Central Europe's Velvet Power: Can It Reinvigorate EU Foreign Policy?

By Mikulova, Kristina | World Affairs, September-October 2013 | Go to article overview

Central Europe's Velvet Power: Can It Reinvigorate EU Foreign Policy?


Mikulova, Kristina, World Affairs


Central Europe used to be a place of tragedy, according to Czech novelist Milan Kundera, a leading dissident voice during the communist era. Throughout its troubled history, the region, fatefully wedged between Germany and Russia, suffered deep wounds to its psyche at the hand of great powers: oppression by enemies, betrayal by friends. Its battered societies were so busy trying to survive, Kundera mused, that they did not have the leisure to look inward and focus on themselves.

But since the so-called Visegrad Four--the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia--shook off the Soviet yoke and topped a decade of successful political and economic reform by rejoining the West in its most exclusive clubs, the European Union and NATO, they have begun to pursue their own objectives, and they have distinguished themselves as actors on the world stage. In the realm of foreign policy, this means that they have been busy settling scores with former imperial overlords, courting mentors and protectors, learning how to articulate and defend their interests, and building their reputations by crafting new foreign policy brands. They have all stepped up their game and, in the case of Poland, transitioned to the premier league of European politics.

The gradual embrace of Germany is one of the most important long-term developments in Central European geopolitics since the accession of the Visegrad states to the European Union. For Poland, it was a premeditated policy platform on which Donald Tusk's liberal government took power in 2007; for the rest of the Visegrad Four, the repositioning vis-a-vis Germany came about more gradually.

Three years ago, as Warsaw began courting Berlin and Paris through the Weimar Triangle, a previously dormant regional grouping meant to promote cooperation between the Poles, Germans, and French, the Economist wrote that Poland's foreign policy was becoming more realistic to allow the regional heavyweight to "dance with the big boys." On the eve of the euro crisis, the country's foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, sent a clear message when he said that he feared "Germany's power less than her inactivity." A strong Germany, he argued, was crucial for the survival of the European Union and the euro.

Slovakia jumped on the bandwagon next. When it rejected the first Greek bailout, observers speculated that then Prime Minister Iveta Radicova was not only speaking her mind, but reading Chancellor Angela Merkel's, too. What may have been a bon mot became a reality when the rhetoric of frugality and solidarity by successive Slovak governments struck a chord in crisis-managing Berlin. This spring in Bratislava, at one of Central Europe's leading foreign and security policy conferences, GLOBSEC, Slovakia's foreign minister, Miroslav Lajcak, even sparked a bit of controversy when he said that his country would not have a problem with becoming a part of a "greater Germany"--a bold statement from a onetime Nazi puppet state.

To be sure, Central Europe's pivot to Germany is not yet complete and perhaps never will be, given the complexity of state-to-state relationships in the multi-layered EU context, and the tug of nationalist interests in some parts of the diverse region, but the cooperation between CE and Germany is undoubtedly deepening. It is less clear where the distracted Hungary and the introspective Czech Republic stand, but the German-Polish-Slovak axis appears to be solid, as the bond of the three states rests on shared pro-European sentiments. In March, Poland made a point by holding a Weimar-Visegrad mini-summit in Warsaw, to facilitate greater coordination between Central Europe and Germany and France in discussions and votes on the future architecture of the Economic and Monetary Union and the strengthening of the EU's Common Security and Defense Policy.

Cozying up to the EU's guardian of austerity and paymaster of last resort has strategic implications for not only European Council politics but potentially also Central Europe's future aspirations in the foreign and security policy arena because it coincides with another game-changing development in CE foreign policy: the reset with Russia. …

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