Germany and the V4: A superficial relationship?

When the Visegrad Four celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and Angela Merkel participated in the celebrations, it was almost like a fairy tale. Not only did the V4 remind the German Chancellor of ”freedom”, but it also seemed as if the two entities – having strong economic, political and cultural ties – belong together. Berlin has always been an ardent advocate of the Visegrad countries and it is not surprising that high-ranking Germans regularly pop up in those nations. It shows that Germany does not ignore its neighbours, as shown by the recent state visit of the new president Joachim Gauck to Poland and Merkel’s rendezvous with Petr Nečas in Prague.

Foto: Creative Commons/ James Wheeler

Those state visits usually follow the same old pattern: praising bilateral relations. The German president was impressed by how good the German-Polish relationship is (his desire to visit Poland came “from the heart”). Meanwhile, Merkel remarked, in her underwhelming manner, that she had nothing to complain about, except, maybe, that nuclear power is not gut and that the Czech prime minister should, in line with the German approach of promoting budgetary discipline throughout the EU, consider tightening his country’s fiscal belt.

The Visegrad Group as a regional organisation, however, seems to be a face in the crowd of bilateral issues. It does not seem to attract much attention from German foreign policy elites. Of course, it is not only Merkel, but also her predecessors who have been attending V4 summits since the Group was founded in 1991. Yet, it seems that they mainly did this in order to take advantage of the Group’s good relations with the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood  and the Balkans. As soon as more substantial issues are at stake – such as the EU’s Fiscal Compact, one of Merkel’s current hobbyhorses – Germany approaches Visegrad Group members individually, because, observably, there seems to be no real V4 consensus on financial issues.

Approaching each V4 nation individually even seems to predominate academic debates in German-speaking countries. Although academics often use the term Visegrad Group, it usually serves as a mere category to describe the comparatively better performing Central and Eastern European countries. Or, as Kai-Olaf Lang of the renowned German Institute for International and Security Affairs puts it, “the better East”.

Hence, it does not seem too far-fetched to argue that the relationship between Germany and the Visegrad Group is a rather superficial one. The question is, however, why?

Anxious Germans

One explanation can be found when looking deep into the German mind. In this regard, more than two decades after reunification, it can be said that Germany has consolidated its international position. What used to be unthinkable is now a part of everyday reality: Germany is participating in international military missions, with Afghanistan constituting the most extensive deployment. Nevertheless, there is still no consensus on this issue within German society. For example, Green movements and the far-left wing party Die Linke act as examples of the renowned German Angst, and regularly criticise the country’s international commitments.

World War experiences still influence foreign policy, even after Germany’s 2006 FIFA World Cup ‘at home with friends’ campaign. German people do not want to come across as hegemons. While knowing that they come from a very powerful country, they like to keep a low profile. For an outsider, this might sound strange, but retentiveness and the previously mentioned Angst can  also affect German-V4 relationships, especially given that some of the Visegrad countries were targets of German aggression during World War II. Hence, due to the sensitivity of some issues it often appears more convenient for Germany to deal with Visegrad countries individually, instead of approaching the V4 as a whole.

‘We are not hegemons’

Another reason for the rather anaemic German-V4 relationship is that, after 1989, Germany never really developed a genuine Central European policy, as such a move might have caused distrust. This potential distrust was not only among Visegrad countries, with several fearing a hegemony of Germany as Adrian Hyde-Price, the University of Bath-based expert on Germany described, but also among its Western partners. France and the United Kingdom were especially fearful of a too-powerful Germany. Consequently, it is understandable that Germany was never fully interested in addressing the Visegrad countries in an ex parte and powerful manner. Approaching the whole Visegrad Group, four countries at the same time, would have contradicted this creed. In this regard, Kai-Olaf Lang rightly mentioned the so-called ‘Weimar Triangle’ – consisting of France, Germany and Poland – as an example. German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher initiated the Triangle in 1991, although Polish officials like to emphasise that it was a common idea of all three states. Genscher was reportedly keen on including France in this loose grouping in order to avoid the impression of being the previously mentioned hegemon.

Moreover, as German diplomat Josefine Wallat  says, based on her personal experience in the German Foreign Ministry, Berlin seems anxious to avoid the institutionalisation of EU subgroups and wants to allow for flexible actions and changing coalitions in the EU decision-making process. In other words, it is always better to have a few small partners on call when it comes to dealing with such topics as the EU Constitutional Treaty or the Fiscal Compact, rather than having a V4-like group that often cannot even agree on important agenda items internally.

Thus, for Germany, having bilateral relations with V4 members instead of approaching the Group as a whole seems advantageous and it is the most ‘unhegemonic’, painless and rational way to foster relationships with those countries. In any event, there is more behind this approach, as a closer look at the Visegrad Group reveals.

Discordant V4 Members

Paradoxically, the elements that constitute the V4’s raison d’être, namely geography and history, also contribute to some political anomalies. In other words, these factors act both as dividing and unifying elements. Although all V4 members share a Communist past and are Central European countries, they have different attitudes and can often disagree on substantial issues. This discord diminishes the Group’s influence.

