The stability or affirmation of the sovereign parties and the news coming from Slovakia: the Visegrad axis is at risk
The Czech Republic and its position of protecting “the national interests” with or without the V4

Only 108 out of 705 seats of the European Parliament in Strasbourg will be divided (excluding the British seats, perhaps before and after the Europeans). Twenty-one of these, not even one more compared to five years ago, will be destined for Czech candidates, 14 (one more seat) for Slovaks, 52 for the Polish (also one more) and 21 for the Hungarians. The European elections in May are an electoral round which according to many could lead to the success, even if not an overwhelming one, of the populist and sovereign front, a line-up that in the Visegrad Group has great admirers and protagonists, the Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán above all. The Czech Republic does not joke either with its Prime Minister Andrej Babiš who, despite having entered in an open conflict with Brussels just like its neighbors, Budapest and Warsaw, has several times criticized the European elites with pejorative tone and decided even not to turn up at the Strasbourg hemicycle considering it a useless effort.
However, we must highlight in this quartet the news coming from Slovakia, with the successful presidential election of the pro-European Zuzana Čaputová, and with the decision of the highly popular former president Andrej Kiska, a moderate and pro-EU, to found his own party in view of the forthcoming political elections and to aim for the office as a Prime Minister. A tandem that promises to disrupt, at least through words, the sovereign, anti-migrant and anti-multicultural positions prevalent today in V4.

A V4 that is ready to pass into Czech hands starting July, with Prague holding the rotating presidency. It would be then interesting to see what Czech Republic’s endeavors will be to avoid the deterioration of the Central European axis and to tackle the new European balances.

Should the turnout be a crucial unknown on the entire continent for the growth of certain forces regarding the percentage of voters, compared to the Ppe and Pse groups (populists and socialists), some of destinies of V4 countries are also at stake. It is the case of Poland, where the conservative front of Jaroslaw Kaczynski (PiS) confronts the European Coalition (KE), an alliance of five opposition parties united against the Polish nationalist drift.

With Fidesz suspended by the Ppe but ready to jump back in through the window due to the considerable amount of votes it will receive at polls, Orbán’s Hungary is probably the country with least of surprises in the voting aftermath. In fact, the prime Minister’s party does not have great rivals. With its policy of “us against them”, “defending the Hungarian interests against corrupt Brussels”, the anti-migrant rhetoric and despite the threats of infringement on the most obvious flaws in the rule of law in Hungary, Hungary seems to remain the thorn in EU’s back even for the following five years. A thorn in the back, however a little blunt if, as it most likely will happen, Great Britain will eventually finalize Brexit. In fact, Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary have taken advantage in the recent years of the British heterodoxy to launch their challenges against a centralized Europe. Without London, an important weight will be missing in the struggle of these countries, first and foremost for Prague. The Brexit will weigh as well on the Czech exports, particularly on the automotive sector, which has an important outlet on the British market.

Even though Poland and Hungary share a lot, the extremely criticized reforms of justice and the illiberal restriction on information, the refusal of transitioning to Euro, the conservative and nationalist positions, on the other side of the fence, there seems to be fresh air coming in. In Slovakia, Čaputová expressed herself openly in favor of the “European Slovakia” and against “the populism and sovereignism” that grew in V4 as well “because people are disappointed”. Her name could damage Visegrad’s solidarity (sometimes just a facade). “As Populists and Eurosceptics do, it is easy to say no to Europe and that is it ¬– declared the newly elected President. However, the European democrats of all types are offering answers, ideas and new trustworthy social contracts with the citizens to revive Europe as a common project”. Moreover, even the Czech President Miloš Zeman is convinced that Čaputová could shake up the V4, confessing to the president’s opponent Maroš Šefčovič, how the election of the progressive leader could endanger the collaboration of the Group of Four.

In this context, with Visegrad moving randomly and the pool of presumed populist and sovereign votes craved by a certain front of the Old Europe is ready to take off, the Czech Republic finds itself in a wavering position, divided between the humoral and pro-Russian positions of President Zeman and the not too forced Euroscepticism of Prime Minister Babiš. However, the latter has never taken a breaking position even regarding the most unwieldy V4 partners. For example, on the last two occasions that placed Orbán’s disruptive figure on the forefront, the Czech Prime Minister tried several times to take the side of the Hungarian ally. On one hand, he did not bring additional comments in the case of the suspension by the European People’s Party (he declared he could only comment on his group at the European Parliament, the Alde) but on the other hand, he took the opportunity to lay red carpets for the Hungarian counterpart during his recent visit in Prague.

A centered position that could be as well defining for the future Czech presidency of the V4. Moreover, as Tomáš Petříček, the Czech Foreign Minister has directly answered a question, “The V4 is homogeneous. Our interest is to promote primarily the Czech interests. This is the starting point with which we approach Visegrad. Should our interests coincide with those of our V4 partners, we can work together. Should we reach a greater agreement with Germany, we will move forward with Berlin”. How else could it be? More than 80% of the Czech exports is directed towards Western Europe, with a significant share towards Germany. In this regard, even Slovakia is concerned by the decline of the German economy. Approaching Visegrad could not be any different even for various frictional and non-agreement issues that Prague has with its neighbors. The last one was the dispute over the Salmonella meat imported to Czech Republic from Poland. The Polish Minister of Agriculture, Jan Krystztof Ardanowski, did not hide the Czech Prime Minister’s Agrofert possible conflict of interests: “Furthermore, we are talking about a country whose Prime Minister is at the same time the owner of a large agri-food conglomerate”.

On the other hand, Prague will support Poland and Hungary on other fronts, the refusal of Euro, the anti-quota position on migrants (a waning matter) and the request not to be left on the sidelines as rank B Europeans. In this regard, the new European Parliament will have more input, weighing more on the budgetary choices and on the election of the President of the European Commission. Nevertheless, Visegrad remains one of the three pillars that sustain Czech politics in Central Europe: the other two are the relations with Germany, cemented in 2015 by signing the Czech-German Strategic Dialog and the Austrian-Czech-Slovak trilateral cooperation format (Slavkov), created in 2016. Precisely in this latter working group, talks are more about a Central European policy that does not depend only on V4.

Therefore, it will be interesting to see Prague’s position in the Group’s presidency, starting a month after the European elections. It will be intriguing to understand how it will affect Čaputová’s presidency and the possible governmental change in Slovakia, on one side, and as well the result of the political elections in Poland in autumn where the anti-PiS coalition could bring surprises and a new pro-European boost. We do not exclude the possibility of Orbán becoming the black (and isolated) sheep of the Visegrad Group.

by Daniela Mogavero