Apart from the classic proposals from both ends of the spectrum of European affairs, i.e. pro-integrationist federalism asking for a move towards European statehood, and radical Euroscepticism calling for a dismantling of the Union, there are three broader approaches of political relevance.
The European Union appears to be in post-crisis mode. After the blows of the sovereign debt crisis and the migration crisis, and given the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the Union, the community is trying to develop a new agenda and adjust to new challenges. Germany and the Visegrád states are key members of the European Union and an essential part of the debate about the directions and steps that should be taken to make the EU more effective and more resilient. In this context, it is often highlighted that Germany and Visegrád belong to different camps or pursue divergent strategies. Indeed, all five countries have their specific positions and interests. A closer look, however, reveals that the situation is more nuanced. Of course, in many questions regarding the future of Europe debate they all have their particular positions, but in general there is no single overarching divide between Germany on the one hand and the Visegrád countries on the other. This also results from the fact that the Visegrád Four are quite heterogeneous in their approaches to future reforms. Bearing this in mind, it is worthwhile to sketch out the context in which the discussion about the future of the EU is taking place and what this means for the exchange between Germany and the Visegrád countries.
Which Response to Overcome Stagnation?
The crises and the newly emerging uncertainties within and around the EU have brought about a general awareness that something has to be done. Of course, beyond the vague consensus that the EU needs reforms, there have been quite differing views about the appropriate response to the internal and external challenges. Does the EU need a huge stimulus and fundamental remodelling, a sort of “great leap forward”? Or should the Union act prudently and initiate a careful process of small, but feasible corrections? Apart from the classic proposals from both ends of the spectrum of European affairs, i.e. pro-integrationist federalism asking for a move towards European statehood, and radical Euroscepticism calling for a dismantling of the Union, there are three broader approaches of political relevance.
The first approach, Europe’s new mutuality, is shaped and articulated by French president Emmanuel Macron and aims at a high-reaching revitalisation or even a refondation of the EU. The overall objective seems to be a new mutuality founded on additional linkage and interdependence in the spheres of finance and monetary policies as well as military and defence, and a strong social dimension as a complement to Europe’s common market and competitiveness agendas. It includes a commitment to an EU that is supposed to ensure the observation of “European values” in all member states. The overall objective of this new mutuality is to build an EU able to assert itself in a complicating international environment. For this purpose, Europe has to become a “sovereign” actor. It is noteworthy that the reconstruction of the EU according to this line of argumentation does not imply a clear pledge for reinvigorating community institutions, particularly the European Commission. It is, rather, a set of new institutions and agencies (in which the member states might to some extent have a say) and member-state-driven initiatives (some of them like the European Intervention Initiative even situated outside the treaties), which are to generate fresh dynamics. Pushing for a reconstruction according to this philosophy also allows for (or even requires) the establishment of more differentiation. Those who want to advance the community should move without member states reluctant to accept more interdependence. The idea of reforming the Eurozone not only by economic and financial changes, but also by inducing a political upgrade of the group, shows the predilection for such small-circle solutions.
In contrast to this way stands the idea of rethinking the EU primarily as a community of member states bound together mainly by a well-functioning single market, secure external borders and a financial framework all of which helps to foster the economic convergence between member states. Accordingly, the principle of an “ever closer Union” or the long-term objective of building a deeply integrated “political Union” are regarded as counterproductive and harmful to the development of member states. What is behind this conception is not anti-Europeanism, but rather an inclination to preserve national sovereignty in a community that is anyway tightly knit: hence, the EU should be advanced particularly regarding economic matters – improving modernisation, innovation and competitiveness. In this context, proponents of this path, such as some member states from Central Eastern Europe, are even in favour of a more effective implementation of rules and common principles. Poland, for example, has in recent years pursued what it called “Eurorealism” – a sort of reluctance towards further “deepening” of the EU. At the same time, Warsaw regards the European Commission as well as the European Court of Justice as important allies in creating an effective European energy market, since they are the guardians of the acquis communautaire in this field. The ruling of the General Court from September 2019 on the so-called OPAL pipeline (i.e. the on-shore continuation of the disputed Nord Stream gas pipeline) obliging member states to take into account the principle of “energy solidarity” (which is enshrined in the treaty) in their practical energy policies, has been seen in Poland as an important milestone in making an abstract norm politically relevant. Nevertheless, in spite of supporting effective community institutions, most Central European countries reject the idea of a “political Commission”, as they are afraid that this might be the beginning of a creeping supranationalisation of domains like foreign affairs or migration, which they consider part of the hard core of national states that should continue to exist in the future. However, this approach does not struggle for an EU built exclusively on intergovernmentalism, nor for a broad “repatriation” of existing competencies from “Brussels” to member states (irrespective of some rhetoric calling for a British- or Dutch-style review of EU competencies, but that usually ends with rather symbolic conclusions). The practical aims seem instead to be the hedging of communitarised policies and institutions by giving member states the political lead in strategic orientations and operative dominance in key areas of European politics.
