Brexit could amplify the V4’s voice within the EU

With the UK opting out of the EU, the V4 anti-federalists are losing an important ally. As new debates on redefining the post-Brexit EU are underway, V4 countries could play a crucial role. However, that depends, once again, on Germany.

Photo V4 Summit Author P. Tracz - KPRM

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The Brexit vote has tipped the balance of power within the European Union. V4 governments with their cautious approach to EU integration have lost an important ally in the UK, whose government also questioned the viability of a European federalist state, preferring to keep key decisions at the national level.

While V4 countries have not chosen to opt out of EU policies, as the UK did with euro currency conversion or the Schengen passport free zone, their governments, for the most part, share a common view that the EU should keep out of member states’ internal affairs, only facilitating common solutions when needed.

Central Europe appreciated the UK’s 2004 move to fully open its labor market to the new member states, resulting in an estimated 1.2 million Central Europeans now residing in the UK. 1

The common views on EU politics was visible during the rather amicable meetings between regional leaders and former British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this year, 2 although he attempted to lessen ties with the EU, and blamed some of Britain’s woes on EU workers coming from Central Europe.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stated his support for the “Remain camp” by placing a whole-page advertisement in the British newspaper, Daily Mail, just ahead of the UK referendum. 3

At an EU summit press conference in June following a briefing PM Cameron gave his colleagues regarding the referendum’s outcome, Orbán summed up the mood, saying: “We belong to the same current of thinking about European politics. […] To divorce someone who agrees with you, makes for a sad moment.”

Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski agreed, saying the UK shared the V4 countries’ “common perception of European problems.” 4

He also warned that Brexit might trigger a “domino effect” with more member states leaving, which he said highlighted the need for reform.

For Poland, the loss of Britain is especially painful, not only because the fate of hundreds of thousands of Polish workers in the UK depend on whether Britain decides to secure their post-Brexit rights, but also strategically, because Poland and the UK share the view that sanctions against Russia should be upheld.

Moreover in European Parliament, the current Polish government, Law and Justice (PiS) will lose the support of the UK Conservatives, members of the same political group and important allies to PiS, which has faced heavy criticism for its increasingly autocratic governing style.

It remains uncertain if calls for further EU integration or arguments for a more intergovernmental model of governing in Europe will prevail following Brexit.

In a show of unity, the 27 EU leaders met in Bratislava last weekend to define the way ahead without Britain, but the cracks between member states – and between member states and EU institutions – are already visible. 5 (During the summit, the four central European countries announced that they were prepared to veto any Brexit deal agreed between the UK and the European Union that restricts their citizens’ rights to live and work in Britain). 6

The outcome is not a given. Under Poland’s presidency, 7

V4 countries are planning to put forward a united plan on the EU’s post-Brexit reformation in autumn.

From their public statements thus far, it seems their priorities include increased national control over EU decision-making, the prevention of smaller EU “clubs” jumping ahead in further integration, security reinforcement and the realization of the single market’s full potential.

Despite losing an ally within the bloc, the V4 countries’ predominantly anti-federalist platform could strengthen the region’s status within the EU. However, they would need to step into the limelight and make the case for less integration themselves, instead relying on London to do so.

Clash of philosophies

Brussels’ instinctive reaction to recent EU crises, especially the eurozone crisis, was to push for further federalization, as eurozone members are bound together by one currency.

Leaders of EU institutions, notably President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, along with European Parliament’s Liberal group leader, Guy Verhofstadt, have already suggested that deeper integration is necessary for realizing the EU’s full capabilities, because it would unbridle EU institutions from member states’ interests, better equipping them to serve EU citizens.

“There are forces in Europe that generally want to give national policy, priority over a common European approach. We have to prevent this,” Schulz recently told German magazine, Der Spiegel. 8

France and Italy, both led by left-wing governments, have vocalized the need to advance further with integration, now that the British are no longer “stalling” it.

The foreign ministers of the EU founding member states met two days after the Brexit vote to pledge their commitment to an integrated Europe.

“We will continue our efforts to work towards a stronger and more cohesive European Union of 27, based on common values and the rule of law,” the ministers said in their statement. While they recognize that some member states disagree and might want to move at different speeds, the ministers said: “We have to find better ways of dealing with different levels of ambition [among member states] to ensure that Europe better delivers on all European citizens’ expectations.”

It also acknowledged that a “simple call for more Europe” is not an adequate answer. But the foreign ministers did not offer an alternative: “We must better deliver on those issues that we have chosen to tackle at the European level.” 9

At the meeting, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his French counterpart, Jean-Marc Ayrault, called for a European political union constructed around the euro.

