Visegrad Group and Germany: A Partnership of Convenience

15. 3. 2017

No regional group within the EU has ever attracted as much attention as the Visegrad Group. So many intentions, ambitions, and strategic goals have been attributed to it in recent months that even its greatest enthusiasts cannot stop wondering. However, some of them are frankly terrified due to the emergence of the impression that the V4 is undermining the unity of the EU and becoming an “anti-German” alliance. Meanwhile, Germany and the V4 countries need each other very much and have a chance for a genuine partnership that would benefit Europe as a whole.

The impression that there is a political chasm between the V4 countries and Germany resulted mostly from disagreements on migration policy. Hungary, confronted with a huge wave of immigrants, sharply reacted to the German open door policy. Hungary was then joined by other countries of the region, who more or less staunchly protested against bearing the burden resulting from the actions of Germany, which had not consulted its neighbors. The impression of a rift was further deepened by the political change in Poland, which German elites had not been ready for. The politicians who took power in Warsaw put a stronger emphasis on Polish sovereignty in its relations with its neighbor to the west. Together with a more pronounced policy of remembrance or protection of the Polish minority in Germany, this was interpreted as rehashing anti-German resentments. However, it was forgotten that the conflict of interests between the two countries had already been visible. Not only migration, but also strategic questions such as the German position on the NATO bases in Poland, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and the Energiewende policy had all been pursued without regard for neighbors.

The German media, but also the opposition groupings in Central Europe, sounded the alarm and said that “the Visegrad Group was becoming an anti-Merkel coalition.” It was difficult to see the difference between the real intentions of governments and the biting rhetoric of commentators. Many advocates of Central European cooperation became worried about the rift with Germany on migration and about the scoldings of Western politicians. Indeed, it was hard to ignore the fate of refugees and the humanitarian disaster in Syria. Furthermore, the wave of chauvinism and populism in the approach to migration issues became worrying. This wave appeared in the V4 countries as well, although when we look at the torched refugee centers and racist speeches in the countries of Western Europe, Central Europe still seems to be calm and friendly to foreigners.

It must be noted that Eastern European resistance against accepting migrants does not result from the lack of a tradition of multiculturalism. Central Europe is where the Roma live – they are the largest ethnic minority in the EU, several million strong, with huge problems of social inclusion. Additionally, many Eastern European nationals working in the West have seen that in many countries the migration experiment has not succeeded. Parts of the Eastern European political elites have played the migration card on the domestic scene, but there is no doubt that the V4 governments have no social mandate for experimenting with the policy of openness to migrants, especially in an atmosphere of a growing terrorist threat.

The political dispute with Germany, already stripped of the traditional courtesies and sometimes also of the basic rules of the diplomatic game, does not allow us to draw catastrophic conclusions about the condition of Polish-German cooperation and Germany-V4 relations. If you look hard enough, the Polish media also provide evidence of the government’s positive attitude to cooperation with Germany. “Germany, our first partner” – this is the title of the Rzeczpospolita daily’s interview with the presidential foreign policy adviser, Krzysztof Szczerski (June 10, 2016). The leader of the governing Law and Justice party Jarosław Kaczyński said in so many words that the best solution for Poland would be if Angela Merkel won the elections, while after the referendum in the United Kingdom we saw a series of favorable reactions of Polish politicians to the restrained German attitude to ideas of “federalist acceleration.” The Polish minister for European affairs, Konrad Szymanski, said directly: “With Germany we share a sense that the problems of Europe should be solved pragmatically and not through grand ideological visions,” (“Merkel on our side,” Rzeczpospolita, August 22, 2016) and added that he kept his fingers crossed that “Angela Merkel will overcome the problems which have risen before her.” It is no accident that before the September summit of the European Council in Bratislava he indicated that coordinating the Polish position with Germany and the V4 countries is his government’s priority.

In Prague, at least since the memorable V4 summit in February 2016, Czech diplomacy has been almost obsessively looking for ways to remove the rift in its relations with Germany. The Czech V4 presidency attempted to arrange a Visegrad Group meeting with Chancellor Merkel in the first months of 2016. But Merkel did not come and the German diplomacy sent out an angry démarche. As a result, contrary to the original intention of the Czech Republic, the V4 summit became a demonstration of the hard line and a proclamation of “Plan B” – closing the EU border in the Balkans. Under these conditions, Viktor Orbán took the center stage in the context of refugee policy, along with Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico (who, ahead of elections, was at times even more radical than Orbán) and Czech advocates of the hard line (the interior minister and the president).

It is worth noting that despite the rhetoric used during press conferences, often meant for the domestic audience, the official documents adopted by the V4 always emphasize the necessity of close EU cooperation in solving the migration problem. The V4 rejected mandatory refugee quotas, but also declared it was prepared to implement the principles of solidarity in different ways – by supporting Balkan countries, by playing a constructive role in reaching agreement with Turkey, and by stronger involvement in aiding the refugees in areas closer to the conflict. The fact that the V4 does not intend to isolate itself from Germany and the rest of Europe is testified by the V4 documents from the Prague Summit and all later meetings, and also by the declaration signed before the summit of the European Council in Bratislava. It was further supported by specific actions—without the constructive role of the V4 there would be no agreement with Turkey, which stopped the refugee wave, and there would be no balanced agreement on Brexit.

The Bratislava meeting already belongs to the new stage of V4-German cooperation. In the spring, after the parliamentary elections and in the run-up to the EU presidency, Slovakia dropped its anti-immigrant rhetoric, and in Hungary this rhetoric became targeted mostly at “Brussels” rather than Berlin. The problem of migration in Germany started to be perceived slightly differently as well. The mandatory mechanisms of distributing refugees have proven ineffective, and the strengthening of the EU Balkan border which the V4 recommended has turned out to be a necessary action complementing the negotiations with Turkey.

With the refugee wave weakening and the emergence of new challenges, Brexit being the most important of them, readiness for dialogue and agreement increased in Germany and the V4 countries. Defusing the migration problem in the relations between Germany and the V4 countries will allow all parties concerned both to notice their shared interests and to find solutions in these areas where the interests of Germany and its eastern neighbors diverge.

In the V4-Germany dialogue, which may strengthen the bilateral cooperation of Germany with its eastern neighbors, it is necessary to look at the mutual relations in terms of specific opportunities, synergies, and problems to solve not only in bilateral, but also a regional and European perspective. Germany’s global activity in international policy depends on overcoming the crisis in the EU, finding a new mode of its functioning, and maintaining a stable economic and demographic situation. The V4 countries replaced shallow political correctness with honesty, but they also showed that they wanted to save the Union rather than to dismantle it. Although Poland has signaled the need for changes in treaties, it is ready to hold off on that until more countries display willingness to reform the EU in a profound way.

An honest dialogue and debate about national interests with those neighbors with which the German economy has become so strongly intertwined should also help Berlin in shaping its position on such questions as the approach to migration, the reform of the eurozone, the EU institutions, security and defense policy, and energy policy. These questions will determine the shape of German relations with the countries of Central Europe, and it is important that the possible structural differences in the development plans of our countries should not only be diagnosed early enough, but that the necessary corrections and adaptations are made on both sides.

Germany needs a responsible and stable Central Europe, and Central Europe needs a Germany which treats the V4 countries as partners. Due to the strong divisions within the eurozone and a lack of ideas for its thorough-going reform, Germany is attempting to preserve the cohesion of the EU and to prevent the emergence of a “multispeed Europe.” This is in the interest of Poland and the remaining V4 countries, but also in our region the concept of “multispeed Europe” is increasingly often perceived not only as threat, but also as a development opportunity allowing the peripheral countries to build their competitive advantages over centralized EU “core,” which is too bureaucratic and whose weaknesses have been laid bare by Brexit. So very much depends on whether Germany and the European institutions will draw conclusions about the role of nation states in the EU and about enhancing the legitimacy of decisions taken at the EU level.

The V4 countries, remaining on the side of fiscal discipline and responsible growth, may be valuable partners for Germany in shaping the economic order of the EU. The Germans need allies capable of supporting the freemarket model of the European Union, based on the principles of fiscal discipline – a model confronted with the more statist vision of the EU represented by France and the countries of the European South. It is in the German interest to gradually reform the eurozone in the direction of a union of stability, based on a tightening of the rules of fiscal discipline. Although within the V4 only Slovakia belongs to the eurozone, it favors maintaining the greatest possible integration with Central European partners from outside the eurozone and integrating them with the common currency area.

