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Cracks in the Visegrád Group are good news for EU climate ambition

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Photo Re-election of Donald Tusk as the President of the European Council © European Union

The Visegrád Four countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – are widely perceived as an influential political alliance. However, differences at the recent Energy and Environment Council meetings, as well as over Donald Tusk’s re-election as President of the European Council hint at deeper faultlines between the countries. In these days, the strength and unity of the Visegrád Four is much weaker than it is often portrayed. For the EU’s climate and energy agenda this could be a good sign.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Visegrád countries have typically been thought of as a bloc. After all, they share a number of defining characteristics which often makes working together mutually beneficial. These include geographical proximity, shared socialist legacies under Soviet rule, and similar transition experiences.

Regarding energy and climate issues, they tend to prefer nuclear power and coal out of a common concern about energy security. There is great resistance to the initial costs of the low-carbon transition – regardless of the long-term benefits. As the emissions reductions since 1990 have largely been the result of the recession following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a robust policy framework to enable a low-carbon transition is not yet in place.

However, much of what has been written about the Visegrád Group as a unitary force is overstated. The problem is that alignment on a number of important European issues, including security, migration and budget negotiations has created overblown expectations about the substance of the political group on other issues. In reality, the Visegrád Group is a strategic alliance which doesn’t always work.

A strategic alliance that leaves space for faultlines

The academic literature has offered a more pragmatic view on the group than the public debate. Visegrád cooperation is seen as a flexible setup to respond to common challenges. The focus is placed on strategic issues, such as security, energy security or Russia policy, albeit with mixed success due to the very different attitudes the governments of Poland and Hungary have towards Russia. In short, cooperation is ad-hoc and based on specific interests rather than on a commonly shared identity.

From this perspective, it is not surprising that faultlines (re-)appear in areas that do not fit strategic considerations. For instance, unease has grown recently within the Visegrád Four when the Polish and Hungarian administrations challenged European values, such as liberalism and the rule of law. Czechs and Slovaks were unwilling to align and being taken ‘hostage’ in what could become an ideological battle with other EU members. Similarly, faultlines became visible when Poland was left isolated over the re-election of Donald Tusk as President of the European Council. Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, currently Beata Szydlo’s closest ally, refused to back his counterpart on the issue.

The environment benefits from a divided Visegrád Group

Cracks in the alliance could open up space for the adoption of more ambitious energy and climate policies. We could already observe the first signs of this on 27 February 2017, when Energy Ministers discussed in a public session the ‘Clean Energy for All Europeans’ legislative package (also called the ‘Winter Package’). Ahead of the meeting, the Visegrád Group had published a common statement that lacked any substance. It merely stressed the right of member states to determine their own energy mix, recalled the October 2014 European Council conclusions, and voiced concern that the timeline for discussions was too tight. In short, the Visegrád Four could not agree on more than the lowest common denominator.

The strategic element of the alliance became visible during the Council debate. Poland, currently politically isolated and generally at crossroads with the EU’s decarbonisation agenda, referred insistently to the Visegrád Four statement. Hungary and Slovakia did so to a lesser degree. The Czech Republic deviated most clearly from the group. It did not mention the common statement once, but instead emphasised a non-paper on electricity market design which it previously had co-authored with Germany, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway.

Only one day later, at the Environment Council on 28 February, ministers adopted a position on the Emissions Trading System (ETS) which was stronger than expected by many observers, including the cancellation of up to 3 billion tons of CO2 from the Market Stability Reserve. The disunity in the Visegrád Group, and in particular the Czech Republic’s interest in a stronger ETS, was a key factor in enabling the Council to reach an agreement that is more ambitious than the position taken by the European Parliament.

For the EU’s energy and climate agenda, the lack of alignment within the Visegrád Group is a good sign. Divided, the alliance is less likely to block ambitious climate policies. Poland, in particular, will find it more difficult to uphold its pro-coal position which is incompatible with EU energy and climate objectives. If EU and member state negotiators manage to exploit these cracks in the alliance, it could bring the Union closer to a Winter Package that is compatible with the Paris Agreement.