Britain has been a bulwark against reinforced eurozone governance, to the detriment of the single market and member states outside of the euro area; while Slovakia has joined the club, and the Czech government agreed to a 2020 target for the euro adoption process, Hungary and Poland are not keen on introducing a common currency anytime soon. 10

The V4 alternative

But some see the Brexit vote as a wake up call that EU integration can and should be turned back. V4 governments seem to seek the least political interference from “Brussels” as possible.

The Visegrad prime ministers met in Warsaw at the end of July, and their statements spelled out the direction they think Europe should take after Britain leaves the bloc. 11

They stated that Britain’s vote to leave the EU signaled the need for reforms, and they pushed for measures that would grant national parliaments a larger say in EU decisions.

“The European Commission doesn’t fully understand what happened in the British referendum,” Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło told reporters after the meeting.

“We believe it’s up to national parliaments to have the final word on the European Commission’s decisions,” Szydło continued. “The EU needs to return to its roots. We need to care more about the concerns of citizens and less about those of the institutions.” 12

After June’s EU summit, Hungary’s premier, Viktor Orbán, echoed those sentiments, saying that democratic legitimacy for the EU can only come from the member states: “We have to return to the notion that the basis of the EU is not its institutions, but its members. The democratic feature of the EU can only be reinforced through the member states, and the relationship between the institutions and member states must be improved,” he told reporters.

For Orbán, “improvement” also means rolling back the powers EU institutions wield. In a recent speech in Romania, Orbán said that both European Parliament’s further empowerment, and the creation of a “political” EU Commission were mistakes, while federalists hail those measures as important achievements in EU integration. 13

“When Brussels accumulated more power, it didn’t work,” Orbán said after the summit.

The weight of the V4

That V4 countries are now being taken more seriously than before, is partly due to their opposition to EU migration policies, an instance where common policies failed to deliver results. This was partly because member states were reluctant as they are mainly responsible implementation, and where strong member states’ old methods of pushing through policies created a backlash.

There has been a realization in the corridors of the Berlaymont, the EU Commission’s headquarters, that V4 countries need to be listened to and should not be ignored.

In a symbolic reaching out to the “east,” French President Francois Hollande was due to visit Central Europe, but because of the Nice terror attack, cancelled his trip. 14

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her end-of-August tour to lay the groundwork for the September meeting in Bratislava, met with V4 leaders in Warsaw. 15

But sources warn, that at the top, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker still surrounds himself with aides from a small circle, and is less open to Central Europe’s political sensitivities.

“It is also linked to who Juncker is surrounded by, who he talks to and what messages he gets. As a president of this institution you have an obligation to surround yourself with people from different parts of the union, or you have to create an openness in the college so you can pick up vibes,” a senior EU official recently told a group of journalists, asking not to be named because they were unauthorized to speak on the matter.

Highlighting that insensitivity, sources point to the EU Commission’s so-called posted workers proposal, which would basically require Eastern European companies to pay as much to their workers sent to western Europe, as their local, Western counterpart. In principle, the proposal makes sense in a single market, and some Western European states have long objected to Eastern Europeans undercutting local wages. Eleven member state parliaments have objected to the EU Commission’s proposal, the bulk of them from the east, but in July the EU Commission decided to move ahead with the proposal anyway.

However, in Bratislava the 27 member states were to decide on the EU’s reorientation, and the Commission was just one of the participants.

In fact, Brexit might give the V4 a chance to assert itself and its positions within the EU. That possibility is anchored by Slovakia, which now holds the EU’s rotating presidency, and therefore partly sets the agenda.

The EU Council, which could emerge as a winner in the turf war between EU institutions, is also run by a Central European, former Polish PM Donald Tusk. He may be able to synthesize the different visions of the EU’s future.

Merkels’s conundrum

The key once again will be Germany, Europe’s reluctant leader.

Chancellor Angela Merkel finds herself in a conundrum. She faces elections next year and needs to please her left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPD) coalition partners, who champion further integration.

But she might be more sympathetic to the V4 position, because moving towards a more integrated Europe might increase German taxpayers’ economic liability for Italy’s ballooning debt and a struggling French economy.

Her finance minister and a committed European politician in the German cabinet, Wolfgang Schäuble has already spoken in favor of more intergovernmentalism. 16

An EU official, who asked not to be named, said Schäuble was crossing a “red line,” saying his calls for less integration, were “dangerous” for European integration.

But the V4 is no monolithic bloc, either.

Milan Nic, research director at the Bratislava-based GLOBSEC Policy Institute, warns that it is too early to say what the common position will be on the EU’s post-Brexit future.

“Poland has ambition to put forward such a plan, and Hungary supports that, but the Czechs and the Slovaks are barely in the room,” he tells the V4Revue, reminding that the Slovaks, now at the helm of the rotating presidency, are now responsible for the EU’s common position.

