By: Edu Kenedi
Edited By: Elizabeth Cherchia
The recent elections in Poland and Slovakia have put the Visegrád 4, or V4, at a crossroads. What was once a tight-knit group of likeminded states in Central and Eastern Europe is now at risk of losing members. The group, founded in 1991, comprises Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, all of which are members of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The original aim of the V4 was to coordinate military, economic, and cultural affairs, both in the region and vis-à-vis the EU. In the past decade, the group had also moved closer ideologically, espousing anti-migrant, euro-sceptic, conservative, “Christian” values. But what are the fissures amongst the V4? Between cancelled meetings and diplomatic scuffles, domestic developments within each of the four members, as well as the war in Ukraine, have driven a wedge into this Central European cluster that was once the biggest thorn in the EU’s side. To understand why the V4 are in flux, we must look at each member in turn.
Let us begin with the most prominent member, Hungary. Since 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has presided over the destruction of democracy in Hungary. During this period the rule of law has been undermined, the free press has been gutted, elections have been rigged, and Orbán himself has become more and more extreme. His line rhetoric has been consistent, a combination of anti-migrant, anti-Brussels views mixed with a healthy dose of anti-LGBTQ and Christian nationalist extremism. Yet Hungary has also created problems for the V4, primarily the fact that it does not support Ukraine and parrots Russian propaganda and disinformation about the war. This has certainly been an issue for Poland, though the election results in Slovakia may mean that Orbán will no longer be alone in his support of Putin. Nonetheless, Hungary remains openly committed to the V4, as well as a problem for the EU, both in blocking aid to Ukraine and in trampling over the EU’s core democratic values.
Now for the polar opposite case, the Czech Republic. Where Hungary has turned its back on the EU, the Czech Republic has embraced it. Since he took office in late 2021, Prime Minister Petr Fiala has pivoted to the West, embracing the EU, NATO, and support for Ukraine. In contrast to his scandal-riddled predecessor Babiš, Fiala has turned away from the V4, giving both Budapest and Warsaw the cold shoulder. In the last two years, the Czech Republic has not followed Poland and Hungary’s obstructionist tendencies in Brussels. Indeed, the V4’s relative silence of late may be due to the fact that the Czechs hold the presidency of the group. Of course, there may be pressure from the other members to kick the Czech Republic out of the group, especially following Slovakia’s election results.
At this point, Slovakia is the most concerning case. Having won the most recent elections on an anti-migrant and pro-Russian campaign, Prime Minister Robert Fico has just formed a new government, entering his populist Smer-SD party into a coalition with the centre left and the far-right. Fico’s electoral platform focused on cutting military aid to Ukraine, criticising migration, spiced up with a smidge of nationalistic euroscepticism. While Fico’s views on Russia may not be as extreme as those of Orbán (or his own far-right coalition partners), he will certainly pose problems in Brussels, especially as he fights to cut military support to Ukraine. While Fico has not done anything yet, it seems likely that he will commit to the V4, especially when it comes to supporting Orbán in Brussels. His ideological proximity and campaign promises to stop supporting Ukraine will certainly make him a prime ally for Hungary and a reliable Visegrád partner.
Last, but certainly not least, let us turn to Poland. In a surprising result the opposition parties have upset the ruling PiS party, which lost almost 5% over 2019. Following a full count of the votes, a coalition of three opposition parties has a path to form a government, especially as it seems nigh impossible for PiS to cobble together a majority. The election, which was free, but not very fair, has massive implications for the EU. If the opposition parties can cobble together a coalition under Donald Tusk, Poland will likely stop being the problem child in Brussels. This also changes things within the V4. Previously, Poland and Hungary had been stuck in an unhappy marriage of convenience. While divided over the issue of Ukraine (Poland has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies), the two had been forced to cooperate in Brussels, protecting one another from EU punishment for undermining democracy and the rule of law. Under former Eurocrat Tusk this will most likely change. Poland’s unwavering commitment to Ukraine will remain, but it will become a more constructive actor in Brussels, deepening the wedge between Budapest and Warsaw. A non-PiS coalition government will likely turn away from the V4 and follow the Czech Republic’s example, distancing itself from the more populist positions of Slovakia and Hungary.
So what does this all mean for the Visegrád Group? Hungary looks to remain committed to the group and will likely find a new partner in Slovakia. At the same time, the Czech Republic and Poland will be distancing themselves. With irreconcilable views on Russia and diverging ideological differences on the EU, the V4 looks to have lost a lot of political clout. Eurocrats can breathe a sigh of relief: gone are the days of the V4 jointly leveraging their power in Brussels. While Poland and the Czech Republic may not officially leave the group, the Visegrád Group will be the V2 in all but name.