Central Europe: with the war in Ukraine and the elections, the Visegrad Group is falling apart

The position of Hungary under Viktor Orban, allied with Russia, is at odds with that of the other three members: Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Recent elections in the region have exacerbated these differences. The four countries used to advocate for a single market, freedom of movement for people and goods, and returning national competences to the EU member states, but this stance was not widely supported within the Union. This conflict has cast doubt on the ambitions of a group that sought to exert influence on the European stage, according to Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist and Central European specialist at Sciences Po.

The divide deepened on February 22, 2024, when Poland supported Ukraine while Hungary showed leniency towards Vladimir Putin. Slovakia and the Czech Republic, closer to Poland in supporting Ukraine, also firmly backed Kiev. These divisions have persisted and were exacerbated after recent elections in Slovakia and Poland. Although the Law and Justice Party (PiS) won the most seats in the Polish election, it lacked the votes to form a government.

As a result, former European Council President Donald Tusk now leads the country in a broad coalition, marking a rupture within the Visegrad Group. While Poland and Hungary were previously divided on the conflict in Ukraine, they continued to share ambitions for Europe. The Polish government’s conservative stance had been a strategic asset for Viktor Orban, as it would never have voted for Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union against Hungary, which requires a unanimous vote for sanctions against a member state. Even if Viktor Orban may have found a new ally within the Visegrad Group, Slovakia and its 5.5 million inhabitants lack the influence of Poland’s 38 million and are cautious not to upset Brussels.

The question arises whether Slovakia could replace Poland as a guarantee for Hungary within the Visegrad Group, but its coalition government’s cautious approach makes this uncertain. In the wake of these shifts within the Visegrad Group, its purpose is reassessed. Initially created to facilitate the accession of former Soviet Union satellites to NATO and the EU, Jacques Rupnik believes the group may continue to function with limited political ambitions. It can still serve as an instrument of regional cooperation, including economic, cultural, and educational exchanges, while its aspiration to exert influence on the European stage is called into question.

Should the conflict in Ukraine persist, it could further deepen the divisions among the Visegrad Group’s members to the point of potential dissolution.

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