In February 1991, presidents of three nascent European democracies convened at a castle near Budapest to proclaim their common desire to return to Europe. The venue, called Visegrad, was steeped in history: in 1335, it hosted a peace congress of Bohemian, Hungarian and Polish kings. Today, twenty-five years after its birth at the presidential summit, the Visegrad Group finds itself at another historical crossroads. With Europe on the verge of political fragmentation, our four countries must use the anniversary for a serious reflection on Visegrad’s role and responsibility for reviving the European project.
Over the past quarter of a century, perceptions of Visegrad have undergone a somewhat paradoxical trajectory. The original ethos of re-joining Europe was replaced by doubts over Visegrad’s raison d’etre in an enlarged Union and questions over its unity and relevance in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Today, Visegrad’s common stance on migration is being criticized for undercutting European solidarity, with some going so far as to construe our cooperation as an alternative or counterweight to an EU core. The proposition is as misguided as it is dangerous. We must work to put these misconceptions to rest.
The fact of the matter is that Visegrad’s future is existentially tied to the success of European integration. Its very purpose – as well as nearly every aspect of our cooperation, from infrastructure to defence – is only intelligible and worth pursuing inside the EU’s political and normative construction. And, conversely, Europe cannot succeed without a strong, cohesive and engaged Visegrad. These are the strategic axioms that ought to inform our agenda in the years ahead.
The immediate challenge is to put in place a collective and comprehensive response to the migration crisis. It must match our compassion and moral obligation with our technical, legal and political capacity for managing migration flows and integrating newcomers. In this respect, the basic parameters of our renewed cooperation with Turkey, as presented at the last European Council, hold out a great deal of promise. If coupled with fast-tracked establishment of the European Border and Coast Guard and sensible reforms of the EU’s asylum regime – as well as diplomatic efforts to sustain the fragile truce in Syria – it would amount to a real turning point in the crisis.
From the perspective of Visegrad societies, which lived for decades behind closed borders and barbed wire fences, upholding the Schengen principle of free movement – one of the most vivid achievements of EU integration – remains a priority. It requires respect for common rules, but also greater solidarity and support for frontline states, especially Greece.
The EU possesses all the necessary resources and tools to bring the current crisis under control. What worries me, however, is the damage inflicted on European politics before that turning point is reached.
The fallout from the migration crisis, in conjunction with elevated security threats and festering problems of Eurozone governance and social inequality, is eroding the foundations of the European project. Trust and rules-based cooperation are giving way to fear as the driving force of European and national politics. Attempts at balanced and nuanced policies are stifled by populist cries for simplistic and often unilateral solutions. The fact that UK’s June plebiscite sparked calls for similar “exit referenda” in other Member States is a measure of just how toxic – and absurd – the political debate has become.
Worse still, with Euro-sceptic and outright xenophobic discourse on the rise, the primacy of fundamental European values – liberal democracy and the rule of law – is being questioned. Divisions and dichotomies thought to be long overcome – such as between “liberal West” and “illiberal East” – are re-emerging with ominous force, to the point of second-guessing the historic significance of the 2004 enlargement.
In today’s jarred climate, no member state is immune to the temptations of inward-looking populism, though it may feed off different sources and manifest itself in different forms. In Central Europe, the legacy of communist rule casts a long shadow – but so do the mistakes of the transition period, with its overreliance on technocratic modes of change, often at the expense of social cohesion, inclusive development and democratic accountability. It has left too many of our citizens on the losing side of economic transformation, alienated from what they perceive as a closed system shot through with corruption. In today’s time of distress and uncertainty, past failures are coming back to haunt us, empowering far-right extremists, polarizing our societies and undermining trust in Europe’s liberal order.
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If the EU is to come out of the crisis stronger, it must restore public confidence in – and the integrity of – fundamental values of liberal democracy and the rule of law, without reproducing old stereotypes that only exacerbate divisions among Member States. It is a task that cannot be left to EU institutions alone. Rather, it calls for national political leadership. It requires fashioning a more inclusive consensus on European values, without giving in to the politics of fear, yet taking our citizens’ concerns – notably over immigration and security – with the utmost seriousness.
Visegrad must play a positive role in rebuilding European cohesion and self-confidence. We should mobilize our main asset – mutual trust among the four countries – to help address common European challenges, through enhanced cooperation and dialogue with our strategic partners, above all Germany. We also have a special responsibility to ensure that the EU’s external policies remain open and forward-looking, in particular through reinvigorating the Western Balkan enlargement and deepening relations with Eastern partners.
Such a vision of Visegrad – fully committed to the European project, anchored in strong partnerships with Germany and other Member States – befits our history, our strategic interests, and our sense of cultural belonging. It is the only way of staying true to the founding ideals of our cooperation, as proclaimed by the three presidents at the Visegrad castle 25 years ago.
Lubomír Zaorálek is the Czech Foreign Minister. He graduated in philosophy from Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Brno. Prior to his appointment as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in January 2014, Lubomír Zaorálek was a leading figure in the Czech Parliament, in 2002 – 2006 being the Chairman of the Chamber of Deputies and later the Deputy Chairman. In 1998 he was elected the Deputy Chair of the Czech Social Democratic Party and since 2002 he was the Party's Shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs.