Britain and Europe

Focusing on E-Unity

30 January 2018

The V4 and Brexit

Ed Turner

An optimistic Brexit minister might well see the ‘Visegrád’ group (V4) countries of Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary as an important set of potential allies, almost ‘friends on the inside’, when it comes to the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU and future relationship with the bloc.

Relations between the UK and the V4 have been consistently good: the UK was an early and important advocate of eastern enlargement of the EU; Britain was seen as an ally on questions of ‘competitiveness’ (for instance, opening up new markets to competition); the V4 benefited significantly from the UK’s net contribution to the EU budget; and with three of the V4 countries outside the eurozone (only Slovakia joined) the UK was a very important player in ensuring the voices of non-eurozone EU members remained relevant.

The V4 were among the most disappointed by Britain’s decision to leave. While some ‘federalists’ could see the bright side of the decision in paving the way towards ever closer union without Britain carping from the sidelines, the V4 faced new worries about being dominated by a renewed Franco-German alliance, as well as the thorny issues of how to handle the status of their citizens in the UK and potential budgetary losses.

So, does this mean the UK is likely to be able to ‘pick off’ the V4 from the rest of the EU’s stance? A lively discussion held by Policy Network and the Aston Centre for Europe produced a resounding answer of ‘absolutely not’.

Caucusing with the UK on issues of common concern before the Brexit vote was perfectly acceptable tactic, but splitting from the common EU position during negotiations is most unlikely. Instead, ‘E-Unity’ (geddit?) is an important policy goal, in and of itself, in relation to Brexit, and peeling off is not going to happen.

Why the commitment to E-Unity? Three clear reasons. First, the V4’s interests overlap with the European commission’s negotiating mandate on Brexit. The commission is committed to rights for EU nationals and an appropriate EU budgetary contribution – priorities that are absolutely shared by the V4.

Second, for all the current challenges (such as the commission’s criticism of democratic practices in Poland and Hungary), the V4 is closely linked to the rest of the EU and their fates are bound together. For instance, 80% of Hungary’s trade is with the rest of the EU, 29% with Germany alone. Spending scarce political capital justifying a split from the common position on Brexit is an unattractive proposition.

Third, we may discern, if anything, a ‘paradox of Brexit’. With the UK’s impending departure from the EU, the V4 countries need to take even greater care of their relationships with those member states which will remain, notably France and Germany. Poland and Hungary, in particular, are under significant pressure regarding the quality of their own democracies – another reason not to open up a further front of antagonism with other EU members.

So is this all doom and gloom for the UK? Not necessarily. Certainly, the V4 would prefer a close relationship with the UK post-Brexit (and as I have argued elsewhere, might have a slightly more pragmatic stance than France and Germany on some aspects of that future relationship, for instance around ECJ jurisdiction, though it will not lead to them ‘peeling away’ from E-Unity). Co-operation on internal security with the UK is perceived to be important, and there is also the potential for co-operation on defence, as part of NATO but in developing European frameworks.

The V4 bloc will, of course, be pushing for the rights of those of their nationals who reach the UK before its departure from the EU. And, unlike such issues as the role of the ECJ, this is not an area where the UK government is boxed into a corner by any previously set ‘red line’. Agreement on this issue could nurture good will elsewhere; for instance, the V4 are likely to be pragmatic about such issues as the nature of the UK’s transition period after leaving the EU.

Of course, we cannot lump the V4 countries together in every respect. There are times when their views differ sharply, in ways that will affect their stance on the future of European integration. For instance, as a eurozone member, Slovakia has a different perspective on the single currency to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic (who do not look likely to join any time soon). Slovakia’s car industry (the largest per capita in the world) makes this aspect of trade especially sensitive. Poland remains far more supportive of sanctions against Russia and wary of its influence than do Slovakia and in particular Hungary. But the chance of picking individual members of the V4 off from either each other on the Brexit issue, or indeed expecting these countries suddenly to launch a dramatic departure from the EU’s common position, is remote indeed.