EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

A recent European Council vote on cutting carbon emissions showed that Czech Republic is not so eager to move towards further European integration. And that perhaps Visegrad Four is soon going to be Visegrad Three.

An idea that different parts of the European Union (should) integrate at a different pace, also known as differentiated integration, is a trending topic these days. There are two main reasons why it is often mentioned in debates about the future of the EU; 2016 Brexit referendum and 2017 French presidential election.

With every enlargement, new treaty and opt-outs, discussions about multi-speed Europe emerge. The concept of multi-speed, Europe is as old as the European Economic Community (EEC), the EU’s predecessor. For a long time, there was a notion of “the original six”, that is Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany.

These states established the EEC and for more than 20 years cooperated very closely before other states, namely the UK, Denmark and Ireland, joined them in 1973. According to the political scientist Agniezska Cianciara, the political idea of the multi-speed Europe, in the form of two-speed Europe, “dates back to the 1975 ‘Tindemans report’”.

Today, with 28 members including the UK, which has been leaving the European Union for the past three years, the situation is far more complicated. For some time, there was a notion that France and Germany would shape the future of the EU together, but with Emmanuel Macron entering the stage and putting forward bold proposals, Germany has proceeded more carefully, and both partners often disagree.

In March 2019, Macron called for the “European Renaissance”. While he proposed, for example, an EU minimum wage or establishing various European agencies, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the leader of the German Christian Democratic Union, who is seen as the likelysuccessor to Angela Merkel as the Chancellor of Germany, called for strengthening the existing institutions instead and called the EU minimum wage “the wrong approach”. Both countries also have common grounds, such as the creation of the European army or joint eurozone budget, the latter due to be established by 2021. Eight states in a group known as New Hanseatic League, which was established in early 2018 following Brexit and Macron’s election, oppose the “French-style political integration”.

Multi-speed system

So the 28 member states of the European Union are not united in plans for bloc’s future. And according to Nicole Koenig of the Jacques Delors Institute, the EU is already highly differentiated. There are various agreements, initiatives and tools that lead to multi-speed Europe, like the Schengen Area, which comprises of 26 states, including four non-EU countries.

Another one is the common currency. Even though all countries, except for the UK and Denmark, are obliged to join the 19-member eurozone, many are reluctant to do so, including Czechia. Last December, the Ministry of Finance of the Czech Republic and Czech National Bank recommended the government not to set the date for euro adoption.

According to Dirk Leuffen, Berthold Rittberger and Frank Schimmelfennig, the international relations and European politics experts, the EU as a system is essentially one of differentiated integration.[1] This thought seems to be manifesting among officials themselves. Two years ago, in Rome, the EU’s bodies and members states in a joint declaration agreed that they “will act together, at different paces and intensity where necessary, while moving in the same direction”, as they “have done in the past”.

And shortly before the summit, which commemorated 60 years since the Treaty of Rome was signed, the Juncker Commission presented White paper on the future of Europe, which introduced five possible scenarios of the EU development, one of them being: “Those who want more do more.”

A group of European states which do not want to “do more” is the Visegrad Group, commonly referred to as V4. This alliance of four countries, Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, formed in 1991, had little importance until recently, but emerged as an important player in EU politics after the 2015 peak of the migration crisis, rejecting, for example, a compulsory mechanism for refugee relocation, even though it had been agreed on by the European Council in 2015.

In general, the nature of V4 has been rather defensive. The group is often labelled toxic or illiberal and its perception “has become so complicated that it is not always possible to consider V4 membership as an advantage”.

From V4 to V3?

But its member states are not as united as it may seem from migration-related discussions and are integrated on different levels. The reason behind it is the euro, which is what, according to Cianciara, drives the differentiation in the whole of the EU. While Slovakia, the only V4 member of the eurozone, is close to France in terms of integration. Czechia, Hungary and Poland, on the other hand, “substantially contribute to the strengthening of multi-speed integration logic, by refusing to join the eurozone and enhanced cooperation projects”.

The euro is not the only factor that leads to differentiation and disunity within the V4, though. Other is, for example, the democratic character of states. Slovakia and Czechia are deemed more democratic than Poland and Hungary, which is the least democratic from the four.

Czechia with its unknown, but perhaps pragmatical approach, is situated between highly-integrated Slovakia and Hungary with Poland, which call for “less Europe” and are more looking to cooperate with countries ruled by anti-European and/or radical right parties, like Italy. Official documents of the Czech government “show that Czech Republic looks more towards Germany and France, while not even mentioning Poland and Hungary by name”. However, the cabinet of the PM Andrej Babiš often uses V4 and migration to take a defensive stance against “Brussels”, partially because he is investigated by both domestic and European institutions for possible subsidy fraud.

In May 2018 at GLOBSEC in Bratislava, Babiš said that he “does not like the concept of a two-speed Europe which divides Europe”, and that multi-speed Europe should not lead to the creation of small clubs and disrupt the common market. However, by refusing to adopt euro, teaming up with other V4 countries to criticise the EU migration and relocation policy, and taking a defensive stance instead of presenting his own vision for Europe,tively encouraging differentiated integration.

What served as another example of V4 isolation as well as Slovakia’s growing distance from the group was the recent European Council vote on carbon emissions. Many EU countries hoped to commit to being carbon neutral by 2050. In the end, the motion failed even though it was supported by a majority member states, because Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Estonia voted against it, dealing a blow to the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

Following a surge of the Green parties in Western Europe in this year’s European elections and the growing disagreements between coal-abandoning and coal-dependent countries, respectively between those aware of climate change and those denying it, the climate could replace declining migration as the topic which serves to demonize the European Union in the V4.

However, it may as well be V3 instead of V4. Slovakia supported the carbon neutrality motion. The 2020 parliamentary election could see progressive, pro-European forces unseating long-ruling Smer party, though it is still too early to tell. At the same time, PiS in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary have cemented1 their power and the ANO movement of the Czech PM Babiš is holding steady at 30 % in the polls, despite numerous scandals, including the recent preliminary report of the European Commission.

With Babiš joining Hungary and Poland in attacking the EU, calling its investigation of his conflict of interest “an attack on the Czech Republic”, Czechs still postponing euro adoption and strongly pro-European politics gaining momentum in Slovakia’s presidential and European election, we may soon see Slovakia losing any remaining interest in the V4.

 

Jiří Lacina

 

[1] D. Leuffen, B. Rittberger, F. Schimmelfennig. Differentiated Integration: Explaining Variation in the European Union. Houndmills Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 7.

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