The leaders of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic recently met in Budapest to engage in high level talks. Known as the Visegrad Group (or V4), this alliance has a reputation of pushing back against EU policies not aligned with their interests. They also believe that it is possible to change the EU from the inside, by bringing it back to its roots as a coalition of independent states. In this regard, the V4’s intentions are good, but wishful thinking—the EU only knows how to do one thing: deeper integration.
The emergence of the Visegrad Group—traced back to the early 1990s—was spurred by the shared interests of these former Soviet satellite states. Since gaining their independence, these countries have faced very different challenges than their neighbours west of the Iron Curtain, including the complete reorientation of their economies and societies towards markets and democracy.
Starting with the Visegrad Declaration of 1991, these countries have cooperated on various cultural, political, military and economic projects. Namely, they hold joint military exercises, strengthen their connected power grids, and fund grants and scholarships for academia and the arts. Close cooperation with NATO and the EU have also featured prominently in the foreign policies of these four countries, due in large part to their geopolitical position between East and West.
More recently however, the V4 gained notoriety by pushing back against EU policies. In particular, its four governments agreed that the EU should back down on migrant quotas and its punishment of Poland for recent judicial reforms.
This was reflected in the group’s most recent summit, in which V4 leaders indirectly expressed concern with sweeping reforms proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron. In their joint statement from the meeting, the four countries agreed that the EU should be based on “strong Member States, supported by effective EU institutions performing their tasks based on their competences as defined by the Treaties”.
Echoing this, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stated that “Europe needs a new blueprint. We must speak about an alliance of free nations”. In other words, the EU should stop encroaching on member state jurisdiction.
Of course, eurosceptics should be heartened by any concerted effort to slow or reverse ever closer union. Opening a new front against European integration further divides Brussels’ limited resources as it deals with Brexit, Germany’s government coalition negotiations, and other ongoing struggles.
However, there’s one fatal flaw in the Visegrad Group’s approach.
To paraphrase former European Commission President Jacques Delors, the European project is like a bicycle: it keeps pedalling or it falls down. This eloquently summarizes seven decades of European integration, marked by treaty after treaty shifting competencies from member states to Brussels.
To the EU, any political leader—from the Visegrad Group or not—suggesting to halt or even slow the rate of integration presents a threat, and must be undermined accordingly.
In the short term, compromises can be proposed, but in the long term, Brussels always gets its way. For example, Germany only accepted to adopt the euro as its official currency if safeguards were put in place to prevent more spendthrift member states from being bailed out by their more fiscally prudent neighbours. Such safeguards were included in the Maastricht Criteria on monetary convergence, assuaging Germany’s concerns and opening the door to the single currency. In practice however, several member states have broken these rules—notably France—without any real punishment. Why? Because to punish them would undermine their trust in continued integration—something the EU would rather avoid.
The same can be said for migration, defence, or any other subject near and dear to Central and Eastern European countries. The EU will present reforms these countries do not like, the V4 will push back, a compromise will be negotiated, and the result will ultimately reflect Brussels’ original goals.
By assuming that integration can be paused, or even reversed, Visegrad members are dangerously naïve. As commendable as their efforts to rein in the EU from the inside are, to think they can halt Delors’ bicycle without it falling is wishful thinking.
Thankfully, there are alternatives. Close economic ties, and seamless trade across borders can be achieved by adopting Norway-style membership in the European Economic Area. And cooperation on defence has far more to do with NATO than the EU. Rather than pursue a futile fight to change the fundamentals of the European project, Visegrad countries can reject unwanted convergence by ceasing EU membership.
Of course, the prospect of cutting political ties with Brussels can be scary to some. But as the European project drives on, the Visegrad Group should ask itself whether the prospect of continued membership might be scarier.