Event Report: After the Bundestag Elections - What lies ahead for German-V4 cooperation?

November 30, 2017

On October 19, 2017, the CEU Center for European Neighborhood Studies (CENS) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) Budapest office hosted a roundtable discussion on the impact of Germany’s recent elections on German-Visegrad relations titled “After the Bundestag Election: What Lies Ahead for German-V4 Cooperation?”

The event was opened by Jan Niklas Engels, Director of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) Budapest office, who welcomed the audience and particularly a large group of northern German students who were visiting Budapest, including CEU, for a study visit. Next, CENS director Péter Balázs reflected on the future relationship between Germany and the Visegrad countries. He highlighted that Europe is currently facing many important changes, such as the German elections that saw the introduction of two new parties in the Bundestag and the at the time upcoming Czech elections. Professor Balázs went on to emphasise that for the first time in history, the president of the European Commission invited the leaders of the four Visegrad countries for an official dinner to discuss migration, the future of Europe, and compliance with EU rules. He stressed the importance of this dinner and the changing role of the V4 countries within the current political framework of the EU.

Subsequently, the keynote address was delivered by Kai-Olaf Lang, Senior Fellow at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Berlin. Lang structured his talk along 4 main points: German-Central European relations in the context of the EU, the recent elections in Germany and possible implications for European affairs, the Visegrad countries in the EU, and the prospects and challenges of German-Central European relations. Lang stated that the EU is now facing a new experience of negative integration, which was originally just an academic concept but has now become a political debate, first with Greece and then with Brexit. Additionally, the EU is facing increasing fragmentation along both the East-West and North-South divides. The EU is experiencing the rise of populism and political fringe actors, while member states are facing substantial domestic challenges, such as political dysfunction, corruption, and even the erosion of democracy. However, despite ongoing crises, there was no domino effect after Brexit, and there is a surprising resilience of the EU, the project has not fallen apart, and demonstrated the ability to continue cooperation under stress. Lang summarized two approaches to transforming current relations within the EU. The first approach rests on a gradualist philosophy, without substantial redesign and reorientation of the EU. The second approach would be the reset of integration based on smaller circles. However, the framework of these circles is not clear, and there is an ongoing debate whether they should be open to everyone or maintain a certain exclusivity. Next, Lang discussed German elections and argued that the results were not a dramatic change, but instead a sort of normalization of German politics. Overall, Germany has retained continuity despite the presence of AfD, also within German foreign affairs.

Lang continued that for a long time, the Visegrad countries were not seen as a decisive factor in EU decision-making, but that changed with the migration crisis. He believes that within the EU framework, the Visegrad countries could deliver the necessary common sense in contrast to German romanticism and French idealism. However, there are competing ideas of how this role might play out. First, the Visegrad group could act as a counterweight to Franco-German hegemony in the EU. Second, Visegrad could act as a proactive actor in the EU. Third, the Visegrad countries could decide not to play a specific role in the EU and be content with concentrating on internal affairs and economic modernization. The key for the Visegrad countries will be to define their ambitions and their role based on their assessment of their relationship with Germany. Lang continued to argue that these relationships operate on two levels: multilateral and bilateral. In the last few years, there was a crisis of mutual expectations. For Germany this resulted from the Visegrad countries’ on key issues like the migration crisis. The Central European countries, in turn, sought equality and non-interference from Germany. However, Germany and the Visegrad countries could rebuild opportunities for cooperation on keeping the EU together, modernization, security, and neighbourhood policy if they realize that they need each other. Lang concluded by re-emphasizing the importance of this partnership and that both Germany and the Visegrad countries need to be pragmatic about the notion of solidarity. 

Subsequently, the roundtable discussion featured Paula Marcinkowska, Assistant Professor at the University of Warsaw, Tomáš Strážay, Researcher at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, and Dániel Hegedűs, Research Consultant at Freedom House and a Visiting Lecturer at Humboldt University in Berlin, and was moderated by Łukasz Janulewicz, Research Fellow at CENS.

