Germany and the Visegrad Group: An open question?

Germany and individual Visegrad countries are predisposed to co-operation by their geographic proximity, as well as their cultural, economic and technological compatibility. In addition, relations with smaller neighbours have traditionally represented an important source of legitimacy for post-war German policy. So far, however, a lack of internal coherence makes Visegrad as a group unattractive to German policy, while bilateral relations may become strained given the disappointing developments in Hungary, the anxiously-awaited Polish elections in 2015, and astonishing political infighting among the Czechs.

Photo: CreativeCommons/Thomas Dämmrich

All political and economic circles in the V4 countries understand the importance of economic co-operation with Germany; however, the political dimension (one of Germany’s top priorities) of European integration has remained unacceptable to eurosceptic and nationalist circles. The extent of pragmatic co-operation between Germany and Visegrad thus often conceals differences in the way that some Visegrád governments perceive key issues in EU development (mainly institutional deepening) and even distance themselves from German approaches. Berlin has increasingly been looking for partners in the stabilisation and modernisation of the former Eastern Europe. Managing the agenda of the EU-28 and the crisis of the eurozone also makes Germany more dependent on external support. While France remains indispensable, it has been neutralised by internal weakness and Visegrad countries, primarily Poland, are seen as potentially important actors in German European policy – provided there is enough common ground in key areas.

The current critical situation in and around Europe represents a stimulus as well as a challenge for deepening the ties between Germany and Visegrad countries. However, the question of whether these multiple bilateral relationships also need the multilateral framework of the Visegrad Group has been less certain; why, how and for what purpose such co-operation should be undertaken has not yet become clear. Occasional attempts to involve Germany in the Visegrad co-operation agenda (the Eastern Partnership being one such area) indicate that the political class in the V4 countries generally understands that working with Germany in a “V4+Germany” multilateral framework may represent an added value. Nonetheless, the opportunities and incentives mentioned above have not been strong enough, and a decisive push in this direction has not yet come. Even the better politically-rooted Weimar co-operation (one purpose of which, for all participants, is the prevention of an exclusive German-Polish relationship) has not resulted in a sustainably functioning multilateral institution (the Weimar battle group being an exception).

Homogeneous but not close

Shared membership in NATO and the EU turned Germany and the V4 countries into allies. Germany was an important advocate for the admission of the V4 countries into both institutions. The de facto “westernisation” of the Visegrad countries secured a normative and institutional homogeneity across the previously dangerously divided European centre. The NATO/EU framework of relations with Germany smoothed their asymmetry and represented the ultimate “confidence-building” measure. The most important post-Cold War dividend has been the compatibility of interests and values in central Europe – an unprecedented transformation of the region where two world wars started.

However, this newly established homogeneity did not result in any special closeness or intensive institutionalised relations between Germany and the Visegrad Group.

Germany has become undoubtedly the most important economic partner of all the Visegrad countries, accounting for 25% of Polish, 30% of Czech, 20% of Slovak and 25% of Hungarian foreign trade. [1. Gawrich, Andrea – Stepanow, Maxim: German Foreign Policy toward the Visegrad countries. DGAP Analyse, Berlin, 2014, p. 9.] Likewise, the Visegrad countries play a substantial role in the German economy. Poland’s share of German trade (3.9%) is higher than that of Russia (3.8%), with the Czech Republic closely following (3.2%); the shares of Hungary (1.9%) and Slovakia (1.2%) are also relevant and growing.[2. Gehöe-Dechant, Silke: Der Deutsche Außenhandel im Jahre 2013. Statistisches Bundesamt, Wiesbaden, 2014. P.240.] Germany was also the most helpful and engaging partner among the EU member states during the Czech, Hungarian and Polish EU Presidencies. Regarding the most important foreign policy priority of the Visegrad countries, the Eastern Partnership, Chancellor Merkel was the only representative of a big EU member state to participate in both EP Summits (in Prague in 2009, and in Warsaw in 2011).

Another important area of co-operation is the concept of European battle groups, proposed by France, Germany and the United Kingdom in 2004 mainly in order to boost the ability of the EU to conduct peacekeeping (or even peace-enforcement) and policing operations under the mandate of the UN, the OSCE or the EU. As such, they are a part of the European military defence posture, currently under pressure from Russian aggression in the Ukraine crisis. The EU battle groups have thus created a new platform for co-operation in the area of defence; individual Visegrad countries have either contributed to German-led European battle groups or used the European HQ in Geltow by Potsdam for their own European battle group arrangements. A permanent Weimar Battle Group was put into operation in 2013, and a Visegrad battle group is expected to follow in 2016.

