30th anniversary of the Visegrad Group from the British perspective
“Back on track” – restoring a normal lifestyle, rapid economic growth and dynamic development – is the main slogan of the Polish presidency of the Visegrad Group (V4), which began in July 2020. The V4 has, since 1991, been bringing together initially three, and after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, four countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. From the British perspective, “back on track” means returning to the path of systematic and rapid increase in the presence and role of individual countries, as well as the entire V4, in almost all aspects of life.
Over the last few years, the countries of the Visegrad Group have intensively made up for the delays caused by the Second World War and the subsequent presence behind the Iron Curtain, therefore today’s cooperation with the United Kingdom is reaching a scale and intensity that has never been seen before. From political and economic cooperation, through cooperation in the field of military and security, to a very important culture. It is thanks to this and the record number of migrants from the V4 countries as well as the unprecedented number of British citizens visiting our countries that individual V4 countries are increasingly present in the consciousness of individual social groups in the United Kingdom.
From the perspective of the 30th anniversary of the Visegrad Group, which is an example of an effective regional alliance and an increasingly recognisable brand in international relations, it is worth emphasising the goals that underpin our cooperation. The “Visegrad Declaration” signed on 15 February 1991 highlighted the efforts of the signatory states to restore full state independence and freedom after decades of communist occupation, with the goal of building parliamentary democracy, modern legal states and a free market economy. From the very beginning, Central European cooperation was also bound by inclusion “fully into the European political and economic system, as well as the security and legislative system”. The established cooperation was to give a sense of community of neighbours in the new reality, to build good neighbourly social and economic relations, but above all to support the process of integration with the EU and NATO, while preserving the region’s identity. Coordination of efforts to achieve such common goals is to be accompanied by the awareness of one’s own sensitivity and otherness.
.Cooperation among Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary was initiated in a very symbolic place – in Visegrad, which in 1335 and 1338 was the place of the Visegrad congresses, which were meetings of the kings of Hungary, Bohemia and Poland. The choice of Visegrad and the reference to the 14th-century meetings of kings was to remind us of the extremely long and rich state traditions of the nations constituting the V4. It is no exaggeration to say that Central Europe is one of the most important sources of European parliamentary, libertarian, democratic and civic traditions. At the same time, for the countries of the Visegrad Group, which experienced long years of foreign domination, repression and occupation, it was very important to be aware of the need to defend their independence and identity. Communism atomised individual societies. Travelling between individual countries was extremely difficult, and access to knowledge, culture and literature almost completely limited until 1989. That is why such an important role was played by national culture, religion and language, the preservation of which allowed for the creation of unique, deep and beautiful literature, as well as those who, despite all difficulties, realised cooperation in Central Europe. The mass Solidarity movement radiated and increased the scale of resistance to communism, enabling contacts between oppressed societies, while the Sudeten and Carpathian mountains in the south of Poland were already in the 1970s and then in the 1980s a meeting place for the opposition – a kind of passes connecting our nations. In fact, it was only after 1989 that we were able to rediscover each other in all the richness and diversity of Central Europe, bind old, damaged, broken links of cooperation, restore historical – sometimes even medieval – trade routes, promote tourist trips and open the field for mutual fascination.
Over these 30 years, the V4 countries have managed not only to leave the Soviet sphere of influence and become full members of NATO and the European Union, but also to build dynamically developing economies and societies that want to be recognised, and the Visegrad Group itself has become a well-functioning mechanism of consultation, coordination and opinion-forming. Its main practical and pragmatic task is to influence the shape of the European policy and agenda and to strive for it to reflect in a balanced way the needs and conditions of various Member States, including Central and Eastern Europe. The overcoming of the historical stigma of being the continent’s periphery is still the main factor that binds the Visegrad cooperation.
