DESPITE strong opinions that preceded a recent summit of the Central European countries, the Visegrad Group goes to Brussels today united and ready to embrace a common European solution to the migration crisis – minus refugee quotas.
Prime ministers of the Visegrad Group met in Prague on February 15, the day when the grouping celebrated its 25th anniversary, but refugees rather than celebrations were central to their talks. For Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, border protection is essential to solving the refugee-related situation in Europe, the prime ministers stated jointly after the meeting. This was also stressed by the guest countries invited to the V4 summit this time around: Bulgaria and Macedonia.
“The swift implementation of measures agreed at the EU level to strengthen external border protection must remain the top priority,” the joint statement reads.
Some have perceived the summit as an attempt to negate the solution discussed on the EU level. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn was reported to have warned the V4 countries not to become “a club of renegades”.
By the end of the summit, however, the V4 leaders declared they were ready to embrace the common European solution that the major EU summit on February 18 is expected to bring. They however stressed that they would insist on their plan B, as Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico labelled it after the summit, if that common European solution failed to be implemented.
“The conclusion of the V4 summit managed to calm the situation and the uproar that emerged because V4 countries have in the recent months earned the label of countries that not always agree with European solutions,” Tomáš Strážay, an expert on the Visegrad region from the non-governmental Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA), told The Slovak Spectator.
In the days running up to the V4 summit the situation between the V4 countries and some of their European partners proved tense.
“We have received a demarche, imagine that, about how the V4 together with Bulgaria and Macedonia dare to discuss the protection of external borders,” Fico said prior to the summit.
While Slovakia’s Foreign Ministry admitted they received communication from Germany prior to the summit, they refrained from disclosing the details. The Czech government however did not perceive the German communication as a complaint.
“I’m not at all surprised that the German ambassador addressed us with questions about the goals and the content of Monday’s summit of V4 prime ministers,” Tomáš Prouza, Czech ministry’s state secretary, said as quoted by the ČTK newswire.
Kiska speaks differently
Slovakia’s President Andrej Kiska reacted to the tensions and, as he mentioned the history of the Visegrad Group, recalled the “original strategic goals” of the Visegrad cooperation, namely the strategic interest of the central-European countries to be close to their western partners.
“It’s great to have our own strong voice, but it’s even better to have strong allies who are willing to listen to it,” Kiska wrote in his official statement ahead of the summit, and pointed out that it is “useful not to confuse a pragmatic approach with political short-sightedness”.
No rebellion, just Plan B
In the end the V4 prime ministers expressed “their full support for measures adopted at the EU level with the aim of a more effective protection of the external borders”, but repeated “their negative stance” towards refugee quotas.
They called for progress in two areas: adoption of the Council position on the European Border and Coast Guard, and implementation of the EU-Turkey action plan with “credible results”.
The V4 countries however did put forward what they called the alternative back-up plan for the Western Balkans migration route, which includes sending troops to help protect the Macedonian border. Slovakia offers 300 police officers to be deployed to Macedonia and Bulgaria as part of that plan.
The V4 countries’ acknowledged the EU solutions, including the EU-Turkey plan and the strengthening of the border between Greece and Turkey, as the most important outcome of the summit, according to Strážay. He does not deem it to be any exceptional when a group of countries come up with their own proposal, as the V4 countries did with their plan B, but noted that “these alternatives should be resorted to only if all the possibilities of the European solution are exhausted”.
Dariusz Kałan, head of the Central Europe Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw think tank, reads the outcome as a sign V4 will not block the “mainstream solution”, which is to cooperate closely with Turkey.
Fico about threats again
“There is a clear link between organised crime and migration crisis,” Fico said following the summit, and mentioned falsification of passports and diplomas and added that “unless the Schengen borders aren’t closed, we stand no chance”. Fico repeatedly stated that the migration crisis threatens the security in Europe.
Other Slovak officials were more moderate in their statements.
“One thing is clear: either we regain control at external borders, or we will be pushed to introduce controls at our internal borders,” Ivan Korčok, Foreign Ministry’s state secretary said as he arrived to the General Affairs Council in Brussels on February 16.
Kałan however perceives the message of the V4 summit as “quite unclear”.
“The declaration is very soft and in line with the European solutions for the crisis, while during the press conference some leaders, including Fico, were very out-spoken in their criticism of the EU strategy,” Kałan told The Slovak Spectator.
Does the V4 stand united?
In the autumn of 2015 Poland backed off from the common V4 position and supported the refugee quota system in the council of ministers’ vote, Slovakia has since sued the council for passing the quotas.
“[Poland’s vote] might have surprised some, but it did not crash the cohesion and the perspective of the V4,” Strážay told The Slovak Spectator.
Meanwhile, Poland has been through elections which put conservatives at the helm of the country, and their position is now closer to that of the other V4 partners. Even though the Polish government decided not to change the quotas for Poland, they refuse the implementation of the plan as such, as do the other Visegrad countries, Strážay noted.
The migrant crisis however remains an artificial problem for the countries of Central Europe, “as none of them is either transit or destination country”, Kałan noted.
“Leaders are using it for domestic consumption, and as with almost all topics of that kind they have an expiration date,” Kałan said and noted that in Slovakia and in Hungary it is already apparent that people are more interested in the real problems of their countries.
V4 in the EU
Slovakia and its fellow members of the Visegrad Group cannot afford to be renegades in the EU, analysts agree. With the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty the Visegrad Group lost its strong position in the EU, which means they will have to search for allies among other members.
“And if they carry the label of solidarity-lacking, non-consensual partners, seeking coalition partners would be harder,” Strážay told The Slovak Spectator.
As EU members, V4 countries cannot act on their own, but everything they do should be compatible with the solutions that the EU comes up with at the February 18 summit, Strážay noted.
“Visegrad solutions should be European solutions. That I think is a key element in terms of the future of the V4,” he said.
However, Slovakia is a different story according to Kałan.
“Fico’s speech after the summit may as well be given in an election rally of Smer somewhere in eastern Slovakia,” he said. “The main reasoning behind it was to mobilise voters before elections, and to escalate the fear against refugees and immigrants.”
Radka Minarechová contributed to this story