There are all sorts of threats to the European Union’s unity, but something tells me that the biggest threat isn’t the Visegrad group. This appears to be a view not shared by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.
Speaking after the October 29-30 EU summit in Brussels, Sarkozy criticised the fact that the leaders of the four Visegrad countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – had held a pre-summit meeting to co-ordinate their positions. “If they were to meet regularly before each Council, that would raise some questions,” Sarkozy said.
Would it, really? When I put this question the other day to a high-ranking official from a Visegrad country, he replied with a Sarkozy-like grimace on his face. The Visegrad group was, he said, as harmless as other EU regional subgroups, such as the Nordic trio (Denmark, Finland and Sweden), the Benelux countries (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), the Iberians (Portugal and Spain) and Club Aristotle (Cyprus and Greece).
In truth, the most curious thing about the Visegrad group is that it still exists. No sooner had it been set up in 1991 after the fall of communism than, like some mysterious mitteleuropäisch cell, it mutated from three members into four with the break-up of Czechoslovakia. It held together largely because of the belief that strength in solidarity would accelerate the integration of the four into western security and economic structures – the EU and Nato.
But the strains inside the group have never entirely gone away. Poland, the biggest member, tends to see itself as a kind of big brother, with a wider view on the world than the rest. The Poles no longer want to be treated in the EU as a mere regional player, a country defined by its proximity to places like Belarus and Ukraine. They want to be at the top table, next to France, Germany and the UK.
The Czech Republic tends to be regarded as the smarty-pants of the four, a perception reinforced by the Czech EU presidency in the first half of this year. The Czechs spent an awful lot of time telling everyone how they were superior to their neighbours, because their far-sighted policies had enabled them to escape the worst of the financial crisis. This know-all attitude didn’t exactly endear them to their EU partners.
Slovakia had a bad reputation in the 1990s because of the misrule of Vladimir Meciar, the former prime minister. But it then transformed itself so fast that it is now the only Visegrad country in the eurozone. However, there are continuing tensions over Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarian minority.
Hungary was hit hardest by the financial crisis. Its neighbours gave Hungary the cold shoulder in February when the government in Budapest proposed a €180bn emergency aid programme to recapitalise the banking systems of central and eastern Europe and reschedule foreign currency debt.
This in itself is proof, if any were needed, that Sarkozy’s suspicions are exaggerated. But then again, French opinions about the EU’s former communist countries have a rich history. After all, who was it who told the central and eastern Europeans at the start of the Iraq war that they had “missed a good opportunity to shut up”?
Step forward, ex-president Jacques Chirac.