Group is facing a stark choice: it can either become a dead monument, or a model of regional cooperation within Europe.
This is how Czech president Václav Havel sawthe future of this regional union (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) 10 years ago.
The V4 just turned 30 years old, but there is not much to celebrate.
In particular when considering the group’s selfish approach to addressing the migration crisis or Hungary and Poland’s threat of vetoing the EU budget, afraid of seeing their compliance with the rule-of-law principles monitored.
The deteriorating state of democracy is evidenced by a gradual financial and regulatory marginalisation of independent media, most recently of Klub Rádió in Hungary, the curtailment of the judiciary’s independence in Poland, and the worsening public perception of corruption in Slovakia.
It was in Poland that Havel spoke in 1990 of the region’s unique opportunity to become an additional pillar of democracy and freedom in a reunified Europe.
Together with the founding fathers József Antall and Lech Wałęsa, he dreamed of the region developing not only a strong economy but, above all, democratic and decentralised institutions and a self-confident civil society.
Havel hoped that the region, with its 40-year experience of communism, could play a major and audacious role in the future of a never-changing Europe.
Important social and political developments are already taking place in the Eastern neighbourhood of the EU. For more than six months, we have witnessed the courage of Belarusian civil society demanding democratic elections.
President Alexander Lukashenko’s repressive regime has already arrested more than 30,000 people and, to stay in power, is building new detention-style camps.
Also, Russians seem to be losing patience with a similar regime in their country. The democratic world is calling for the release of Alexei Navalny, the leading critic of president Vladimir Putin.
It is clear that the attempt at Navalny’s physical liquidation and his current imprisonment are the result of his persistent accusations of rampant corruption and stifling bureaucracy within Putin’s regime, while the country’s standard of living is plunging ever deeper.
While in August of last year the V4 presidents appropriately responded to the protests in Belarus through a joint statement, this time they failed to acknowledge the tense situation in Russia and the call for a common EU position.
Their meeting this week on the Polish Hel Peninsula was devoted solely to the pandemic and the recovery of national economies.
But it is national governments that have the full competence to address the impact of the pandemic scourging the region.
Silence on Russia
The competence of presidential offices, which are largely representational, resides in the power of words. Their joint communiqué thus missed out on the chance to send a signal that they were indeed taking notice of the events in their eastern neighbourhood, and that they were taking the side of the brutally repressed Russian civil society.
The fact that the V4 presidents did not comment on Russia comes as a disappointment, but not as a surprise.
The Visegrád Group is more divided than united by the challenges facing Europe. It is true that all V4 countries have thus far voted to extend the sanctions imposed on Russia for annexing Crimea, and their troops are deployed in the Baltic region as part of a Nato mission.
This, however, does not mean that the V4 has a unified stance vis-à-vis the Kremlin. Poland is traditionally highly-critical, in the Czech Republic president Miloš Zeman is conspicuously soft on Putin, and so is Hungary.
Following presidential and parliamentary elections, Slovakia has embraced a value-based, principled attitude to Moscow again.
The adoption of a common V4 action can hardly be expected at the forthcoming EU summit which is likely to consider further sanctions against Russia.
The construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which many central and east Europeans and the US are demanding to be ended, is also a divisive issue for the V4.
Its completion would bypass the V4 region and cause economic and geopolitical damage. It is not only about plummeting revenues from gas transit fees to western Europe; it is also about the general “geopolitical rent” for the central European region, which would shrink proportionately to the diminishing importance of current gas pipelines.
But the only vocal critic of the construction of Nord Stream 2 among the V4 countries is Poland.
Slovakia is diffident; the Czech Republic pretends this issue is not relevant, while Hungary maintains privileged relations with Russia. This applies primarily to the gas and atomic energy sectors where the giant MOL cooperates with Gazprom.
All this seems to suggest, on the one hand, that the V4 has achieved its main purpose – to integrate the countries into the Euro-Atlantic structures.
It is obvious that close regional cooperation has contributed to calming relations between Hungary and Slovakia and implementing a number of regional projects, especially in the field of infrastructure, as well as in the joint fields of cultural and people-to-people cooperation.
But at the same time, it is a fact that with its stance on immigration and adherence to democratic standards, the V4 has positioned itself as a kind of ‘enfant terrible’ in the midst of Europe.
Notwithstanding their current reputation, the V4 countries should not give up on close cooperation.
They constitute a natural regional entity with a common history and a common cultural and political heritage.
Those who incite individual governments to distance themselves from the Visegrád Group in favour of forming alliances with the ‘big players’ inside and outside the EU are wrong. This would amount to misunderstanding the importance and necessity of regional cooperation.
How can we urge the countries of the Western Balkans to garner the courage for effective regional cooperation if we ourselves – as full members of the Euro-Atlantic alliance – fail to serve as an example?
Neighbours have always been and always will be important. Regional stability is the pillar of global stability. After all, governments come and go. But the countries and the regions are here to stay.