In between those two approaches lies a policy of pragmatic consolidation advocated, among others, by Germany. In the debate about the future of Europe, as well in terms of practical politics, Germany has tried to advance reforms that are attainable and include all member states. Of course, there are sympathies for the model of a multi-speed Europe, but these constructions are mostly regarded as a second-best option to be avoided. The reason for this is that increased differentiation implies the risk of creating new barriers and dividing lines. As a “central power” at the core of the continent, Germany is interested in holding the community together. Particularly, a strengthening of the Eurozone in political and institutional terms and its partial detaching from non-Euro states might be detrimental from a German point of view, as important partners and economically like-minded countries from the northern and eastern part of the EU are not (or not yet) part of that entity. Also, Germany, which was an engine of eastern enlargement and which is closely intertwined with its eastern neighbours wants to avert a scenario in which Central or South East European member states might be relegated to an outer circle of integration.
Looking at the broader picture, the latter approach seems to dominate. In response to the Brexit vote the EU wanted to emphasise its unity. Hence, it was not by accident that the first gathering of the 27 heads of state and government, i.e. the EU without the United Kingdom, that took place in Bratislava in September 2016, wanted to send exactly that signal. A Europe of results and moving ahead in small steps is evidently a proceeding that all member states are ready to endorse. And even those who want to go for more energetic change are cautious, because they are afraid that their proposals might be rejected, particularly if they require treaty reforms. This does not mean that the debate about a more substantial overhaul of the EU is not alive – the idea of having a series of Conferences about the future of Europe, which will probably also be promoted by the von der Leyen Commission is just one sign of this. Nevertheless, all in all, the EU mainstream will probably agree on a sort of ambitious gradualism as the guiding principle of EU reform.
The Changing Modus Operandi of European Politics
It is still an open question as to if and when the above-mentioned evolutionary path of reforms will lead to palpable outcomes and what they will look like. What can be said, is that EU politics have been undergoing a period of adaptations, but also a sort of learning curve, which has included the discovery of dead ends and new limitations. Among others, the following restrictions and experiences will have an impact on the functioning of the EU, as well as on the implementation of reforms.
First, the EU is subject to a contradictory simultaneity of intensified integration on the one hand and neo-sovereignist efforts of decentralisation.
External Challenges: Dividing Instead of Federating
External challenges to the EU have traditionally had a positive impact on European integration. Quite often, the threat from the Soviet Union is regarded as having given an important impetus for founding the Community. With the benefit of hindsight, it can easily be stated that the member states have indeed „moved closer together” and have even been more willing to transfer former national competences to the sovereignty pool of integration in the face of permanent risks or short-term shocks. In other words, the uncertainties and demands emanating from the international environment were often the driving forces behind integration and acted as so-called “external federators“. This mechanism is still in force today. Just think of the problems for some EU countries around the turn of 2008/09, when bottlenecks in the supply with gas arose as a result of a conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This situation acted as a kind of wake-up call to improve European energy security and led to the creation of new forms of energy solidarity and the deepening of the EU energy market. Nonetheless, in recent years it has become apparent that confusion and shocks in the outside world that which have direct consequences for the EU often do not act any longer as „external federators” but instead drive a wedge between member states. The refugee crisis is just one example. The reason for this situation is the interplay between increasingly renationalised policies of member states and the weakening of the actors and institutions that generate the Union’s cohesion. The consistent attitude towards Russia after the annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine makes it clear that unity is still possible in the face of a crisis, but it shows also that EU-consonance remains fragile and has by no means led to a broader consensus for better coordination of the EU’s policy towards Russia or EU foreign policy in general. The EU’s and individual member states’ relations with China will be an important indicator of the Community’s ability to use external competition and challenges again as a catalyst for more togetherness.
