In his eagerness to portray himself and Hungary as the effective leader of a united bloc of like-minded Central European countries within the EU, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (pictured far left) frequently misrepresents the positions of Slovakia and the Czech Republic on important policy issues, critics say.
In a speech delivered last week in Krakow, Poland, Orban declared that Central Europe is experiencing a renaissance. Orban has over the past months increasingly highlighted the importance of the so-called Visegrád 4 countries (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) as a bloc within Europe. For the prime minister, the other three Central European countries are natural allies in his fight with Brussels, as well as proof that his government’s worldview and concerns are widely shared throughout the region.
Nevertheless, in Slovakia and the Czech Republic there are growing concerns about both the nature of the alliance and the Hungarian leader’s portrayal of the bloc.
From the perspective of some politicians in the region, Hungary and Poland’s policy agenda within the European Union does not match the priorities of Czechs and Slovaks.
“Warsaw and Budapest are developing a more harsh and anti-European stance […] while Czechs and Slovaks are more pro-European,” Ivan Gabal, a member of the Czech Chamber of Deputies representing the Christian and Democratic Union-Czechoslovak People’s Party (KDU-ČSL), told the Budapest Beacon.
While the Visegrád countries have some common positions, especially on refugees, on other issues they have deep divisions.
“Hungary wants less Brussels, less Europe [while] the Slovak position on the future of Europe is not to go against the Commission,” asserted Milan Nič, who heads the Europe Program at the Bratislava-based GLOBSEC Policy Institute.
Slovakia and the Czech Republic are more integrated with the European Union than Hungary and Poland: Slovakia is in the eurozone while the Czech Republic is very closely tied economically to Germany.
Adding to these diverging interests is a growing sense in places such as the Slovak capital, Bratislava, that the government in Budapest is misrepresenting its partners’ views.
Orbán has a tendency “to hijack Visegrád,” said Nič. Orbán and his foreign minister, Peter Szijjártó, “argue the Hungary position and say it’s also the position of Visegrád Four, which is not true,” he said. In Nič’s view, the Fidesz government erroneously does so on some issues in order “not to be isolated.”
At the same time, the trajectory of domestic politics in Hungary and Poland has alienated its partners.
Gabal said: “There is debate already, informally, among Czech opinion-makers on the sharp decline in democratic standards in Hungary and Poland […] This obviously makes us nervous, and makes cooperation in the frame of Visegrád Four toxic in this area.”
While there are some similarities in terms of domestic policies between Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico (pictured far right) and his Hungarian and Polish counterparts, “when Orbán is speaking about a cultural counter-revolution […] Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not part of it,” said Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava.
Concerns about Hungary and Poland are now beginning to impact how Slovak and Czech policymakers assess their commitment to Visegrád.
“There is a very careful distancing from Visegrád in Slovakia and especially in the Czech Republic,” said Nič. “Tension is very much present behind the scenes.”
Orbán may emphasize his strong relationship with the Visegrád countries but some of the bloc’s members are trying to de-emphasize their ties to Hungary.