Nic also warns that anything put forward by the V4’s Polish presidency needs to be considered within the context of the current spat between Warsaw and the EU Commission.

In July, the Commission adopted recommendations for Poland, directing the country to amend legislation that reinforced the rule of law, and urging the Polish government to stop dismantling the political checks and balance on the government’s power. Poland now has three months to act.

“I would not say that the V4 countries are isolated in the EU, but they are now framed, and the Polish presidency is prolonging this framing,” Nic explains, then adds that the V4 needs to get out of the “ghetto”.

“The Slovaks and Czechs are increasingly looking for their own path, but at the same time still preaching unity within the V4 context,” Nic says.

EU diplomats detect those divisions within the V4 as well.

There is a sense in Brussels institutions that a strengthened V4 could also mean more nationalism, populism and even xenophobia in Europe.

“If you let the Poles gang up with Orbán and lead the contributions at the Bratislava summit, then we are doomed,” warns a senior EU official, who does not want to be named, referring to the current Warsaw government, which has come under heavy criticism from the EU Commission and the EP. 17

The official however does argue that Central Europe needs to be taken more seriously by EU institutions and by Western member states than they were before, while also working more closely with Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Czech counterpart, PM Bohuslav Sobotka, who are the “more reasonable” within the V4.

“They [Fico and Sobotka] need our gestures. It is that moment,” the EU official argues. “Thinking you can go to Bratislava, having made your call to Berlin, is not enough.”

Notes:

  1. Reality Check: How many EU nationals live in the UK?, BBC News, July 8, 2016, http://bbc.in/2cfGwSy (accessed on August 16, 2016).
  2. Hungarian PM tells David Cameron ‘we are not parasites’, BBC News, January 7, 2016, http://bbc.in/1SB6eSN (accessed on August 16, 2016).
  3. Peter Foster, Richard Orange, Matthew Day, Nick Squires, Please don’t leave us this way – Europe urges Britain not to plump for #Brexit, The Telegraph, June 20, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cb7IU3 (accessed on August 16, 2016).
  4. Kate Connolly, “The eastern countries standing up to Brussels in the wake of Brexit,” The Guardian, July 23, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cqlZOR (accessed on August 4, 2016).
  5. EU 27 agree ‘roadmap’, but Italy spoils party, EUObserver, September 16, 2016 http://bit.ly/2cLRsHK (accessed September 18, 2016).
  6. EU states set to veto any Brexit deal threatening free movement, The Guardian, September 17, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cTaJvR (accessed September 18, 2016)
  7. Poland has held the presidency of the Visegrad Group since the beginning of July.
  8. Klaus Brinkbäumer, Horand Knaup, Michael Sauga, “Interview with Juncker and Schulz: ‘Deadly for Europe’,” Der Spiegel, July 8, 2016, http://bit.ly/29IauQq (accessed on August 4, 2016).
  9.  Common Statement by the Foreign Ministers of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg and the Netherlands, June 25, 2016, http://bit.ly/2ciS3nu (accessed on August 4, 2016).
  10. Czech government sets target of agreeing euro adoption process by 2020, 28 April, 2015, http://bit.ly/2cHYVJ7 (accessed on September 8, 2016).
  11. Visegrad Group will present EU reform proposal at the EU summit, July 22, 2016, http://bit.ly/2coTW3M (accessed on August 17, 2016).
  12. Visegrad Group will present EU reform proposal at the EU summit, July 22, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cJGTZL (accessed on August 4, 2016).
  13. (tbg), Orbán bejelentette Brüsszel bukását, 444.hu, July 23, 2016, http://bit.ly/2bXnpMA (accessed August 4, 2016).
  14. Angelique Chrisafis, François Hollande to push for renewal of EU project on five-state trip, The Guardian, July 11, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cvuCpQ (accessed August 4, 2016).
  15. Merkel’s diplomacy marathon, eurotopics. Europe´s press comments, August 29, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cKVbKQ (accessed September 9, 2016).
  16. Restore EU trust with pragmatism, urges Germany’s Schäuble, DW.com, July 3, 2016,  http://bit.ly/2cqmkkA (accessed August 4, 2016).
  17. During the Bratislava summit, the Polish Prime Minister struck a rather positive note, differentiating herself from the Hungarian PM’s assessment. Read: Polish PM: Process of reforming EU has started, TheNews.Pl September 17, 2016 http://bit.ly/2cBpxg7 (accessed September 18, 2016), Orbán egy másik mozit nézett Pozsonyban, 444.hu, September 16, 2016 http://bit.ly/2cEem5r (accessed September 18, 2016).
Eszter Zalán

Eszter Zalán

Eszter Zalan is a reporter at the Brussels-based EUobserver.