The refugee crisis is the Visegrad Group’s moment of truth

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Petr Kaniok
Petr Kaniok

Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Masaryk University, Czechia

Not many people in Europe are aware of the Visegrad Group (V4), the Central European platform for co-operation between the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary that has existed for over 20 years. The Czech Republic acceded to the year-long V4 presidency, taking over from Slovakia, on 1st July and due to external circumstances can expect a very turbulent term ahead.

Initially, the Czech Republic wanted to focus its agenda on typical priorities like regional co-operation, for which the slogan “V4 Trust” was chosen to represent the Czech presidency. Among the seven main goals of its programme, “Togetherness” was given the top place. Followed by other goals such as Energy” or “Active Practising of the Solidarity Principle in the EU”, one could hardly expect any part of the Czech presidency to have interested anyone but diplomats and a few researchers. That is, before the current refugee crisis.

Internal security and home affairs had not been a priority of the Czech presidency. Even though the programme contains the headline “Security and Defence Cooperation”, the focus there is on military interoperability, referring to conflicts such as that in Ukraine. Events over the summer in Hungary and the entire southern EU have shifted the focus of the Czech presidency dramatically. In early September, there was an extraordinary summit of V4 leaders in Prague, where a joint statement on the crisis rejected “any proposal leading to introduction of mandatory and permanent quota for solidarity measures”, and called instead for the “full and rigorous implementation of the current asylum acquis, with particular focus on Dublin regulation, a functioning system of registration and effective return policy”.

Hungary has been among the EU member states most burdened by the arrival of refugees, and with the Czech Republic lying between Hungary and Germany – the dream destination for many asylum seekers – problems are also expected there. The whole Czech V4 presidency can therefore be expected to downplay its initial goals and focus more on this key EU issue of migration, where V4 co-operation has traditionally been very weak. On the other hand, if such co-operation is successful it could reinforce the whole Visegrad platform and make it more relevant to European integration.

Concerning the refugee issue, there seemed to be a clear consensus among the V4 countries when it came to their rigid and restrictive position. But this changed on Tuesday 22nd September when Poland left the block and supported the EU Council decision on mandatory quotas, leaving the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary voting against. As the V4 governments seem to be quite stable, no further substantial changes are likely in the coming months. Definitely not in the Czech Republic itself, as there is no political party that would support a liberal, German-style approach. The current coalition consisting of Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Liberals has adopted a very reserved stance towards introducing binding measures, and the right-wing opposition advocates an even stricter approach.

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