Ties with Germany Divide Central Europe

Nationalists in Hungary and Poland like to pretend Germany doesn’t exist. Czechs and Slovaks know better.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán arrives for a meeting with other European People's Party leaders, December 13, 2012
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán arrives for a meeting with other European People’s Party leaders, December 13, 2012 (EPP)

Benjamin Cunningham reports for Politico that Europe’s Visegrad Four are an “illusionary union”. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are often lumped together in a Euroskeptic club hostile to closer integration, he writes — “wary of domination by big Western European countries like Germany and wary of accepting migrants, especially Muslims” — but they are actually riven by tensions.

In particular, the Czechs and Slovaks are keener than their fellow Central Europeans on building strong relations with Germany, their key economic and political ally.

The two also worry about being left on the sidelines if the European Union consolidates itself in reaction to the threat posed by Britain’s exit, according to Cunningham.

A confluence of politics and geopolitics helps explain this division.

Geopolitics first

All countries in Central Europe have an economic and political interest in maintaining close relations with Berlin. Especially if the United Kingdom does leave the EU, I have argued that Poland (but this applies to all four) should reinvigorate its western partnership in order to balance against a French-Italian-led Mediterranean bloc.

Germany and Poland have a similar vision for the EU, one that is less about political and more about economic union. They are both pro-American and, in the case of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats, instinctively Atlanticist.

The only reason this partnership is stuck is that Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party in Poland, which controls both parliament and the presidency, has a deep-seated and irrational hatred of everything German.

Something similar can be said about Kaczyński’s ideological counterpart in Budapest, Viktor Orbán, except — unlike the Poles — he also openly admires Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

Both are self-styled illiberal democrats, however, who see Germany’s Angela Merkel as the personification of everything they stand against: centrism, European integration, globalization, immigration.

Less room for maneuver

Czech and Slovak leaders do not have the luxury of absolute majorities to submit their national interests to historical grievances or personal political beliefs.

Even if Bohuslav Sobotka and Robert Fico sympathized with their counterparts in Budapest and Warsaw on this (which I doubt), they have coalition parties to consider.

Moreover, they do not exert the sort of absolute control over their own parties as Kaczyński and Orbán do.

Slovakia is also in the eurozone, further limiting its room for maneuver. Orbán can strong-arm his central bank into lowering the value of the forint to boost exports. No such luck for Fico, whose country does a fifth of its trade with Germany.

Nationalists in Hungary and Poland may dream of a separate Central European bloc and it exists insofar these countries manage to find common ground. But, hard as Kaczyński and Orbán may wish it wasn’t so, Germany still looms large in their foreign policy. Don’t expect the Czechs and Slovaks to forget about that.

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