by Eugene Chausovsky
July 27, 2016

Forecast

  • The Central European states of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary — known as the Visegrad Group — will become increasingly vocal and active in shaping the post-Brexit EU reform process.
  • The four countries will advocate the repatriation of powers from Brussels to national parliaments and will push for an “intergovernmental Europe” rather than a “supranational Europe.”
  • Because of their relatively small size and peripheral location, the Visegrad Group countries will look for allies within the European Union to advance their goals, aided by the growing Euroskepticism in the region.

Analysis

Four Central European countries see the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union as their opportunity to shape the future of the bloc. The prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary met in Warsaw on July 22 to discuss the issue for the second time in two months. Out of the first meeting on June 29, just days after the United Kingdom voted to leave the union, came a collective call for “dramatic reforms” of the bloc and its institutions. The sentiment was reiterated during the latest meeting, where the four Central European premiers once again called for major changes to the European Union.

It is not surprising that some of the European Union’s 28 member states are speaking out against the nature of the bloc. It is surprising that these four countries, which joined the bloc together and have become known as the Visegrad Group, are joining the chorus of criticism. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have generally strongly supported the European Union, which helped in their transition away from communism following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the name Visegrad harkens back to this shared communist past and refers to the Hungarian town where the leaders of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia met in early 1991 to establish the economic and political format of joint cooperation needed to integrate with Europe. Over the years, the countries met often within the Visegrad format (the Czech Republic and Slovakia peacefully divided into separate states in 1993) to advise and consult each other about reform efforts, until all eventually joined the bloc in 2004.

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The Visegrad Group has gained from its membership in the European Union. Its members are among the main beneficiaries of EU development and agricultural funds, and they experienced high economic growth rates in the decade leading up to their accession to the bloc and in the years directly after joining. Recent years, however, have proved more difficult for the Visegrad states. The mounting pressures caused by the 2008 European financial crisis and the more recent migrant crisis have widened the divisions within the bloc; each of the Visegrad countries has experienced an economic slowdown, and border fences have been erected to mitigate refugee flows. In the meantime, political tension between the European Union and some of its member states over domestic policies such as media freedom and constitutional changes has grown.

Brexit: The Last Straw

The Brexit vote has shaken the foundations of the European Union and is causing member states to re-evaluate their positions within the bloc — the Visegrad states are no exception. Slovakia is the only Visegrad country in the eurozone, and all had looked to the United Kingdom, which also fell outside of the shared currency zone, to help defend their positions. Though in general the Visegrad countries are happy with their membership in the European Union, they have also long been wary of moves to transform the bloc into a sort of federal superstate. For them, the European Union should be a conduit for political, economic and security cooperation but should not infringe on the sovereignty of national governments. Thus, all four Visegrad states supported the calls of former British Prime Minister David Cameron to repatriate power from the European Union and to allow national parliaments more authority to veto EU decisions. Now that the United Kingdom will be leaving the union, the Visegrad states are likely to take over for Cameron in making similar demands.

In fact, just a day after the Brexit vote, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, said Poland would work on a new EU treaty that would reduce the powers exercised by Brussels and give them back to national parliaments. Kaczynski did not specify what terms a new treaty would include, but he did say the Polish government would present one to the European Union in the coming months. Given the recent show of solidarity among the Visegrad Group, it would seem as if the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary may support Poland’s proposal, or at least parts of it.

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Stepping Into the U.K.’s Shoes

In theory, at least, the Brexit vote has created space for the Visegrad states to make the demands that the United Kingdom used to make, under the threat of holding their own referendums. If held, these votes would probably not concern actual EU membership, given that the countries depend on EU funding and that public support for the bloc is high. But the Visegrad countries could threaten to hold referendums on specific EU issues as a means to gain leverage. Hungary, for instance, has already announced that it will hold a vote on the controversial EU plan to redistribute asylum seekers across the Continent.

The Visegrad countries want the European Union to continue working as a protective umbrella and as a source of funding, but they do not want it to interfere in their domestic affairs. The countries are relatively small, however, and even if they coordinate their demands, the Visegrad Group does not have the political heft to actually stop new EU regulations from passing.

This means that the Visegrad Group will have to look for more partners to push for an “intergovernmental Europe,” rather than a “supranational Europe.” Rising Euroskepticism will broaden the pool of potential partners — given that Euroskeptics also criticize supranationalism in their bid to empower nations. Depending on the kind of measures they propose, the Visegrad countries could find support in Denmark, Sweden, or even the Netherlands and Austria for measures to weaken the European Commission. And depending on political developments, the Visegrad vision for the European Union could become mainstream. Therefore, while the Visegrad countries are in many respects considered peripheral members of the European Union, they could shape its future in important ways.

— Central Europe: Taking up Where the U.K. Left off is republished with permission of Stratfor.