Event Report: Old and New EU Engines - Shifting Power and Strategic Alternatives for EU and V4 after Brexit

November 7, 2017

On October 9, 2017, the CEU Center for European Neighborhood Studies (CENS) hosted an international conference entitled “Old and new EU engines: Shifting Power and Strategic Alternatives for EU and V4 after Brexit”, generously supported and co-organized by the Budapest Office of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). The discussions held addressed the impact of Brexit on internal EU relations and the new driving forces behind future EU policy. In addition, specific attention was paid to evolving role of the V4 and its future within this new EU context.

The departure of the United Kingdom from the EU has left the Union’s power dynamics in a state of flux, which could have profound impacts on the direction of EU policy and its integration strategy. The loss of such an influential presence as the UK has provided a chance for other major European powers, particularly France and Germany, to broaden their impact on EU policy in the realms of security, economics, and integration, while also leaving the door open for previously lesser powers to increase their significance in swaying the direction of EU policymaking. At the same time, the prominence of Euroskepticism has been steadily growing since the UK referendum, jeopardizing the future of strong EU reform from the V4 to Berlin. Following the most recent round of elections, the governments of Europe are reforming their own policies and priorities in response to widespread uncertainty as they wait for the UK to determine the true nature of Brexit, thus beginning a new era of European integration.

The conference began with an introductory address by Péter Balázs, Director of the Center for European Neighborhood Studies (CENS). He reflected on the two major forces currently at play in the EU – namely Brexit, and the new creative responses to Euroscepticism originating from major powers such as France and Germany. He observed the lack of clarity and development surrounding the UK’s Brexit vision, noting “there is high uncertainty on the UK side.” Moving on to the future of the EU, he remarked that the weight of the gap left behind in its political and economic structures will be felt both internally and externally – from the Eurozone to the EU’s relations with other supranational bodies such as NATO and the UN. Professor Balázs also stated that he expects uncertainty in the future of the V4’s relative influence as their governments drift further away from a coordinated policy both between themselves and in relation to Brussels. He closed with warning that though the events of Brexit have mobilized the center of the European Union, Europe should prepare itself for the long-haul of Brexit negotiations, as both the UK and the EU seek a successful, and meticulously planned transition to their new partnership.

The first panel dealt with shifting power and strategic alternatives in post-Brexit Europe and was chaired by Andras Szalai, Research Fellow at CENS.

The first panelist Richard G. Whitman, Associate Fellow at Chatham House in London, discussed the UK perspective on Brexit strategies and post-Brexit relations with Europe. He began by discussing how the UK needs to refocus its perspective beyond its own bounds and begin focusing on maintaining connections with other Member States, particularly if it wishes to maintain its influence on EU policy. He noted that negotiations will surely be a long, drawn-out process, and that the relative success of the results will impact both the domestic politics of the UK and the EU. Though the UK continues to show uncertainty surrounding its Brexit goals, Whitman stressed that the Brexit deal must maintain strategic partnerships in the realms of people, markets and security. The strength of these negotiations will distinguish the path of Britain from what he called a stagnant “Brexit-sclerosis” to a triumphant “phoenix Britain.” The most important determinant of EU-UK agreements will be the UK’s relation to the single-market, Whitman remarked, as he mapped out the evolution of the UK’s diplomatic strategy towards the EU. The UK will likely follow an onshore-offshore “two-track approach” in terms of its strategy towards continued European influence, looking both to proxies and personal intervention. In addition, he predicted that the now independent UK will probably seek new strategic bilateral agreements with individual European nations in order to maximize its geopolitical influence in the region. Yet with all these grand strategies, the question remains as to whether the UK can politically and financially handle to implement them in the long-run.

Carme Colomina Saló, Associate Researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, shifted the focus of the discussion to her home country of Spain. She observed that the absence of the UK has left an opening for Spain to reemerge as a force within the EU core, following a period of economic hardship. Yet she addressed the paradox Spain now faces, as Brexit would both strengthen Spanish power in the European context, and weaken it economically as financial ties between the two countries have grown strong in recent years. She recognized that Spain is now facing a period of reevaluation, as it weighs the rewards of influence within the EU sphere versus the financial and security burdens – as a struggling border state – of European responsibility. Saló also brought up the North-South divide that Europe is currently facing, claiming that the EU treats the issues of its southern states as a collective, though the South is lacking this bloc mentality. She claimed that there are new forces that “challenge the tradition of EU discourse” and that a new attitude is emerging in the “Brussels bubble” – largely due to the election of Emmanuel Macron – which will soon shape the future of EU policy. In part, these changes seem to be pointing to a more flexible Europe, which may satisfy some aspects of Euroscepticism, but could also lead to state rivalries, especially in the South, as the distinction between core and peripheral EU states becomes more solidified.

Marie-Pierre Granger, Associate Professor at CEU, brought the topic of discussion to the evolving role of France in post-Brexit Europe, and particularly the vision of its new president Emmanuel Macron. She remarked that while Macron’s victory on a staunchly pro-EU platform was seen as a resounding victory throughout Europe, his legitimacy domestically remains contested. She pointed to the weakness of his reforms resulting from his reluctance to alienate voters from the Left, as well as the uncertainty surrounding Parliament’s unconditional support for his plans. Professor Granger reminded the room of Macron’s ambitious plans for a stronger, more integrated Europe, including reforms around internal security, the Eurozone, trade, and social policies, but mentioned that events such as the recent German elections have forced him to tone down other aspects such as a common budget and fiscal control. She reaffirmed France’s determination to maintain strong relations with all of Europe – particularly Germany, but not excluding countries like Hungary, Poland, and even the UK – adding however that Macron shows a “clear determination to put France back in the driver’s seat.” She ended by noting the challenges that France will face in the pursuit of this vision. Though she expects some support from Junker and Brussels on policy reform, she anticipates a need for compromise with Germany given the new presence of the FDP following last month’s elections. Additionally, the EU will have to find a way to overcome strained relations with the struggling states in the South, as well as the increasingly rightist and Euroskeptic governments of the V4.

