The Czech Republic is chairing the Visegrad group again this year. We are assuming the position in the organization as the V4 is coming under increasing attack on the international stage due to the conflicting positions held by members on topics such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and conflicting values.
The Czech presidency positions were developed with a compromise approach. Disputes between the capitals were common on how to approach this program, but a compromise was eventually found, Ivan Jestřáb of the Department of Central Europe, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, informed us. “We can talk to each other and find a common platform,” he said, but ultimately there are issues where the V4 cannot cooperate. As Štěpán Černý, the Director-General of the Section for European Affairs, Office of the Government of the Czech Republic puts it, “We can cooperate on areas we agree on, and we don’t have to have a unified position on areas we don’t agree on.”
For the V4, there is strong cooperation surrounding energy, infrastructure, and local exchange, according to Černý and the program. All of the V4 is concerned with improving cooperation and development of nuclear energy and energy security in the region. The V4 is highly connected from east to west, but there is a push to integrate infrastructure between the nations from north to south. While political and high-level exchanges occur regularly, the Czech program for the V4 is set on improving local-level exchanges even when the capital’s policies don’t always align.
Ukraine is a significant but contentious point of concern for the V4. Czechia and Poland are major supporters of the country, while Hungry keeps closer ties to Russia. Slovakia is currently in an election cycle, and their new government could determine how the V4 approaches Ukraine, either in a 3+1 (Czechia, Poland, and Slovakia against Hungry) or 2+2 (Czechia and Poland against Slovakia and Hungry) format. Slovakia’s possible Russian turn is concerning; Jestřáb states that the Czech government wants cooperation with neighbors that are also EU-positive, strong NATO allies, and defend people-to-people contact. Mats Braun, the director of the Institute for International Relations Prague, has stated that Czechia has been too soft in the past on other members of the V4, namely Hungry and Poland, on breaking Rule of Law standards and that they must stand up to Slovakia if the country goes pro-Russian.
Another area of conflict is in enlargement goals. The Czechia program wants to return to the V4’s roots and help promote the ascension of states in the West Balkans and Ukraine. What is unfortunate is that the V4 could be used as an example of enlargement’s pitfalls. Pavlína Janebová, the Research Director for the Association for International Affairs (AMO) explains: “The president of the European Commission mentioned (in the recent European State of Union speech) that candidate countries will be included in the process of the annual Rule of Law report, which I perceive as an attempt to avoid the development that came about in Hungary and Poland when it comes to democratic standards.” While the V4 used to be a positive example of successful enlargement and integration policy, the recent politics coming out of the other nations are reflecting a more negative light on the group. Braun recommends that “on these issues, perhaps it would be good to not raise the V4 flag to high but rather use other formats to promote these particular issues.”
A concern that was brought up was the Visegrad format being used as a replacement for productive bilateral relationships with the countries in the group and related formats. Janebová stresses that the V4 format should not be used as a replacement for these relationships; while the V4 is productive for organization and unifying policies, each nation must continue to be met with the others at individual opportunities. This also applies to the V4+ format. While there is a time and a place to use it, it must not be the default. Janebová states that Czech interests must be kept in mind when using such a program: to meet with a nation like Germany, which has poor relations with the other V4 nations, using the V4+ format would not be productive for Czechia.
Does this mean that V4 cooperation, with its complex irregularities and internal strife, is dead? Jestřáb says no: “We have survived everything and we will survive this wave of disagreement again.” The difference between the V4 and other organizations, he says, is that it is a platform, not a structure. The countries may disagree but cooperation will not stop. “All four Visegrad countries are located in Central Europe and they will not move anywhere… we have to interact.” The V4 continues to be relevant into the Czech presidency and beyond. The structure is not just what is seen, but what is unseen as well. As Jestřáb points out, there is an issue in limiting the V4 to its most visible aspects, but it is a much broader coalition, one that works with officials from the Prime Minister to the desk workers in the ministries; the cooperation is more than just its most visible parts. Even if the group is disbanded at the governmental level, Janebová argues, the common identity and cooperation developed among its civil servants and civil society will continue.