The Visegrád Group (V4) has lately been in the European spotlight. This once peripheral, regional alliance suddenly proved capable of single-cause impromptu mobilisation within the EU-framework. In the middle of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ it actively resisted the European Commission on relocation quotas. How sustainable is this new capacity and how can it affect the European Union? The opportunity to tackle these questions presents itself again due to the emerging debate on European social and labour policies.
Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia joined the EU in 2004. Nevertheless, they are still called ‘new member states’ as the long-awaited convergence of wages, living standards, and access to social services never fully materialized. What did happen was mass emigration, especially from Poland and Hungary, causing a so-called brain-drain of the economically active population and putting national social-security systems in jeopardy.
At the same time, competitive advantage in the region has mostly been gained through a cheap and qualified labour force, tax exemptions, and more flexible labour rights. As a result, the economic strategy that makes the V4 countries attractive for business is simultaneously holding them hostage in the middle-income trap. Building a solid welfare state could change that, but other political interests outweigh social concerns. For example, in January 2017, the European Parliament voted on a resolution on the Pillar of Social Rights, prepared by the centre-left Socialists & Democrats group. In the plenary vote, the vast majority of MEPs from the V4 countries were against it, even though the proposals for strengthening labour rights were restricted to the Eurozone.
The economic strategy that makes the V4 countries attractive for business is simultaneously holding them hostage in the middle-income trap
This attitude is in line with the initial discontent of some Eastern European states with the initiative to reform the posted workers’ directive. Emmanuel Macron’s ‘divide and rule’ strategy in approaching only the chosen Eastern member states while by-passing the hardliners, like Poland and Hungary, paid off. He won the backing of Slovakia and Czechia as well as Romania’s and Bulgaria’s readiness to seek compromises on the contested regulation.
Nevertheless, from the perspective of some member states, coordination of social policy at the European level is still perceived as harmful. In their view, harmonisation of labour regulations or introduction of common European social transfers could lead to the loss of their competitive advantage or increase their budget deficit. In other words, social policy is by some still considered an expense, not an investment.
Special V4-meeting in Warsaw
In March 2017, shortly after the White Paper on the future of European Union by Jean-Claude Juncker had been published, a special meeting of V4 leaders was held in Warsaw. They agreed that the values on which the EU is based remain valid and one should strictly avoid any kind of disintegration of the single market, the Schengen area and the European Union itself. It is evident that Poland, Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary are not in favour of federalisation, but a return to the single-market-only model does not seem satisfying either.
The conclusion is that the V4 needs Europe, but is incapable of delivering any constructive visions. The Group is not even institutionalized in the sense of a formal administration and embraces many contradicting interests. There are some fundamental differences between the dogmatic collision course of the Polish government and Hungary’s pragmatic approach towards the EU, symbolically embodied in Victor Orban’s support for Donald Tusk as President of the European Council.
Poland appears to be losing its leading position in the V4, while Slovakia would be the readiest to break out from the group
Even if the impression of the ‘troublesome’ V4 was strengthened by Poland and Hungary, the Czech and Slovak attitudes towards the EU are not alike. In particular Slovakia significantly advanced integration with the EU by joining the Eurozone in 2009. Initially the poorest of all V4 countries, today it’s one of the world’s leading car manufacturers per capita, drawing direct foreign investments mostly from Germany, France and Asia. The internal dynamics of the V4 will now change again, after the centrist-populist Ano party has won the elections in Czechia.
Individual interests within V4 tip the balance in debate over Social Europe
Today, the Visegrád Group seems dependent on immediate political circumstances and individual interests will therefore most likely tip the balance in the debate over ‘Social Europe’. Poland, the biggest and lately the most confrontational country of the region, seems to be losing its leading position. Slovakia (which) would be the readiest to break out from the Group, not keen on being “left behind” if the multi-speed scenario for Europe gains traction.
When it comes to others, the flexibility of Orban and Andrej Babiš, likely the next Czech prime minister, will allow them to treat the V4 in a rather opportunistic way, uniting to seek favourable trade-offs and reach satisfying, ad hoc deals.
Generally speaking, the upheaval of the social pillar could become a tangible proof of the EU’s value and purpose after years of ‘polycrisis’. However, there are hurdles on the way, not only of an institutional or structural character. There is a profound lack of consent what the EU should look like in the future and which principles it should follow. What for some comes across as a “betrayal of the European spirit”, others consider to be free and fair competition. On top of that, recent failures in managing the migration influx has lowered public confidence in European institutions. Thus, the coordination of social policy within the Community seems as complex as necessary a task for years to come.
This text was originally published by Clingendael Magazine: https://www.clingendael.org/publication/v4-lack-shared-vision-social-europe