The European Union and the V4

The European Union and the V4

Fifteen Years Together Part 1

10/2019  | Reading time: 10 minutes

It has been fifteen years since the members of the Visegrad Group joined the European Union. As it is more than the half of the time that has passed since the Treaty on the European Union came into effect, it is time to look back on our past and debate what is ahead of us. As an overture to our conference on 24 October, co-organised by the Wilfried Martens Centre, this post and its second part revolve around this matter.

The end of the 1980s was marked by important and symbolic events that showed Europe was ahead of significant changes. The legalisation of Solidarity in Poland, the Pan-European Picnic at the Austrian–Hungarian border, and the fall of the Berlin Wall not only showed the weakness of the monolithic communist system but also offered new perspectives to Central and Eastern Europe. Today, we know that these events were not only important episodes in the history of the end of Communism but, ultimately, culminated in a democratic revolution across the region. The third wave of democratisation—under Huntington’s definition—meant that these countries could establish new political and economic institutions, which allowed them to redesign their geopolitical goals.

This reshuffle gave a new perspective to the region, a possibility to integrate into the Western political and economic structures. Four Central European countries, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary decided to harmonise their cooperation in different segments of their policies to facilitate their integration and transition process. In this blog post, I intended to present briefly how and why the Visegrad Group had been created and what the role of this regional association had been during the four countries’ accession to the European Union.

The fall of the Iron Curtain: new opportunities for Central and Western Europe

Since the end of the Second World War, Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) was under Soviet dominance, and the Iron Curtain curtailed the freedom and sovereignty of these states. The 1980s and the early 1990s changed this unpleasant status quo. The fall of the Iron Curtain brought internal divisions in Europe to an end. The continent had been splintered in many aspects. In Germany, the inner border and the Berlin Wall split the country for decades, a metonymy of the situation in the whole of the continent, where countries in Central and Eastern Europe were under Moscow’s heavy influence, separating them from the rest of the continent.

As a consequence of the regime changes, new democratic institutions and market economy were introduced everywhere from Tallinn to Sofia and offered a new geopolitical perspective to the CEE countries. The wave of democratic revolutions was an important landmark, a sign which marked the beginning of a new era, in which European countries could form a new way of cooperation, based on values, principles, and freedom. These desires echoed the values represented by the European integration: respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality, and the rule of law, offering a solid basis to the freshly independent states for becoming part of the European unity. The possible expansion of European integration was a historic opportunity for both the Western and the former Eastern bloc.

Visegrad Group: a new form of regional cooperation

The three—and a little while later four—countries in Central Europe, Poland, Czechoslovakia (soon becoming what is Czechia and Slovakia today), and Hungary experienced similar challenges in their transition process. Leaders in Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest expected a more successful transformation and the stability of the reforms by approaching to and integrating into the Western institutions and adapt to their values. In the aftermath of the dissolution of the bipolar world, European unification was not only a rhetorical desire but became a sudden reality. A unified Europe was an important vision not only for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl but also for the newly elected regional leaders, such as Czechoslovak President Václav Havel, Polish President Lech Wałęsa, and the Hungarian Prime Minister, József Antall.

In order to achieve their new political, economic, and cultural goals, the three states decided to renew their historical alliance in February 1991. It is when the Visegrad Triangle was formed, which, by the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, became the Visegrad Group (V4) in 1993. In their common “Visegrad Declaration,” their leaders clearly articulated that their ambition is to join “the European political and economic system, as well as the system of security and legislation.” This alliance proved to be way more than an experimental regional association. The V4 has never been formally institutionalised, which proved useful, giving the participating states a flexible framework for cooperation. Perhaps this is the reason why the spirit of Visegrad turned out to be of a lasting nature. Moreover, as a form of a regional association, the V4 became an example to other countries in East and Southeast Europe: as Martin Dangerfield wrote, the fifth EU enlargement had created a new situation as the role of the regional associations had been to support the NATO and the EU accession of the candidates.

The Visegrad countries in the European Union: what are the future perspectives?

On 1 May 2004, countries of the Visegrad Group, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary, became members of the European Union after more than one decade of cooperation. By this, the main goal of the above-mentioned declaration was fulfilled. Following the successful accession process, there arose the question of how to go on and what are the remaining fields of cooperation within the European Union. Time proved that even in the aftermath of the accession, the Visegrad Group have seemed to be a viable association in many regards and continues to do so.

The “big bang” enlargement, however, meant not only a closer political and economic cooperation between the Central and Western parts of Europe, but it was also another symbolic sign of the reunification of our continent. As, these days, the European Union and its member states are facing difficult challenges, discussions are timely on the future of the European Union.

While the Central European countries are celebrating their fifteen years of membership, it is also time to examine the future perspectives and challenges the EU’s 28 member states have to face together. To ask and answer these questions, the Antall József Knowledge Centre and the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies will organise a conference, entitled “15 years After the Accession—The Visegrad Countries in the European Union” in Brussels on 24 October.

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