Both the Visegrad countries and Germany have been deeply interested in intensive pragmatic co-operation. However, the dominant modus operandi has been bilateral co-operation in a number of policy sectors (with foreign policy remaining rather underdeveloped); relations between Germany and the Visegrad Group as a whole have remained quite secondary. The German Aussenamt has never favoured permanent group building in the EU due to worries that it might distort the level playing field needed for flexibly building issue-related coalitions. Moreover, the V4 countries differ in their positions within the EU (Slovakia being the only eurozone country among the Visegrad countries) and their attitudes toward deepening the EU. With the notable exception of Poland, they belong to the group of smaller and middle-sized EU member states, and until recently tended to oppose enhancing the role of the big EU member states, Germany included. German energy transition has become another new challenge in relations with the Visegrad countries, given the latter’s preference for nuclear energy and the massive German cross-border power flows into Poland and the Czech Republic. In addition, serious questions have emerged regarding the outcome of the political transition in Central Eastern Europe. Though Germany has maintained diplomatic restraint, Hungary has become a source of deep worries. Budapest was once the best pupil of the “Central European class”, even becoming the only country of the former Eastern Europe to gain the German public’s support in regards to its EU accession. The Orbán governments, however, have followed an ambivalent policy regarding the EU and domestic democratic standards while opening themselves to Russian influence (at a time when Slovakia and the Czech Republic are behaving rather ambiguously toward Russia, too). This is happening just as Russia is losing Germany as its closest partner in the EU. Deutsche Telekom, the largest telecoms provider in Hungary, even openly opposed Orbán’s plan to introduce a tax on Internet use.

But it is not only Hungary that is perceived with considerable worry; there are populist tendencies in the politics of all the Visegrad countries. Berlin is looking with apprehension to the Polish parliamentary elections of 2015 and the prospect of Polish policy being once again shaped by Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

New constellation, new potential for co-operation

Two crises, however, have changed the constellation of Europe to such an extent that the prospect of more intensive co-operation between Germany and her closest eastern partners now looks more probable than before.

The eurozone crisis pushed Germany into a leading position in the EU. Its rescue effort, however, deepened the north-south divide for the foreseeable future, and Germany now seeks backing from the Northern Group countries, to which the Visegrad countries largely belong. The latter have been deeply interested in the stabilization of the eurozone and the prevention of a rift between the eurozone and its intended future members; Germany has been the most important actor in both of these agendas.

Perhaps most importantly, the war in and for Ukraine has increased the need for concerted action in search of a political solution, as well as for enhanced defence co-operation. The German-French-Polish Weimar Triangle initially engaged in attempted crisis resolution in February 2014, but has since failed to progress much further. On the Visegrad Group side, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande participated in the 2013 Visegrad summit in Warsaw in order to discuss co-operation in the field of defence. Indeed, defence has become the site of intensive Visegrad negotiations focusing on capability development, procurement and the defence industry, including i.a. the establishment of the V4 Planning Group in March 2014. Also, the German framework nation concept initiative has potentially opened new horizons for linking the Visegrád countries’ defence efforts with Germany in a defence integration effort. The smaller Visegrád countries have been faced with the threat of becoming militarily irrelevant. Integration of their limited but still existing capabilities with the German armed forces may offer a solution compatible with both NATO and EU defence efforts.

Hurdles on the way to deepening Germany-Visegrad co-operation

There are hurdles on the way to more intensive German-Visegrad co-operation. Germany could indeed provide both an impulse for and a disciplining effect in defence co-operation. However, Berlin has yet to decide whether it possesses the political will and capacity to assume this new kind of leading role. So far, Europe’s most central power, deeply integrated into the multilateral structures of NATO and the EU, has remained primarily civilian, maintaining its culture of reticence in military affairs. In addition, any further co-operation in the area of defence has to offer niches for the security and defence industries of its partner countries. This will not be an easy task, given that the German defence industry does not need to co-operate with producers in the Visegrad countries.

Most importantly, there is a crucial asymmetry between Germany and the V4 countries concerning the process of and institutional capacity for foreign policy-making. German foreign policy-making exhibits pluralism in its institutions and distribution of competences, with co-ordination being its weakness. However, there exists a solid political consensus in German politics concerning the main strands of German foreign policy (obviously differences exist on such issues as the membership of Turkey in the EU, etc.). In general, German political will and institutional capacity represent huge potential. The Visegrad countries also have certain problems with institutional pluralism; for example, Czech presidents notoriously tend to pursue their own foreign policy line, bypassing the government. The core of the problem is, however, not institutional but political pluralism: in the Visegrad countries, there are diverging foreign policy concepts represented by competing political parties and factions within those parties. As a result, the countries either have no clear and sustainable foreign policy line, or their policy lines tend to change with every change of government. As a result, the Visegrad countries have been unable to produce a coherent policy attitude toward the Ukraine war and sanctions against Russia. German observers view Poland as too hawkish, Hungary as following the Russian script, Slovakia as too pragmatic and the Czech Republic as bizarrely incoherent.

This is one more reason for Germany not to tie her future policy to the Visegrad Group, but rather to focus her possible co-ordination and integration efforts on individual Visegrad countries while treating the group as a general (and largely symbolic) political framework. The Visegrad Group must reach a new stage of internal coherence and co-operation in order to convince Germany that working with the group as a united institution represents an added value. Whether the Visegrad countries are ready and able to make that effort remains the crucial question. The answer depends on the level of political will in the individual countries to seek an added value in multilateral co-operation within the Visegrad framework. This crucial question remains open and, as yet, answered.

Vladimír Handl

Vladimír Handl

is a researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. His main areas of focus include political and historical aspects of Czech-German relations, German foreign and security policy and their relations with the Visegrad states and particularly Czech Republic.