The discussion began with the perceptions of the Bundestag elections in the V4 countries. Marcinkowska compared the views of the Polish public with those of the Polish government. She noted that even though Angela Merkel remaining chancellor “guarantees stability and continuation of the policy we already know,” a key issue will be the nomination of Germany’s new foreign minister. Though the choice may not directly affect Poland, it will have an impact on Germany’s policy in Eastern Europe, which is of key interest to Poland. Overall, Marcinowska said the Polish government expects little change in Polish-German trade and investment, and continuing support for Polish policy towards its Eastern partners. On Slovakia, Strážay remarked that though the main governing party SMER-SD lost its ally after the German SPD is expected to move to opposition. He also observed that the elections were seen as a positive note for those who feared stronger results for the far-right. In terms of Germany’s enduring role as a leader of EU integration – alongside France – he added that Slovakia is optimistic in what it sees as its new role as the bridge between the Eurozone and the non-Eurozone members of the V4. Finally, Hegedűs commented on the Hungarian government’s positive reaction to the election results. He explained that a less powerful Merkel could result in a toned-down policy towards many aspects of EU integration, thus reducing the pressure on Hungary. This is especially important in areas such as development of the Eurozone, and refugee and migration issues where Hungary’s ultra-conservative approach has been highly criticized. In addition, Germany may be forced to establish a more pragmatic relationship with Russia, which would be in Hungary’s interest, though the complexity of Germany’s new potential coalition makes this difficult to predict.

The next question addressed potential shifts in EU policy after the election, and how this might affect the V4. Paula Marcinkowska emphasised the future of EU reform, where multi-speed integration is currently against Polish interests. Particularly as a non-Eurozone member this would push Poland further towards the periphery and separate it from the core decision-making processes. Additionally, the Polish government is hoping for a weaker Franco-German partnership, especially because France is in favor of shifting the focus of EU policy away from the East and more towards the South. Thus, Poland’s ultimate goal is to strengthen cooperation with Germany, thereby influencing its position in the EU in the long-term. Strážay pointed to the Slovak “hysteria” over the relationship to the EU core. This focus, however, could bear risks for Slovakia’s relationship with the rest of the V4. On Hungary, Hegedűs discussed the country’s party-focused policy, as FIDESZ continues to take advantage of EU policy in order to maintain its own status in the long-term. In the future, he hopes Germany will become “the honest broker” of Europe, mediating between the more conservative East and Macron’s ambitions in the West. 

In terms of relationships within the V4, Marcinkowska highlighted the divisiveness of policy towards Russia, noting that it will be difficult to influence Russian-EU relations without a common policy in the V4. She contended that they are more likely to agree on matters concerning the Eastern Neighborhood – particularly security matters – and that they would benefit from projecting a common vision on the EU level. Tomáš Strážay was less sceptical towards a common V4 policy on Russia, stating that although countries like Hungary have adopted an attitude of “blind pragmatism” towards Russia, all four are still unified on matters of common security and their resilience towards “Russia’s game.” He did, however, criticize the V4’s lack of a clearly defined action plan for the Eastern Neighbourhood, citing this as a possible route to strengthen cooperation with Germany. Hegedűs was critical of the V4’s ability to cooperate on either issue. He did not believe that one common strategy would suffice to cover the entire Eastern Neighbourhood, but doubted there would be enough political will to create individualized strategies for each country. He also resisted an optimistic view towards V4-Russian relations, asserting that though the differences between each country’s policies are not large, shifting majority relations in the European Council could affect V4 relations on the subject.

The final round sought to assess the future status of the V4 as either “partners or neighbors” of Germany. Marcinkowska criticized the V4’s lack of a clear role in the EU, claiming the group chooses to define itself mainly in opposition. She pointed out that instead it could give valuable input on their common interests in the region, and urged to stop focusing on themselves. She added that in order to become a strong German partner the V4 must remember the “solidarity rule.” Strážay claimed that the V4 was not created to be a bloc, but rather a coalition of countries willing to cooperate on certain issues. He suggested that they should focus on this “a la carte” approach and find individual common issues with Germany on which to cooperate. Dániel Hegedűs agreed, calling V4 cooperation “strategic cooperation that rarely has a strategic dimension.” He remained, however, pessimistic towards German-V4 relations, citing Germany’s pragmatic but inconsistent approach towards the coalition. In the end, for matters to progress, Germany needs to realize its collective responsibility towards the Central European region.

Following a Q&A session for the audience, Professor Péter Bálazs concluded the conference by reflecting on the topics discussed. He noted the matter of EU cohesion discussed in the keynote address, adding that the periphery is becoming increasingly distant from the EU, exemplified by the declining innovative spirit of the V4. He encouraged Germany to move beyond unilateralism in its V4 relations, stressing that more strategic and pragmatic thinking is needed on both sides. He supported the role of Germany as an “honest broker,” as discussed in the roundtable, though he observed that the Franco-German partnership remains fairly strong. Overall, he emphasized the issue of V4 cohesion, or lack thereof, especially relations to the EU core. He ended on a hopeful note, looking ahead to the future Romanian EU Council presidency, and the attention and importance it will bring to the region.