Aleš Chmelař, Deputy Minister for Europe at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photo: Celia Pérez
CELIA PÉREZ CARRASCOSA
The Visegrad Group, or V4, was founded in 1991 by Václav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Józef Antall, Prime Minister of Hungary, and Lech Wałęsa, President of Poland. One of the main goals was to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), which it achieved in 1999 and 2004 respectively.
However, centuries earlier these three states had already concluded that both economic and political cooperation was beneficial to them. In 1335, the Congress of Visegrád took place in the Hungarian town of Visegrád, where King Charles Robert of Hungary, the Czech King John of Bohemia and the Polish King Casimir III agreed to establish alternative trade routes to Vienna, since the Habsburgs forced to pay a customs duty to the merchandise that passed through the Vienna Danube and due to the expansion which the Habsburgs were beginning to gain.
To date the Visegrad Group continues to cooperate and work as a team within and outside the EU.
Aleš Chmelař, Deputy Minister for Europe at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explains in an engaging and respectful way the concerns, achievements and purposes of this group that represents a large part of Central Europe.
Question: How has the Visegrad Group developed over time and what has achieved?
Answer: First of all, it should be remembered that the founders of Visegrad were convinced that they were Europeans and wanted to be part of the EU. As reflected in the former Congress of Visegrád, we can see their internationalist and European intention. Moreover, Visegrad cooperation was born in the aftermath of the fall of communist regimes in 1991 and therefore they have a similar recent past. It is also important to note that after the friendly dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the states that make up this group today are Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
In 2004 these states joined the EU. It could be said that they have fulfilled their objectives and that there is no reason for them to exist, but they are still working.
What it had achieved in the regional agenda is a trustful cooperation and a very good trade with our neighbours. The issues that were between Poland and Czechia and between Hungary and Slovakia have been eased. I think that the biggest achievement is that we cooperate.
Question: Why does the Czech Republic believe that this group should be strong within the EU?
Answer: Altogether, the Visegrad Group has 65 million of inhabitants. Altogether, we are a bigger trade partner to Germany than France. All in all, these four countries could be a bigger player in the EU.
I think that Central and Western Europe share the same values and ideas, but sometimes we see a certain disagreement of the population with what the EU does. For this reason, putting our opinions together it is try to influence the EU, not in a one way, but to make understand the different perspectives that we have. It is not a question of influencing, but of being heard, of being respected. As Robert Fico, former Slovak Prime Minister (2012-2018) said, we do not want to influence in the EU, we want to be respected. Sometimes you listen to France, Germany or Italy more often than to other small countries because they are very big. It is easier to give our opinion together than separately.
I dare say that there are very few issues on which we differ from the EU, one is clear: immigration. But, you see? Many countries have changed their views and policies on it over the last five years.
The Visegrad Group may have been very explicit in giving its opinion about the migration crisis, but at the same time it was necessary. Otherwise, people would have dissociated themselves from EU policy. I do not think we are less or more European than the Westerners, it is just our perspective, our opinion.
Question: How does the Czech Republic intend to strengthen the Visegrad Group within the EU?
Answer: We do not have institutions or parliamentary assemblies, unlike Benelux and Nordic-Baltic. We think it is good that way. We deal with it topic by topic, and if we agree, we give our opinion together, if not, we do not. There is no specific need to agree on everything.
However, from 2015 it is important to make it clear that we are not against the EU, but that we are a constructive force and can contribute ideas that will help EU integration. That is something that the Czech Republic did during its presidency. For example, we tried to expand the potential of Visegrad by meeting with Germany, the Nordic-Baltic or the Western Balkans. It is good to cooperate with other countries; the Czech Republic has always considered dialogue with neighbours important.
Question: Last year the Czech Republic assumed the Presidency of the Visegrad Group and its motto was “a reasonable Europe” why that name?
Answer: We did not have any intention to say that Europe is not reasonable, but reason is the opposite of emotions. We basically wanted to sit down and talk to each other with our feet on the ground and see the things as they are. We have to find realistic solutions, not idealistic or influenced by emotions. For example, the migration crisis was full of emotions.
Question: What is the Europe that Visegrad promotes?
Answer: There is no specific Europe that Visegrad wants to achieve, but we want to see a Europe that respects people’s feelings. Not to think that something or someone is better just because I think so. I lived in Brussels for four years and I know that the EU can make decisions and have ideas that are very different from those of the people in the Member States. If we want to bring something from Visegrad, it is respect for people, for all of Europe and that differences are taken into account. Sometimes we have this paternalistic approach in Brussels and people do not understand it. If people do not accept these proposals, it does not make sense. If we continue like this, we will lose the people who should be and feel part of the European project. If you have an idea, you have to ask people and explain to them what it is so that they feel part of the EU. That is democracy.
Question: One of the objectives of the Czech Presidency was the integration of the Western Balkans. Why is this region important for Visegrad and the Czech Republic?
Answer: This region is important for the whole Europe. There is a hole in the EU. It is important to note that with that hole, the EU’s global ambitions are impossible to realise. Imagine if the US had a hole, it could not be a great global power. In addition, it is a fragile region due to its history, so the EU should have more interest in this area and not let other players interfere in it, for example, Turkey; so it is basically geopolitical.
Question: In recent years Euroscepticism has grown in Europe, including in the Visegrad countries. Why do you think Euroscepticism has increased in the Czech Republic and how can Prague cope with it?
Answer: The Czech case is very relative because we are in the centre of Europe and we feel European and we are happy within the EU. But, we have some questions about how the EU works. Before the 2008 crisis the Czechs had a more positive view of the EU, but after 2008 and due to the inability of EU leaders, Euroscepticism began to rise and also from the migration crisis of 2015. Perhaps it is not Euroscepticism, but doubts about the work of the EU today. Czechs believe that sometimes Europe is not down to earth.
