Central Europe Activ

The Visegrad Group of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia was originally formed to co-ordintate the historically interlinked country’s efforts to change from planned to market economy and to join EU and NATO. After the joint accession in 2004 the group looked defunct and their members conducted rather dissimilar policies until the big crisis in 2009. It looks that the Group is alive and kicking since the Economic Crisis Summit last year.

The four prime ministers have held a mini-summit before the March 2009 EU summit and co-ordinated some of their political actions in a way that the French and German prime ministers used to do. The four countries are not very strong EU members, however, their combined voting power and population matches either that of France or Germany, which actually made the French president rather nervous. Should the V4 take on the habit of co-ordnating their vote in the European Council, it would be rather difficult to outflank them in any major deals.

The V4+ Energy Summit held in Budapest on 24-26 February actually takes this threat one step further. The joint declaration signed by the V4 plus Austria, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the perspective member state Croatia (along with Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina) puts back a great empire on the power equation of Europe: the former Habsburg Empire, that had stretched over (most of the current territories) of these countries. The combined voting or market power of this 8 + 1 member states could hardly be excluded from any EU deal – theoretically.

The declaration in itself has almost no new policy elements, but it makes a joint claim on a part of the EU’s budget (energy infrastructure spending) and in its footnotes it explicitly puts the EU-backed Nabucco gas pipeline, a strategic plan to reduce the energy dependency of the EU, to equal footing of the Russian-backed South Stream pipeline.The Central European countries were rather shocked, when Germany made an exclusive deal with Russia which will build a natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea with the explicit aim to bypass Poland. Now it looks that the former Habsburg Club gets its own Russian gas pipeline, the South Stream.

I have made a rather thorough analysis (under publication) on the structural, policy and institutional economic indicators of the EU and Southeast Europe which has shown that the Visegrad Countries, easily expanded to the Baltic States, Slovenia and Croatia, or less easily to Romania, are actually a very homogeneous economic area that has a very unique economic situation and a unique set of interests within the EU. So, again, theoretically, interest should bond these countries together, which makes the emergence of a new European quasi-power more than a fantasy.

On the other hand these countries do not harmonize their policies. The best example for this is the eurozone entry of the Czech and Slovak Republics. The former had the best economic indicators in 1999 to join the EMU and it showed very little interest to do so, and had become one of the most eurosceptic countries. Slovakia, which formed a joint polity with the Czechs until 1993, had the worst economic chances out of the four countries to join EMU and it is the only one to be in the eurozone. The relatively new nation states in the region, almost all born in the 20th century had shown rivalries that are reminiscent to the Western European rivalries in the 18th and 19th century. The political temper and past of the region makes a strong co-operation less likely.

Which will be the stronger force – common economic interest or national rivalry? I think that both forces will shape Central Europe in the next decade, so the Visegrad+ Group will not be able to dominate the EU politics, however, its economic and political strengths is definitely on the rise.

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