The Contradictory Simultaneity of Enhanced Integration and Sovereignist Containment
While the discussion on the future of the EU has led to the emergence of different camps with different conceptions about the further development of the Community, political practice has produced a mixed picture in the context of the crises and the associated reform efforts. On the one hand, there were changes that ultimately meant „more Europe” and additional closeness of the member states. The stabilisation policy and crisis management aimed at consolidating national budgets and calming financial markets resulted in the emergence of new rescue, solidarity and control mechanisms that had not been possible earlier. Even though some important actors (such as the countries in the north of the EU) rejected the introduction of these mechanisms in terms of regulatory policy (e.g., because they feared that they would initiate the entry into a „transfer union”), in fact such steps were approved because fears of further complications in the Eurozone were too great. But not only this „crisis-driven constitutionalism” (Krisenkonstitutionalismus) of economic governance, but other important developments, too, prove that in the last decade there have been integration thrusts or at least a gradual intensification of integration in several areas of European politics. The activation of the European Commission and the European Parliament on questions of the rule of law and democracy, right up to rulings by the European Court of Justice (most recently, for example, in the member states’ commitment to the principle of energy solidarity in their energy policy) are further examples. On the other hand, counter-developments can be observed. In the course of the various crises, the member states have regained political decision-making power, tried to adjust the balance of power between the institutions in the sense of a „Union method” to the detriment of the Community institutions, and thus, for example, the European Council became more and more relevant. Also, some capitals have successfully tried to prevent the transfer of powers to Brussels, for example fighting against mandatory redistribution quotas for asylum-seekers across the EU in the wake of the refugee crisis. This is not only the „dialectical functionalism” known from earlier stages of integration, where periods of deepening were followed by periods of undermining commonality. It is more about the contradictory simultaneity of enhanced integration and sovereignist containment of integration in times of growing limitations by member state domestic policies.
Limitations to Politicisation
For many scholars, the increasing politicisation of European integration is a clear and irreversible process. The failure of the Constitutional Treaty in particular and later on the Eurozone and refugee crises have, as the argument is often put forward, triggered intensive discussions on the orientation of the EU as a whole and on the reform of individual policy fields, thereby bringing different, even contradictory options into the debate and making European policy a relevant topic, including on the national and intra-state level. According to this explanation, these developments have put the „technocratic” way of making European policy, i.e. of removing potentially controversial issues and even more fundamental questions from a broad and controversial debate, on the defensive. The major differences of opinion on important issues in European politics have, in line with this hypothesis of growing politicisation, led to the emergence of a pan-European public sphere and pan-European political actors, and particularly political parties and party alliances. At second glance, however, it becomes clear that the often-diagnosed march towards a politicised EU is by no means so evident. Politicisation should not only be understood as an increasing interpretation and salience of European issues in national and transnational contexts, but as a process that leads to a significant differentiation between offers on relevant questions and that includes important actors that can be assigned to these alternatives or that represent them. Also, politicisation implies mechanisms that enable the implementation of rival options, once one of them has gained majority support. None of these elements has been dominating Europe`s political process during the last year. Against this background, it can be stated that the major paths of politicisation had only limited consequences. Politicisation through “particisation”, e.g. the emergence of European party families with a definable profile, the launch of Spitzenkandidaten in the European elections, and the emergence of a new commission on the basis of party politics, has only begun to work and has shown that the European parties are not the primary actors of politicisation. Also, another way of bringing political controversies into European affairs, politicisation through institutional leadership, has its limits. The slogan of a “political European Commission” was limited in its effect from the outset, since the Commission as a regulatory entity (which is, moreover, established as an expression of multiple compromises and which often has to consult with other institutions, in particular the European Parliament and the European Council) cannot really play the role of a locomotive of the political. Its strength lies rather in the further development and prioritisation of old and new thematic areas, such as the internal market or – as at present – climate policy. However, this is all about taking everyone on board rather than opening up new struggles. The most likely effect therefore seems to have been politicisation by the member states. The heavily politicised disputes about the right way in migration and refugee policies or the reform of the economic governance of the Eurozone took place very much between EU capitals. The same applies to the above-mentioned conflicts over the future debate of the EU. However, politicisation driven by the action of member states also remained limited. The confrontation between French president Macron and Hungarian prime minister Orbán, which in the course of the election campaign to the European Parliament appeared to be the main axis of political competition in European policy, quickly lost its sharpness after the elections. The process of forming the von der Leyen Commission and defining the new priorities of the upcoming Commission made it clear that even member states and national leaders who are seemingly on opposite sides of the political fence can continue to switch rapidly to dialogue and cooperation. The meeting of the two leaders in October 2019 was more than just a symbolic signal that ideological differences are being superseded by the pragmatic defence of national interest.