In the second panel, “The Role and Status of the Visegrad Countries after Brexit”, speakers gave both comparative and country-specific perspectives on the topic. It was chaired by Łukasz Janulewicz, CENS Research Fellow.

The first panelist, Zuzana Stuchlíková, Head of the Brussel’s Office of the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Brussels, discussed how Brexit affected the Czech Republic and what Prague hopes to achieve as a member of the EU and as a Visegrad country. She started off by stating two disclaimers regarding the Czech Republic. First, that the country is facing elections and although the winner of these elections might be predictable, the direction that Prague will head towards after is uncertain. Second, the Czech Republic’s foreign policy is continuously incoherent and decisions made by policymakers do not always reflect political realities in the country. She gives a couple examples of this. For one, although the strategic goal of the Czech Republic is to join the Eurozone, this topic is practically nonexistent in political debate. Moreover, many of the Czech president’s opinions often take a different line than official foreign policy. Stuchlíková then went on to discuss what Brexit meant to the Czech Republic. She argues that the UK has always been an important partner of the Czech Republic, on both an economic level with trade, and on a symbolic level as well. The UK was the biggest country outside the Eurozone and provided a security check for Euro-skeptic governments. According to Stuchlíková, the Czech Republic wanted to keep the UK in the EU, but now that the referendum has passed the priority has shifted to secure the position of Czech citizens in the UK as well as secure a deal that would retain the relationship between the two countries. She argues that Brexit has put the Czech Republic at a crossroads and now it is time for the country to decide where it wants to go, as it is facing growing political division regarding it’s role in the development of Europe. Next, Stuchlíková discussed the Czech Republic’s role within the Visegrad group. She argues that the problems of Visegrad have little to do with Brexit, as thinking within the group is more influenced by the governments of Poland and Hungary. While Visegrad is an important platform, negotiations are difficult because there is very little common interest. However, Stuchlíková ends her lecture by reasoning that the Czech Republic’s historically has partnered with geographic partners and therefore the Central European region is very important, however, Germany is the Czech Republic’s biggest trade partner and a key ally. As a result, it remains to be seen how these relationships will turn out after the next government is elected.

Tomáš Nagy, Research fellow at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute in Bratislava, discussed the topic from the perspective of Slovakia. First, Nagy states that Slovakia joining the EU was the country’s biggest foreign policy success and highlights the two main vectors in Slovakian foreign policy today; the Western vector and the regional, Visegrad vector. He discusses the popularity of the Visegrad grouping in Slovakia, arguing that it is more popular than the EU or the UN, and that this regional cooperative was an important platform for policy initiatives and problem solving in areas such as energy, infrastructure development, and defense. Nagy also states that the EU parliament and the direction the EU has been moving have steadily rated higher among the Slovak population. He then argues that Slovakians previously didn’t take much interest in European politics and had never questioned if Slovakia should be in the EU or not. However, this changed 5 years ago with the financial crisis, subsequent Greek crisis, and the migrant crisis, which have all led to more pressing political discussion in Slovakia because it is part of the Eurozone and impacted heavily by these events. Next, Nagy discusses specific bilateral cases that are important in Bratislava’s current foreign policy. First, Brexit was a huge shock because the UK was a huge partner for Slovakia. Second, Nagy states that Germany is undeniably the European economic superpower and as a result, Slovakia must keep developing a smooth relationship with Germany. Nagy questions how far Franco-German ambitions in the EU will go and argues that how those ideas will benefit Slovakia should be a main discussion point within the next EU Parliament. In the end, however, Slovakia has gained more from working with Germany than what it has suffered. Third, the relationship between Slovakia and Germany has shifted twice, first during the Greek crisis it was emboldened, but soured with the migration crisis. Lastly, Nagy turns towards Slovakia’s relationship with the Visegrad countries. He says he cannot see getting rid of the Visegrad platform, but it is hard to predict what will happen after the 2020 elections in the Slovak government. Nagy ends his discussion by stating that this new government will probably invest in maintaining its relationship with the EU, but there are certain issues, like the Eurozone, that need to be put on the forefront.

Jolanta Szymańska, Researcher at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw, discussed how Brexit impacted Poland’s role in the EU. 2015 was a crucial year for EU-Poland relations as a new party came to power and completely rejected the previous party’s mainstream EU platform. As a result, relations with Germany and France have cooled down, and even Poland’s relationship with the Visegrad and the UK is struggling. Brexit poses a huge challenge for current Polish government choice of allies in the EU. The UK was a main strategic partner for Poland, and the alliance between the two countries was strengthened through a mutual opposition to further European integration and criticism of German domination. The outcome of the British referendum surprised Warsaw, and as a result, the Polish government has intensified bilateral relationship with the UK while simultaneously admitting the need to emphasize close political and economic ties with the EU. Szymańska then discusses Poland’s status within the Visegrad grouping, arguing that the Polish government is aware that the format of the Visegrad platform is not enough to effectively fight for its interests. She states that within Central and Eastern Europe, countries are competing for the title of regional leader in the EU, and evidently Romania was becoming a more attractive partner for Western members, striking fears that it may replace Poland as the regional “favorite” for discussion with the West. Szymańska ends by stating that the Polish government is aware that Brexit and current developments are testing alliances in the EU, however, she doesn’t expect any big changes in the current Polish position.