A Visegrad EU presidency: hope after Brexit
Slovakia holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union for the second half of 2016. In September, Bratislava will host an EU summit that will address the reasons for and aftermath of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the bloc.
The countries of the Visegrad Group – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic – met in Warsaw in late July 2016 to coordinate their position. The group was created in 1991 by Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) in order to tackle common challenges, including joining the EU and NATO and disengaging from their Soviet-led COMECON (economic) and Warsaw Pact (defense) structures.
The group is named after a town in Hungary on the Danube River, close to the Slovakian border. In 1335 the Kings of Poland, Hungary and Bohemia held a two-month summit in Visegrad to discuss the situation in Central Europe.
Central Europe has always been key for Europe as a whole. The Kingdom of Poland, as it grew to become the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, stabilized Europe to the east. Its area of influence stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and included parts of today’s Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. The Kingdom of Hungary had a southeastern mission. The King of Bohemia, whose lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire, was one of seven electors of the Emperor. In the 15th century, the Jagiellonians ruled all three kingdoms and were succeeded in Hungary and Bohemia/Moravia by the Habsburgs.
The Habsburgs assumed this crucial Central European mission till 1918, when shortsighted nationalistic politicians locally, but also in London, Paris, Washington and Rome, decided to destroy the balance in Central Europe. It was a tragedy for the entire continent.
Another European tragedy occurred earlier, when the Kingdom of Poland disintegrated through a combination of internal disputes and foreign intervention. Fortunately, Poland has returned as the largest power in the region. However, as in the past, on a wider scale it depends on the support of its neighbors and allies.
This heritage is helping the Visegrad countries build a bloc to reinvigorate the European Union. The Union needs reform and should return to its roots – the “Europe of fatherlands” vision of French President Charles de Gaulle (1959-1969). This entails a high degree of self-determination, and working together toward only those goals which can be achieved together. The common market, with its four freedoms (the free movement of goods, services, people, and capital) is crucial. This is precisely the vision set out by the Visegrad countries during their summit in Warsaw.
Western Europe and Central Europe have a common history and common interests. The dynamism of the Visegrad countries, which have highly capable people working in European institutions, can help reinspire the European idea.
Poland’s historic ties to the region, from the Baltics through to today’s Belarus and Ukraine, if used properly, can help to stabilize Europe’s eastern flank. Hungary remains important for Europe’s relations to the southeast. Austria is not part of the Visegrad Group, but is tied to it through the Habsburg tradition (even though a number of Austrian politicians and intellectuals are too narrow-minded to acknowledge it). The capitals of Prague, Vienna and Bratislava are in the very heart of Europe.
The Warsaw meeting’s Visegrad agenda for the EU inspires hope for Europe’s future – sorely needed after the Brexit vote.