It will be easier to talk about deepening the mutually beneficial cooperation with the greatest economic partner of the Central European countries if the Germans are also aware that the condition of their economy is largely dependent on the Visegrad Group countries. In the last decade, Central Europe has become a major source of increased competitiveness for German companies. As Konrad Poplawski showed in a report published by the Centre for Eastern Studies (The role of Central Europe in the German economy: The political consequences), if we treat the V4 countries as one state, it would have been the largest supplier of goods to Germany for the last 12 years, and since 2013 also the largest market for German products, overtaking such countries as the United States, China, France, and the United Kingdom. While in 2003–2015 the volume of German foreign trade rose by an average of 80%, trade with the V4 countries increased much faster (by 200% with Poland, by 123% with Slovakia, by 110% with the Czech Republic, and by 89% with Hungary).

The V4 countries have proved in recent years that they are capable of producing high-quality components and goods for German corporations, with higher productivity than many countries of Western Europe. Germany is expanding its production potential in Central Europe in order to generate savings. The sources of the savings no longer lie exclusively in labor costs, but also in its growing efficiency – resulting from the high productivity of the factories and increasing skills of local workers. Germany was also the greatest beneficiary of investments in the V4 countries financed from the resources spent on EU cohesion policy. This also meant additional exports to these countries amounting to about €30 billion in 2004–2015. Germany benefited not only directly, through contracts won by its companies, but also due to the expansion of infrastructure financed from these funds, which made it easier to transport products between Germany and Central and Eastern Europe.

The global political and economic instability increases the importance of the V4 economies for Germany. The V4 countries have proved that their economies are based on strong foundations. Due to the geographic closeness of the region, German cooperation with these countries is not hampered by geopolitical problems and there is no risk of interruptions in supplies. This is reflected in a long-term policy of corporations. Although some actions of the V4 governments towards the banking sector, energy companies, or largeformat stores impacted on German business, the region remains attractive for German companies, as shown, for example, by the expansion of German car companies in Hungary or the decision of Mercedes to build an engine factory in Jawor. The development of mutually beneficial cooperation with Germany will depend on the V4 economies preserving their competitiveness, which in turn depends on their access to energy. Transforming the energy sector, moving away from atomic energy and focusing on renewables, is treated in Germany as a way of shedding its dependence on imported resources, an ambitious investment in the future, and a technological leap forward. But in pursuing these needs, Germany has shown no regard for its neighbors. The transborder effects of Energiewende and attempts at influencing the energy mix of German neighbors are harmful to their competitiveness. There is a growing awareness—also in the European Commission—that the German energy transformation has led to problems which are not accepted by the neighboring countries. When building an adequate architecture of the electricity market in Europe, we must neutralize the so-called loop flows resulting from the fact that German transmission networks are incompatible with the development of wind farms in the North of the country. This neglect is harmful to the interests not only of the V4 countries, but also of the Netherlands, Belgium, and the Scandinavian countries.

Moreover, the German actions aimed at ensuring the stability of gas supplies are not compatible with the interests of the countries of Central Europe. Increasing the possibility of importing gas from Russia to the EU through Nord Stream 2 and aiming to assume the role of a key gas hub is a challenge for the V4 region not only due to the decreased energy security and transit role of our countries, but also from the point of view of building a competitive energy market in the EU. It is therefore in the interests of the countries of Central Europe to create access to Norwegian gas supplies, utilizing the potential of the LNG terminal and building new connectors within the north-south corridor. Poland wants to serve as a center for gas transportation into the Central Europe and the Baltic countries. This would increase the liquidity of the market and provide a real (i.e. a physical) diversification of gas supplies. This is why Poland is taking action aimed at integrating the domestic transportation system with the systems of the countries of Central Europe and the Baltic region, ensuring the further diversification of sources and supply directions.

From the point of view of Poland, but also of the other V4 countries, the tendencies in the German security policy are favorable. This was, for example, highlighted by the NATO summit in Warsaw. Germany has started to adapt its security policy to the prospects of long-term instability in the European neighborhood and a reduced American engagement in Europe. The Germans feel it is necessary to strengthen collective defense within NATO and to participate in crisis management operations. They thus meet the expectations of the United States, which see Germany as a European leader and the main US ally in solving security problems in Europe. The role of Germany in European security policy may increase, both in the political and military aspect. Nevertheless, the direction and scope of these changes is not yet certain. The dialogue and cooperation of the V4 countries with Germany therefore should also serve the interests of increasing the security of the eastern flank of NATO and the EU.

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