Central Europe has experienced a strategic upgrade over the last 24 months. Pentagon-led exercises are now common, the European Defense Initiative is in full swing, and military planners take the threat to NATO seriously. All these responses are welcomed and needed. The challenge now is how to translate this near-term attention into long-term strategic prioritization.
Crimea was the great catalyst. Since the war in Ukraine erupted in 2014, Western priorities zeroed in on protecting NATO allies in Central Europe. Nothing focuses policymaker attention like a crisis. Unfortunately, while frontline states are now back in vogue, the greater danger is that the “immediacy of the now” will not ensure long-term strategic engagement between the United States and its regional allies. This should be the aim for all sides, and one way to achieve it is through more robust use of the Visegrád Group (V4) as a mechanism.
The V4 is more than the sum of its parts. Established in 1991 to ease the transatlantic integration of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, the effort proved successful. In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland became NATO’s first post-communist allies; Slovakia followed in 2004. That same year, all four countries also joined the EU. Although the V4 is not an institution per se, it still serves as a platform for multilateral cooperation and synchronization between members, and a rotating V4 presidency allows its members to harmonize policy priorities at the international level.
Despite success in its original goal—Western integration—current cooperation is not as effective as it could be. The V4 is certainly visible in Europe, but it has failed to present itself as a power player to its most important ally, the United States. Although President Donald Trump—during his visit to Warsaw—underscored Washington’s commitment to maintaining regional security, he was there to honor Polish achievements, not the V4 as a whole.
So what can Visegrád countries do to refocus U.S. attention on the region? For starters, the V4 can raise its political profile. The group has enjoyed some success in this regard, and a unified approach to the migration crisis has made its members stronger players in their interactions with Brussels. The carryover effect of this unity to other avenues could create a historic chance for V4 members to effectively contribute to other debates about the EU’s future and the strategic cohesion of the Central European core.
One potential area for the V4 to demonstrate leadership is transatlantic energy interconnectivity. In this respect, constructing Croatia’s LNG terminal and establishing a North-South gas corridor is of utmost importance, as this could encourage greater U.S. energy investment in the region. That would help reduce Central Europe’s persistent dependence on Russian gas.
A second area is enhanced security cooperation. Here the low-hanging fruit is abundant and, if successful, could make the V4 much more visible. The challenge: V4 states will need to increase military expenditures. NATO expects its members to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, yet Poland is the only V4 country currently meeting this benchmark. The others lag behind, with Slovakia’s defense expenditures comprising 1.19 percent of its GDP, followed by the Czech Republic (1.07 percent) and Hungary (1.05 percent). The good news is that for the first time, all four Visegrád states appear ready to boost their defense spending. Translating intentions into actual euro, forints and koruna will still take time. Channeling defense spending increases into the right kinds of NATO capabilities will therefore become a new challenge, and it is here where the V4 offers all sides a tremendous opportunity.
Enhanced security cooperation could take many forms, but the most significant would be joint defense acquisitions. These efforts could save money and help V4 countries replace their aging Soviet equipment with modern Western technology, thus reinforcing interoperability.
Hungary, which now holds the Visegrád presidency, is working to transform these opportunities into growth for the V4. Such a reality—when Central Europe’s strategic goals run parallel with Washington’s—can only be a net positive for the alliance.
The V4 has certainly come a long way since 1991. Its first significant foreign policy success was becoming Washington’s first Eastern European allies. But Europe’s geopolitical realities have fundamentally changed over the last three years, and the V4 has to show more for the United States than just strategic real estate. A politically more identifiable, energetically more interconnected and militarily more capable relationship could re-center the region on America’s geopolitical radar. In Washington, U.S. leaders would benefit by levering up their engagement with the V4, and encouraging security cooperation as a prime vector for the group’s attention. Doing so offers a long-term solution to Central Europe’s near-term dilemma.
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Photo: Kancelaria Premiera
19 October 2017