quinta-feira, 6 de outubro de 2016

Splits over EU test relations between Visegrad Four

Splits over EU test relations between Visegrad Four
Issue of reforming Brussels is dividing regional alliances ahead of talks on Brexit

7 HOURS AGO by: Henry Foy in Warsaw and Andrew Byrne in Budapest

Even though they were relative latecomers to the EU, the bloc’s central European members managed to maximised their clout by working and voting together in Brussels.

Now the ties that bind Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — the so-called Visegrad Four — are beginning to fray, undermining their influence in the EU.

Divergent responses to the question of how the EU moves on after Brexit are splitting the quartet, named after the Hungarian town where the four countries agreed to form an alliance in 1991. Poland and Hungary are increasingly animated by Eurosceptic and illiberal rhetoric that diplomats say is distancing them from Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

“Visegrad may seem coherent from the outside, but when it comes to real foreign policy strategies, [the] Czech Republic and Slovakia are looking elsewhere,” said Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital, a Budapest think-tank. “They still feel that aligning with the EU mainstream is far more valuable than for the V4 to stand together and alone.”

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and Hungary’s government have emerged as Brussels’ most vocal critics following the Brexit referendum, jointly calling for radical changes to the EU’s governing treaties.

Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, on Sunday held a national referendum to reject EU migration policies, then blasted Brussels’ ruling elite as “loud, anti-democratic and violent”. Meanwhile, the Law and Justice party is being investigated by the EU for breaching rules safeguarding democracy.

Their drive to reduce the power of EU institutions to create a looser “union of national capitals” has startled officials in Prague and Bratislava, who have responded by distancing themselves from their partners and emphasising their close relationship with Brussels and Berlin.

As Mr Orban took his latest swipe at Brussels, Slovakia was this week hosting a visit from German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in an effort to reaffirm its relationship with Berlin.

Rather than viewing Brexit as a threat, the EU should treat it as an opportunity
“Two plus two has become the new normal,” one senior diplomat from the region told the Financial Times. “[Since the summer] the atmosphere has changed and the chemistry in the group has got much worse.”

Such divergence, diplomats warn, will weaken the hand of a group that has steadily gained sway in the EU since its members joined the bloc in 2004. Its most obvious achievement was the election of Polish prime minister Donald Tusk as EU council president in 2014.

But Visegrad influence has also secured huge EU subsidies to upgrade eastern Europe’s roads, railways and cities; to pay for infrastructure to connect their energy networks; and diluted climate change rules that would have hurt their coal mines and related power stations. The group was also the key stumbling block that thwarted David Cameron’s attempts to secure migration curbs as part of his EU renegotiation efforts.

Slovakia is inside the eurozone, making it more integrated in the bloc. As the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, it has tried to adopt the role of a consensual broker and tone down its nationalist stance. The Czech Republic has traditionally seen itself as the most “western” of the group, and values its relationship with Germany — the EU’s most important power broker — more than any of its allies. While the Czech and Slovak governments support some form of EU reform, they are uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric coming out of Warsaw and Budapest.

Despite their resistance, Polish and Hungarian officials have repeatedly insisted that the four countries jointly support changes to the EU’s governing treaties. That has made the regular meetings between the leaders of the four countries ahead of all EU summits increasingly prickly, officials that have attended the meetings say.

Poland and Hungary should beware of undermining EU values
“There are some countries that want to go deeper in reforms,” Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico said this month, in a reference to Poland and Hungary. “I do not think that everything is OK, but at the same time I do not think we should go near the treaties.”

Two diplomats from the region said Prague and Bratislava could start showcasing alternative alliances, including with Austria, as a way of signalling displeasure with the harsh rhetoric coming from hardliners in the group. There is also resistance to Mr Orban's suggestion of expanding V4 co-operation to include Croatia, which is seen as an attempt to tilt the group’s ideological balance towards Warsaw and Budapest. “We don’t want to kill off Visegrad co-operation, we see great value in it,” said one diplomat from the region. “But we don’t want it to be used as a shield for some kind of crazy cultural revolution.”

“It is getting less and less comfortable to be seen as part of the bloc … V4 is a toxic brand,” said one Czech official. “All we can do is send messages to the west and attempt damage limitation.”

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