German-Polish relations seems to have reached an all-time high after the end of the rather bothersome (from a German point of view) Jarosław Kaczyński years. In contrast this is only partly the case with regard to Czech-German relations. Although it could be said that the Czech Republic is usually regarded as Central Europe’s role model, a country that does not cause any real problems, a lack of true reconciliation between Berlin and Prague clearly plays a decisive role in how relations have developed, especially after the Czechs started to realise the Germans were not the only ones who committed atrocities in the past. Here, the discussion centers on the expulsion of Sudeten Germans from post-war Czechoslovakia. The topic was reignited in 2009 after a memorial plaque dedicated to the memory of for the German civilians massacred shortly after the end of World War II was unveiled in the Czech city of Ústí nad Labem.

This confronted Czech society with its own post-war record. As the magazine Respekt commented, this topic had been “edged out of the minds of Czech society by the trauma of its own citizens”. Although during the past two years the Sudeten question does not seem to have overshadowed Czech-German summits, the issue has certainly not disappeared – rather, it is slumbering.

Putting aside current socioeconomic developments, Hungary, on the other hand, generally maintains good relations with Germany and enjoys sympathy within German society. This is mainly due to the role the country played at the end of the Cold War, and its policy toward refugees from the former East Germany. Hence, while German issues might play more of a substantial role in Czech and Polish foreign policy, this is only partly the case with Hungary and Slovakia, where the issue of Hungarian minorities in states created by the post-World War I Trianon Treaty remains a more prominent concern. Moreover, different standpoints also exist concerning EU politics, with the Fiscal Compact marking a prominent example. While Slovakia, the V4’s only Eurozone member, supported the Compact, a majority within the Czech governing coalition, influenced by a president that often likes to show that there is still someone living in Prague Castle, refused to participate.

In the end, it becomes clear that the Visegrad Group itself can often not agree on how to deal with certain issues, some of them rather substantial.  The Group lacks a clear political profile, specifically in terms of relations with its big neighbour. Hence, even if Germany were keen on approaching the V4 as a whole, it would seem like a complicated task, particularly in light of the political anomalies and historical sensitivities within the Group.

Irksome Controversies

A final explanation for the superficiality of V4-German relations can be found in contemporary areas of conflict, which are often influenced by historical legacies, mostly related to the negative experiences that most of the Visegrad nations had with Germany in both World Wars.

This becomes, for example, clear when looking at the two entities’ relations with the United States. While Visegrad nations could usually be described as ‘pro-Atlanticists’, maintaining close relationships with Washington, this is only partly the case with Germany, which follows a more balanced diplomatic approach – as its controversial abstention from the UN Security Council vote on intervention in Libya recently showed. In the V4, different attitudes prevail. Every post-1989 Polish government, for instance, has strongly supported a continued American military and economic presence in Europe. In the Czech Republic, former president Václav Havel fostered a strong relationship with the United States, as his good relationship with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright showed.

Although he later partly regretted it, Havel spoke in favour of the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. Conversely, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer famously remarked that he was “not convinced”. Hence, different moral viewpoints, specifically with regard to transatlantic policies, can cause irritation between Germany and one or more of the V4 states. These are never  issues for the Visegrad Group as a whole, but rather concern individual members.

This becomes even clearer when looking at the land of Vladimir Putin. Although often dependent on who actually is in power, Visegrad Group members seem to regularly regard the intense German-Russian relationship with suspicion. This is especially true when remembering Poland’s Kaczyński era and his seemingly populist stance on this issue.

One prominent example is the Nord Stream pipeline, which only recently started to deliver fresh Russian gas directly to the German lands, cleverly bypassing Central Europe. Robert Cooper, a realist known for direct, rather undiplomatic expressions, commented that the “V4 group certainly recalls the last [German-Russian] understanding – in 1939 – and it remembers the unpleasant consequences”. Therefore, Russia is undoubtedly another factor that affects the German-V4 relationship.

Yet, does Visegrad have a common strategy towards Moscow? No. Each member seems to attach a different importance to this issue, with Poland typically being the most cautious, fearing both Germany and Russia becoming too influential, while Slovakia and Hungary remain comparatively calm, given that they usually have to tackle more imminent internal issues.

Superficial Relations

It is not only anxious Germans or irksome controversies that must be blamed in order to explain the superficial V4-German relationship: the Group itself is also a factor.

To this day, the Visegrad Group is more of a casual family of nations than a coherent political structure. The Group presents itself in a rather ceremonial manner without having real political power, which is clearly one of the main reasons why German foreign policy never actively approached the V4.

Perhaps Germany would start thinking about taking the Group more seriously if the latter would act as a more coherent unit. Until that happens, and until Germany figures out what it wants from the Group and its Central European neighbours in general, the relationship between Germany and the Visegrad Group will likely remain superficial.

Morten Schmelzer

Morten Schmelzer

holds two degrees in European Studies and is a postgraduate student at the department of Politics, Languages & International Studies at the University of Bath. He currently supports the team of EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague.