandatory quotas. So, is the V4 most cohesive and effective as a veto player in opposition to Germany?

Not Only Economic Interests

The idea that the vocation of the V4 could be as an anti-German coalition seems particularly surprising because of the way the four countries are dependent on Germany in economic terms. Germany is the most important trading partner for each of the V4. In the last decade in particular, central Europe has become “an assembly plant for German companies,” as Konrad Popławski puts it. Some analysts have seen a “greater German economy” emerging through the increased economic interdependence between Germany and central Europe. Others have even written of the re-emergence of a “German-dominated Mitteleuropa” in which “entire industries” in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia are “offshoots of German companies.”

The German automobile industry plays a particularly important role in the economies of the V4. From the 2000s onwards, German car companies increasingly outsourced production to countries like Hungary and Slovakia in order to lower production costs—a major and often underrated factor in the increased “competitiveness” of the German economy in the second half of the decade.6 The presence of the German automobile industry in Hungary and Slovakia is particularly strong. Audi, a subsidiary of Volkswagen, is the biggest investor in Hungary. Volkswagen is also one of the biggest employers in Slovakia, which produces more cars per capita than any other country in the world.

However, the V4’s response to each of the three major crises the EU has faced in the last seven years—the euro crisis, the Ukraine crisis, and the refugee crisis—illustrates that how states act is not always determined by economic interests, at least not in the way economic interests are defined by liberal economists. In the euro crisis, the relationship of the V4 to Germany did seem to be largely a function of its integration into, and dependence on, the German economy. In the Ukraine crisis, however, economic interests were subordinated to security concerns shaped by history and threat perceptions. In the refugee crisis, issues of culture and identity were decisive—even when German politicians threatened to cut EU structural funds to the V4 if they did not agree to take their “fair share” of refugees.

Difficulties in Acting Collectively

The V4’s response to the three crises also illustrates the difficulties they face in acting collectively. Sometimes in the last seven years, the four countries have simply defined their national interests in heterogeneous ways and have therefore been unable to cohere as a group. Even when their interests have been aligned, they have generally pursued them separately rather than together. In particular, as Germany has emerged as the de facto leader of the EU since the beginning of the euro crisis, they have—like other member states including even the United Kingdom—increasingly gone to Berlin to pursue their interests in the EU. Thus the temptation of a bilateral “special relationship” with Germany has undermined the coherence of the V4 as a group.

In the euro crisis, the EU was divided between north and south as member states adopted a mixture of bandwagoning and balancing in relation to Germany, the largest creditor—and therefore the most powerful—country in the eurozone. The eurozone “periphery” seemed to be under pressure to form what George Soros called a “common front” against Germany. The breakthrough in the euro crisis in 2012 was the product of exactly such an anti-German coalition of France, Italy, and Spain. Meanwhile the countries of central Europe seemed to be forming what I described as “a kind of geo-economic equivalent of a German sphere of influence.” In short, the south seemed to be balancing and the east seemed to be bandwagoning.

The V4 were generally sympathetic to the thrust of German eurozone policy. In particular, despite, or perhaps because of, the difficult economic transformations they had themselves been through, they supported the imposition of austerity on “crisis countries” in the eurozone. Slovakia was particularly vocal during the renewed discussion around bailing out Greece in 2015.11 Nevertheless, the V4 was structurally inhibited from playing a role in the euro crisis as a group because out of the four countries only Slovakia was a member of the single currency. There were also differences of policy. In particular, the Czech Republic opposed the Fiscal Compact and became the only EU member state apart from the United Kingdom to refuse to sign it in 2012 (though it changed its position under Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and signed it in 2014).

In the Ukraine crisis, meanwhile, the V4 were deeply divided. Although all four countries are to some extent economically dependent on Russia, particularly for energy, their responses were determined by the different threat perceptions they had. While Poland under the Civic Platform government of Donald Tusk was among the most hawkish countries calling for a tough response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and to their destabilization of eastern Ukraine, Hungary under Viktor Orbán was the most pro-Russian. Slovakia under Robert Fico was also opposed to economic sanctions against Russia. As a result of these differing interests, the V4 was again largely irrelevant as a group in the Ukraine crisis—though Poland initially played an important role in diplomacy with Russia through the Weimar group and co-operated with the Baltics and even the UK on security.

A New Dynamic between Germany and the V4

In the refugee crisis, however, a new dynamic emerged between Germany and the V4—all members of the Schengen area.12 If in the euro crisis the EU was divided between north and south, in the refugee crisis it was divided between east and west. In this context, the V4 played an analogous role to the one played by the eurozone “periphery” in the euro crisis: it balanced against Germany rather than bandwagoning with it. The V4 became “ a kind of central European awkward squad,” as Neil Buckley and Henry Foy of the Financial Times put it. Orbán—who emerged as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s biggest critic even though his party, Fidesz, belongs to the same grouping in the European Parliament as the German Christian Democrats—accused Germany of “moral imperialism,” an echo of accusations of “fiscal imperialism” from the eurozone “periphery” in the euro crisis.

Initially, in the refugee crisis the V4 were divided: the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia voted against the European Commission’s plan to “relocate” 120,000 refugees from Greece and Italy in the Justice and Home Affairs Council in September 2015, but Poland voted in favor of it, though it too was opposed to mandatory quotas for refugees. Still, after PiS won the parliamentary elections in Poland in October and formed a new government, the V4 countries were united against Germany. While Prime Minister Tusk had acted as a conduit between the V4 and Germany that facilitated co-operation, the PiS government sought instead to join forces with other central and eastern European countries in order to form a counterweight to German power.

Of the three crises the EU has faced since 2010, the V4 was clearly most effective as an anti-German coalition. In the euro crisis, the V4 had roughly aligned interests, but, partly because of the way the V4 intersects with the variable geometry of the EU, they pursued them bilaterally rather than as a group. In the Ukraine crisis, they had different interests and therefore again failed to cohere as a group. It was only in the refugee crisis, in which the V4 had aligned interests that were directly opposed to Germany’s, that they formed a coherent grouping. This is perhaps not surprising: it is logical that the V4 countries would generally seek to pursue their interests bilaterally with Germany and join forces when they need allies to oppose Germany-like the eurozone “periphery” did in the euro crisis.

Hans Kundnani

Hans Kundnani is a senior transatlantic fellow with German Marshall Fund’s Europe program and the author of two books, Utopia or Auschwitz. Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust (2009); and The Paradox of German Power (2014).

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