Germany and the Visegrád Countries
All in all, it appears that the EU is in the midst of a process of cautious solidification with a tendency to look for effective, but cautious reforms. In this context, the relations between member states, i.e. bilateral relations and collaboration within groups of countries, play a particularly important role. This is not a new phenomenon, since member-to-member contacts have always been key for European integration. Given centrifugal tendencies driven by domestic political factors, reinforced cooperation between EU capitals can act as an additional element of togetherness in a fragmented Union. However, domestic developments, mutual objections and differing interests in Europe’s crises have strained key bilateralisms in the EU. Franco-German relations for example, which traditionally have been a necessary condition for the European process, have always been fluctuating between cooperation and competition, thereby creating a sort of complementarity. With president Macron, who had initially been welcomed as a new hope for the EU but who became increasingly Gaullist in his European and foreign policies and produced a sort of unpredictability and disruption regarding enlargement policies and relations with Russia or NATO, Franco-German relations seem to move more towards distrust and contest. Polish–German relations, another key bilateralism in the EU, are undergoing a difficult period of diverging expectations in many areas and a return of historic issues. At the same time, some relevant bilateral relations that once were proactive factors in the EU are instead stagnating, with German–Italian relations being one of the most visible examples.
Apart from bilateral relations, groups of member states have been influencing Europe`s political development. Their functions can be manifold, ranging from bringing new initiatives to the EU agenda, through advancing specific policies, to brokering out compromises. With that in mind, Germany and the countries of the Visegrád Group, with their specific interests, can deliver considerable contributions to the EU, particularly with a view to the newly established European Commission and its priorities and to the upcoming German presidency of the EU council.
With regard to the debate on the future of Europe, the five countries should not only embark on a mutual dialogue on their ideas, but they should also think about what the idea of a Conference or Conferences on the Future of Europe, as promoted by the new Commission president, should entail. A series of common outlook meetings between policy makers from the governments and possibly from national parliaments could serve as forums to better understand their aims and find commonalities.
Germany and the Visegrád countries could try to work on common objectives for how to reconcile climate policies and competitiveness of industries. A common commitment to measures ensuring sustainability and “greening” on the one hand and the international competitiveness of industries could improve the acceptance for decarbonisation policies within and between the five countries.
Germany and the Visegrád countries are interested in stabilising EU neighbourhoods and furthering reforms in the countries beyond its borders. The meeting of MFA officials and experts from the five countries and devoted to the further development of the Eastern Partnership held in Prague in October 2019 was an interesting beginning to a common reflection on the future of the EU’s relations with its eastern neighbours. In the future, a similar meeting could be gathered on the Western Balkans. Also, Germany and the Visegrád countries could establish a common connectivity forum, where they might develop ideas on how to interlink neighbourhoods beyond the eastern borders and in the Western Balkans with existing infrastructure projects in the EU framework or within the Three Seas Initiative.
If such initiatives will materialise or have palpable effects on the EU remains to be seen. But obviously now all five countries appear to be more open for dialogue in this new format than some years ago. In any case, the most important political bond holding Germany and the Visegrád countries together in the upcoming years will be the quest for the unity of the Union.
The project covering publication of this article is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.