How can we cope with this? I think you need to show your citizens that their voice is heard in the EU. That is the main thing. That way, they feel part of the EU. It is about telling them “yes, we are in the EU, our voice is heard and we can talk eye to eye with the big states”.
Question: Despite the discrepancies and differences between the four countries, Visegrad remains firm and clear in its opinion and decisions. Do you think the EU should learn something from this group about cooperation, and in other areas?
Answer: I would say that it has to learn not to have the need to agree on everything, to be able to say “we do not agree on something, so let us not waste time”. Respect the opinions of others, not impose an idea. I think that is what the Visegrad cooperation has shown over time. For example, Poland and the Czech Republic had problems before World War II, and also Slovakia and Hungary have had problems. But, somehow we have learned to live with each other.
Question: It is generally believed in Brussels and Western Europe that this group defies the EU somehow. Why do you think Brussels is acting in this way towards Visegrad? What does the Czech Republic think about this and what is it doing to defend its position?
Answer: It is a very important question. Brussels has never established a policy for Visegrad. We are four different countries that meet very often, but we are different. The issues that Brussels has or has had with Visegrad are with Poland and Hungary, but they put us all in the same basket.
Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918 on the basis of a new world system, respecting international law. Therefore, we Czechs and Slovaks are based on respect for the rule of law. We feel a little bit touched by the fact that sometimes we are put in the same basket because of the problems Brussels has with other Visegrad states.
It is true that we disagree with the EU on some aspects, for example immigration, climate change or relations with Russia, but that is not a problem. They are just different opinions. I think the most precious value is democracy and the ability to talk to each other.
Question: How is the Czech Republic different from and similar to other Visegrad countries?
Answer: Prague is further west than Vienna, for example. We have always considered ourselves part of Central Europe. We Czechs feel different from the Poles and the Hungarians in that we have always been in the West.
On the other hand, we have medium incomes. We are not the richest, but neither are we the poorest. We are somewhere in the middle. We have some issues and views that we share with our partners in the East, but also some that we share with our colleagues in Western Europe. That is why we see ourselves as a bridge between Western and Central Europe.
Question: In 2015 there were problems with the distribution of refugees by countries that the EU wanted to establish. The Czech Republic, like the other Visegrad states, refused to accept this, why?
Answer: In September 2015 the EU quota system was approved and each country had to take in refugees whether they wanted to or not. About this, we had several issues.
First, most of them (refugees) wanted to go to France, Germany and the UK, and you could not tell them that they were not going to the country they wanted. It is not logical to distribute people against their will. For example, this happened with some refugees in Romania, who left the assigned country to go where they really wanted to go.
The second thing, to accept all refugees could be a motivation for more people to risk their lives to come to Europe, which is called the pull effect. We have talked about it a lot, the refugee issue was influenced by emotions. During that time it was said that we did not want to save people on the sea, but it is not true. Of course we must save people from the sea, but we should also prevent them from risking their lives on the sea, because if we say “yes, we welcome and take you”, more people will risk their lives on the sea, and it is not logical. Instead of solving the problem, you create another.
And the third point is that the Czech Republic has no borders, we are surrounded by Schengen area. People accept it because they are intra-European borders. But at the same time, if you do not have borders to control, you wonder where the border is. I think that many people in Europe think that the EU needs borders. We do not live in a peaceful world. We need someone to look after our borders in case of need. It is about controlling what happens within the EU and who lives in the EU. There are no countries with open borders, for example Canada, Russia or China. And we do not have the capacity to help everybody.
That is why the compulsory distribution of refugees did not solve anything. It focused on distributing the problem, not on reducing it. From the beginning we saw that the quota system did not make sense and would not work. Even the voluntary system did not work. What we need is to cooperate with the countries where these people come from to support their people.
Question: What other problems do you think the EU faces and how can the Czech Republic and the Visegrad Group reduce and eliminate them?
Answer: One of the most important is climate change. We have to find a good and correct economic and social balance to reduce CO2 emissions, but we must not get carried away by emotions. If we exaggerate the risk, part of the industry could collapse. That is why we have to find a good balance. We also live the coronavirus pandemic, but I hope it will not last long.
Another important aspect is the geopolitics and the capacity of the global power of Europe and the EU. I think this is the EU’s most serious problem. The EU has tools and a good economy, but it has no power. In terms of population, the EU is bigger than the US. The problem is internal. We still do not trust each other and we do not talk to each other enough, so we can’t be strong.
For example, in the Mediterranean if we do not act as a power, that problem will never disappear. We therefore have to think about how the EU can consolidate its power. It is also very important to make an effective policy with Africa and China.
Another issue is the Eurozone, I think it needs some reforms, but the Czech Republic does not yet belong to it.
On the other hand, I understand this because the EU is still very young, so it needs time to complete all the steps. It is a long process that will be completed in the further future.
Question: Do you think that the Czech Republic will one day accept the euro as its currency?
Answer: I am convinced that it will, but not yet. Perhaps in ten years’ time. The main reason for which we are not yet in the Eurozone is because the economic crisis came and we are postponing it, and we see that the architecture of the euro is still not defined and is very changeable.
Question: How do you think the Visegrad Group will develop in 10 years’ time? And the EU?
Answer: I think that Visegrad will remain the same, depending on the new issues to be addressed. If we solve the migration issue, Visegrad will talk more about the Western Balkans. I hope we will have more visibility. I do not think it will change much.
As for the EU, I expect the Eurozone to be well defined and I expect European foreign policy to work better or be better defined.
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