Budapest - EU rule changes force a Visegrad re-think

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Attila Marján
Attila Marján

Economist from Hungary's National University of Public Service

Surprising as it may sound, the alliance of four central European EU member states, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – known as the Visegrad Group, or V4 – has an equal number of weighted votes to Germany and France put together. If the V4 were counted as a single state, its 64.3m inhabitants would rank third in Europe and 22nd in the world, and its economy seventh and 15th largest respectively. The group’s significant blocking minority makes it an important policy-shaping power in the EU. Some of the Union’s larger member states have understandably not always been overly positive vis-à-vis the Visegrad Group and its ability to leverage its members’ influence both in Council voting and in diplomatic dealings. Chinese, Turkish or Indian political leaders have preferred to deal with the group than with its individual members. The V4 has thus developed a certain appeal for other countries in its region, but the door has until now been kept firmly closed.

Hungary took over the group’s rotating presidency last summer to deal with policy issues like energy security cooperation and the setting-up of Goethe Institute-style “Visegrad Houses”, badly-needed north-south transport infrastructure connections, and security matters that include the planned V4 Battle Group. But much more attention should be directed towards a game-changing development that’s due to take effect in November of this year when the double majority rule will replace the EU’s current weighted voting system.

The new rule stipulates that a qualified majority in the Council will require the support of 55% of the member states representing 65% of the EU’s overall population. This significantly modifies the distribution of power by strengthening the influence of large member states with populations of over 60m, while Spain and Poland will lose their big member state status. For medium-sized countries with between 2m and 11m inhabitants their voting power will be drastically reduced. In the new double majority system, countries like Germany, the UK and France ability to block decisions will be significantly reinforced, while the V4 countries will lose their blocking power. Even those member states that joined in the enlargements of 2004 and 2007 will no longer be able to block decisions.

Cooperation in the Visegrad Group has had its ups and downs since its formation in 1991 in the Hungarian town of that name. It almost fell apart in Copenhagen in December 2003 when EU accession terms were to be finalised: a brutal tug of war took place between the four on who should get what from the cohesion and agricultural funds. When the group’s leaders gather in Hungary later this year celebrating the tenth anniversary of EU membership they will still need to think hard about the alliance’s future.

The very first summit in Visegrad took place in 1335, when Casimir III of Poland, Charles I of Hungary and John I of Bohemia shared the twin objectives of strengthening their economic and political cooperation and forming a regional alliance to counter the powers of the Duke of Austria and of the Holy Roman Emperor. Some seven centuries later, regional cooperation still has a lot to offer, but the new voting rules, along with diverging ideas on some key European issues, and only some members in the eurozone, there’s a risk of cooperation becoming less relevant. To minimise its loss in voting power, V4 should open its doors. Otherwise, it should focus on intensifying economic, cultural and political cooperation, and considering the lessons of the region’s history, that wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

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