Remember the “Little Entente,” maintained by Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia during the interwar period? The regional alliance was created under French auspices and its initial goals included preventing the reemergence of a greater Austria and Hungary and defending Eastern Europe against the threat of Soviet communism and later of German Nazism.
As late as in the mid-1930s, some in the region were still putting their faith in the arrangement. Yet, if “Little Entente” made sense at the time of its creation, fifteen years later it was apparent that all three actors were hopelessly insignificant in military terms. And also, their interests diverged. Yugoslavia was more open than its partners to cooperation with fascist, revisionist governments. In the face of Germany’s brazen aggression against Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1938, Romania blinked. And France’s real commitment to the project had never been particularly strong to begin with.
Fast forward to February 1991, when Hungary’s president Jószef Antall hosted Václav Havel of Czechoslovakia and Lech Wałęsa of Poland in the town of Visegrád, overlooking the river Danube. It was clear that the shared interest of the three (later four) countries was to join the West—the European Union and NATO—and to shield themselves against the possible return of Soviet domination.
It has to be said that the Visegrád cooperation worked realy well. The coordinated efforts of Central European countries convinced the initially reluctant Westerners that bringing the region into the fold of the transatlantic alliance was a good idea. Whatever challenges Central Europe raises today for NATO and the EU, those are insignificant compared to the chaos that has reigned across the Balkans and throughout much of the post-Soviet space that did not have a credible prospect of joining the West. After Slovakia flirted with Vladimír Mečiar’s authoritarianism during the 1990s, it was the Visegrád group that helped it catch up and get on the integration train.
Nevertheless, it is worth keeping in mind the main lesson of the “Little Entente.” Twenty-eight years since the foundation of Visegrád, the regional bloc has lost much of its original rationale without finding a new one. All of its initial members are members of the EU and NATO. More importantly, the interests of their governments have started to diverge dramatically. For a long time and regardless of who has been in power in Warsaw, Poland is the only one country among the four taking the Russian threat seriously.
The three remaining Visegrád countries are underinvesting in their security. And if Slovakia and the Czech Republic are at least nominally wary of Russia, Hungary has aligned itself with Moscow on a number of issues, oftentimes going against stated U.S. interests in Central Europe. Late last year, for example, the government refused to extradite Russian arms dealers, the Lyubishins, to the United States. This year, Viktor Orbán invited the Kremlin’s fake multilateral bank, the International Investment Bank, to set up headquarters in Hungary with a plethora of diplomatic privileges and immunities, thus creating a new channel for Russian espionage and influence operations in Europe and possibly also an avenue around the sanctions imposed on Russian after the annexation of Crimea and attack against Donbas.
More fundamentally, it has become hard to see Hungary as a free country, unlike the three others. Effective political competition has been curtailed through a partisan rewrite of the constitutional system and of the electoral law, concentration of media in the hands of oligarchs close to Fidesz, and through an effective dismantling of judicial review. To the extent that the Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland has sought to emulate the Hungarian example, most importantly by attacking the judiciary, it has also faced a much stronger and better organized reaction of civil society. It seems to be a reasonably safe bet to expect PiS’ worst authoritarian policy decisions to be reversed once it moves to opposition or is forced to share power in a government coalition.
The Czechs and the Slovaks may have their own occasional flirtations with authoritarianism but those have never risen to a sustained effort at concentrating power in the hands of one political party or oligarch—not even in the case of Andrej Babiš, a Slovak-born Czech billionaire who became an anti-establishment politician and later the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic.
Attitudes toward the EU are another dividing line within Visegrád. Whereas Slovakia is a member of the Eurozone and most of its relevant parties are committed to ensuring the country is in the EU’s integration core, the Czechs have acquired a reputation for being the Brits of post-communist Europe, convinced of their own exceptionalism. It is hard to imagine a push for Euro adoption in Prague, or an influential constituency arguing for deeper forms of integration with the EU. In Poland, in turn, euroskepticism is currently enjoying its heyday. Yet, both the logic of geopolitics and much of Poland’s political landscape suggest that this might be just a phase and that post-2019 Poland will become, once again, a constructive player, seeking perhaps membership in the Eurozone in due course.
Hungary, in comparison, remains a specific case. The only thread connecting Viktor Orbán to the mainstream of European politics—Fidesz’ membership in the European People’s Party (EPP)—is a result of a combination of ineptness and cynicism, especially on the part of EPP’s German patrons, for whom the nature of Hungary’s political regime is secondary to the ability of German auto companies to do business in the country, not harassed by its nationalist regime.
It is far from clear what unites Visegrád, other than the common, largely reflexive rejection of immigration in 2015 and 2016. Arguably, it would be hard to imagine the four countries becoming a cohesive bloc even if they all had euroskeptic, anti-immigration governments (as perhaps some in the West mistakenly believe to be the case now). Contrary to Steve Bannon’s pipe-dream of a Nationalist Internationale, because of the zero-sum nature of nationalism, a juxtaposition of nationalist governments would only exacerbate the frictions between countries. To see why, one can look at the examples of Italy and Austria. The outreach that Vienna does to German speakers in Südtirol does not go unnoticed by Italian nationalists. And, while the Austrian government seeks to consolidate the country’s public finances, it is certainly not doing so to help out its supposed Lega allies.
Central European countries thus have to look beyond their immediate neighborhood. Especially for the more reform- and Western-minded among them, there is no point in seeking consensus with those who seek to benefit from disrupting European and Western unity. Slovakia’s president-elect, Zuzana Čaputová, for example, should not feel herself obliged to suffer too frequently through the tedium of pointless get-togethers with her Czech, Hungarian, and Polish counterparts—at least not until there is a real prospect for a meeting of the minds on substantive matters.
The Three Seas Initiative can be an example of such an effort to look beyond Visegrád. Whereas tighter cooperation on energy and infrastructure connectivity, or on digitalization projects is desirable among Central and Eastern European countries, those are not first-order issues. But what are such first-order issues? Geopolitical unity in the face of Russia and China is one—but that is hard to achieve among the Visegrád countries, much less in more expansive formats. Moreover, for post-communist countries on the EU’s and NATO’s Eastern flank, the game should not be primarily about developing ties between themselves but rather about connecting themselves inextricably to the West, in preparation for geopolitical turbulences that are coming.
For Slovakia, similarly to the Baltic members of the Eurozone, the future design of the monetary union, with its fiscal and political ramifications, is of utmost importance. There, a deepening ties with the likes of Estonia, Finland, and the Netherlands seems in order. Small Central European countries have also a stake in strengthening the single market—and in preventing France and more recently Germany from introducing damaging industrial policies that would jeopardize competition. After the UK’s departure, forging alliances with other pro-market voices in the Union, especially in its north, will be critically important. It is hard, however, to see the current Hungarian and Polish governments doing that effectively given their own in interest in cronyist “industrial policies.”
One specter haunting Brussels is the supposed divide opening between the EU’s East and West. Many in the Trump Administration and in the American conservative movement more broadly actively encourage that divide and see it as desirable. Yet, Europe’s real disagreements tend to be far more complex.
The formal and informal alliances between European countries ought to reflect the new alignments of interests and values, which often defy the casual distinction between “old” and “new” Europe. If instead Central and Eastern European leaders insist on preserving an ossified Visegrád bloc, much like an earlier generation tried with the “Little Entente,” they risk being caught off guard and without reliable allies when the next crisis hits.