The German chancellor is meeting the heads of government of the Visegrad Group. But what do Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia actually stand for? And what sort of relationship do they have with the EU?
What is the Visegrad Group?
The Visegrad Group – V4 for short – is an alliance of four eastern and central European states: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. They take their name from the Hungarian city of Visegrad, where kings once met for economic and political negotiations.
In 1991, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia – as it still was then – joined forces to work together more closely and prepare their planned EU accession. Today, the V4 countries exchange information and develop priority programs in order better to cooperate in an increasing number of areas. An important basic principle is that, within the EU, the V4 carry more weight as an alliance than they would as individual countries. Each year a different member of the group takes over the V4 presidency.
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What relationship does the Visegrad Group have with the EU?
All the V4 members are EU member states, but only Slovakia is part of the eurozone. Observers often refer to the V4 as "two plus two,” because of their differing attitudes to European integration. Slovakia and the Czech Republic are comparatively Europe-friendly, whereas Hungary and Poland take a much more euroskeptic approach. These two, in particular, are keen to give member states within the EU a much stronger role once more: They want to see a "Europe of homelands” rather than a political union.
What are the bones of contention with the EU?
Despite their differences and the fact that they belong to different political groupings within the EU, in recent years one topic, in particular, has brought the V4 together: the refugee question. All four countries categorically reject fixed EU distribution quotas. Their inflexible position is largely responsible for the EU's inability to make progress in reforming its refugee laws. At the end of 2017, the EU Commission instituted legal proceedings against Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic over their refusal to take in refugees from an agreed EU distribution program.
Constitutional developments – in Hungary and Poland particularly – have also strained the relationship with the EU: The EU Commission has launched infringement procedures against both countries in response.
What are the positions of the individual V4 countries?
Hungary does not want to become a country of immigration. This is what its prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has repeatedly emphasized. It has erected a separation fence along the border with Serbia and Croatia. More than 170,000 people applied for asylum in Hungary in 2015; in 2017, the figure was just under 3,400. Orbán is also one of the harshest critics of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her refugee policy.
Unlike the rest of the V4 group, Hungary has a good relationship with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Orbán and Putin meet regularly; the two countries have complementary economic and security policy interests. Refugee policy is not the only issue that has Hungary at loggerheads with the EU: Orbán's restructuring of the constitutional state and the accompanying restrictions on media freedoms, the undermining of the constitutional court, and the action he has taken against civil society organizations have caused the EU to launch several infringement procedures against Hungary.
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Poland was the first country against which the EU instigated proceedings; these were for violations against the principles of the rule of law. The reason for this was the country's controversial judicial reform, which the EU considers to have undermined the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers in Poland. To date, the reform has only been partially revoked.
Like Hungary and the Czech Republic, Poland refused to take in refugees and was sued by the EU as a result. Its categorical refusal to accept distribution quotas is still creating tension. Although Warsaw refuses to tolerate any interference in its domestic affairs, leaving the EU is not an option for Poland – the economic benefits of membership for the country are too great.
The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, is also a staunch opponent of EU solidarity on refugee policy. He declared last year that his country would not take in "a single illegal migrant.” Economically, the Czech Republic is very closely integrated into the EU. However, it has a big problem with corruption and is not really seeing much improvement. Prime Minister Babiš is the second-richest man in the country and is suspected of unlawfully pocketing millions of euros in EU subsidies via one of his companies.
Slovakia is in the eurozone, and wants to become part of a "core Europe.” It's the only V4 country that has agreed to take in small contingents of refugees; and in doing so, unlike the other V4 countries, it avoided prosecution by the EU Commission. However, last year Slovakia voted with Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to reject the UN Migration Pact. The Slovak prime minister, Peter Pellegrini, said at the time: "Slovakia does not agree that there is no difference between legal and illegal migration, and we consider economic migration to be illegal, damaging, and a security risk.”
Like the Czech Republic, Slovakia too has a corruption problem that extends into the higher levels of government.