In addition to the political dimension in the form of regular government and parliamentary meetings, the Visegrad Group is a well-functioning mechanism for consultation and agreeing common positions, mainly in relation to the European Union agenda. Before each meeting of the European Council or sector councils, informal meetings of prime ministers and V4 ministers are held and common priorities are identified. In the case of draft European legal acts or programme documents, where we agree, we develop joint written comments and positions. We also have extensive working contacts at the official level. A good example of the involvement of the Visegrad Group is bringing the problem of energy security to the European forum. Similarly, we strive for an equitable shaping of the cohesion policy or infrastructure development that will overcome historical neglect. The unquestionable merit of the V4 is that it has kept the issue of further EU and NATO enlargement on the agenda. Regional energy and transport projects as well as military and technical cooperation of the Visegrad Group countries are also continued.
The International Visegrad Fund has been operating dynamically since 2000, its task being to promote and encourage closer cooperation between the states and societies of the Visegrad Group by co-financing joint Visegrad cultural, scientific and educational projects, youth exchange, cross-border cooperation and in the field of tourism promotion. During the two decades of its existence, the Fund has gained a high reputation, both among Visegrad partners and countries outside the European Economic Area[MB1] , becoming one of the symbols of effective cooperation within the V4. The Fund’s operations are financed by annual contributions from member states. These funds are used to implement the main activities of the Fund: grant and scholarship programmes as well as artistic and literary residencies. It is worth emphasising that many Visegrad projects are aimed at the societies of the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership. The latest example of our Visegrad cooperation is the establishment of the V4 Centre for COVID-19 Information Exchange, under which member states share data on the management of the healthcare system, border traffic issues, air transport as well as internal regulations and restrictions implemented by national regulations.
Regional cooperation of the Visegrad Group has become an important model and inspiration for establishing cooperation in other formats, for example, the Bucharest Nine, which consists of the countries of the eastern flank of NATO, or the Three Seas Initiative, which brings together 12 European Union countries, whose cooperation primarily concerns infrastructure and energy issues.
From London’s perspective, the Visegrad Group is an important political, economic and regional partner, but also a fascinating area in terms of history, culture and tourism. The region’s macroeconomic data is impressive: the V4 internal market includes 64 million consumers. According to Eurostat, at the end of 2019, the Visegrad Group countries accounted for a total of 7.1% of the total GDP and 14.3% of the population of the EU 27. In terms of combined GDP, the V4 (treated as one economy) ranks 4th in the EU and 5th in Europe, behind only Germany, the UK, France and Italy, and 15th in the world. The economies of the countries in the region are developing more dynamically than in other EU countries, which is a result of the economic reforms introduced in these countries and a large inflow of foreign direct investment building the industrial and export potential of the V4 economies. The development of innovation, new technologies, artificial intelligence and electromobility are also increasingly important. The favourable location in the centre of Europe, taking advantage of the geopolitical perspective, makes the V4 an attractive place to locate direct investments. The United Kingdom also plays a significant role in the exports of the V4 member states – the share of UK in global turnover is, respectively, in the case of Poland, 6.1% of the total Polish exports of goods, in the case of Slovakia, it is 5%, the Czech Republic, it is 4.5%, and Hungary, 3.4%. The Visegrad Group as a whole is Germany’s most important trading partner, and the UK’s 10th partner – right behind Italy.
In the political dimension, the V4 is a strong regional player and a partner for discussing selected aspects of international and economic policy. For several years, on the initiative of London, regular V4+ meetings have been held at both governmental and working level. In this context, the impressive size of the diaspora from the Visegrad Group countries in the UK is also significant: approx. 900,000 Poles, 80,000 Hungarians, 80,000 Slovaks and 50,000 Czechs. It is true that there is a noticeable decline in the number of citizens from Central Europe living in the UK (around 150,000 Poles have returned to Poland since 2017), but Poles, Hungarians, Slovaks and Czechs will forever remain a significant part of British society.
.Despite the pandemic and the UK leaving the European Union, the Visegrad countries strive to further tighten cooperation with their British partner even more than ever before. Thanks to many converging political, economic and security interests, as well as increasing knowledge about Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, and more broadly the whole of Central Europe, one can count on maintaining close relations also in the future and a growing mutual inspiration.