Internal and external factors forming the V4
The end of the 1980s and the 90s brought several deep transformations internationally and regionally alike. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the cease of its institutions and organizations such as the Comecon or the Warsaw Pact meant the end of the bipolar world order and the beginning of a whole new long-awaited era by people, experts and politicians with optimistic excitement.
These international changes had a huge regional impact too. In Europe regional institutions and cooperation have already existed on several levels but in the 90s regionalism shifted to a higher speed. The European Community, the European Union strengthened and deepened the integration, also widened the fields of cooperation, while other formations disintegrated entirely like Yugoslavia (1991) or Czechoslovakia (1993).
But tectonic movements also given the opportunity, or even compelled in forming a new regional cooperation. Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary became newly independent republics with a common geographical-historical-cultural feature which could mean a cohesion basis for a new regional interaction. Within the Comecom all three countries have had a more advanced economy and infrastructure and by all means the region meant the “west of the eastern bloc”. All three countries agreed on a peacefully negotiated democratic political transition, moreover transitioning to a market economy in the same phase, thus abandoning the Warsaw Pact and calling on Soviet troops to leave the territory immediately. Furthermore, these countries’ security, defense and foreign policy priorities unanimously were the integration into the Euro-Atlantic security-political-economic structure, namely into the NATO and EU.
Hungarian Prime Minister József Antall with views of mature and clear foreign and regional policy, moreover a historical approach realized the common past and present of the countries of the region, and mutual aspirations would mean a common future. In 1990 in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) meeting in Paris József Antall presented his vision of a regional cooperation to his regional partners Václav Havell, President of Czechoslovakia and Lech Wałesa, President of Poland who received the initiative with openness.
Framework of the Visegrad Group
In 15 February, 1991 in Visegrad (Hungary) the three leaders with a joint statement established the Visegrad Group, the regional economic, political, cultural cooperation between the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, the Republic of Hungary and the Republic of Poland. The name of the statement clearly defines the main objective of the cooperation: “… Striving for European Integration”
The memorandum of association properly recorded the functioning, the modus operandi of the organization addressing the common values and objectives - the bonding basis of the group.
The convergence objectives was inter alia the democratic, independent statehood based on the rule of law, respecting human rights, a modern free market economy and also the full involvement of the European political, economy, security system. “Coordination of the efforts—with respect for national peculiarities—increases the chances of attaining the desired goals and brings closer the realization of their objectives.” – sums up the ultimate objective and a very pragmatic meaning of the cooperation. As values the Declaration mentions the mutual cultural, spiritual heritage and common roots of religious traditions which also embody the European ideals.
But when comes the “how” the statement leaves just a small paragraph: “The cooperation of the signatories will be realized through meetings and consultations held at various levels and in various forms.” “…they shall endeavor to create free contacts between citizens, institutions, churches and social organizations” As we can see the main idea of the level of cooperation is a loose alliance, focusing on the similarities and mutual objects but allowing each participant to express its own interests and identity. The Ambassador’s Council was established but no institution has been named nor intensions were expressed from any side to form one. In fact, Hungarian PM József Antall explicitly emphasized that with the new cooperation they didn’t want to give an impression of a new international organization, an alternative for any European organization in any way.
From this we can see the Visegrad Group is since its foundation a political, “top-down” project with pragmatic values and an objectives focused approach which does not exclude opportunity for institutionalization but leaves wide room for participants to maneuver.
The loose structured cooperation showed some of its weaknesses. Without any deep institutionalization and a lack of binding agreements or mechanism, the informal methods of cooperation and coordination seemed to be little to keep the cooperation going and developing. After the split of Czechoslovakia (1993) domestic political changes occurred. The Czech Republic apparently saw its integration to the Euro-Atlantic structure not through the V4 framework, and considered the regional cooperation a hold back in its aspirations. Slovakia under Vladimír Meciar broke with the European way of political and economic transformation focusing on more autocratic nation building for which Slovakia has been excluded from the first round of NATO enlargement and the advanced group of EU candidates.
An announcement from the EU from this time shown that the Union intended to negotiate the terms of full membership individually as regards of the countries of the Central European region has also weakened collaboration efforts. Maybe a tighter, more institutionalized and organic V4 Group could have made the integration process quicker or made the EU handle them more unified.
However, all these issues slowed down the cooperation, the countries of the Group - except for Slovakia – became a NATO member in 1999 which can be considered as a great achievement from this period.