A Visegrad alliance remains distant for now, but EU must address rising resentment about economic liberalisation in central and eastern Europe.
A spectre is haunting Europe, namely that of a Polish-led East European block of populists and Europe-spoilers.
Since Warsaw, under the leadership of Jaroslav Kaczynski’s party, turned away from its goal of a close partnership with Germany, the focus of Polish diplomacy is shifting increasingly towards central and eastern Europe.
The “Visegrad group” has always been an important instrument for promoting the interests of Poland and its regional partners in the EU. But the format is now taking on a new, strategic importance for Warsaw.
For Poland there is much at stake. Warsaw is struggling to defend its reputation following controversial judicial reforms and is courting regional partners in advance of a vote in the European Council on whether it has violated European rule of law standards.
Beyond this immediate concern, Warsaw is seeking allies to realize its vision of a “Europe of sovereign nations” as opposed to a Europe of ever-closer union. Poland also seeks to correct the political and economic balance in the EU, which it sees as characterized by western European hegemony.
Yet there are reasons to doubt that either Poland’s Visegrad dream - or Berlin's nightmare - will become a reality.
Warsaw’s attempt to reduce the influence of Brussels over national politics failed before it started. Just as London was becoming Warsaw’s most important ally pressing for EU reform, the Brits decided to leave the EU.
The group of ‘sovereigntists’ has been severely weakened by the UK’s departure, reducing the appetite of its members to push for major reforms. Except for a tough stance on migration policy, there is little evidence of a common agenda among the Visegrad states on this point.
Warsaw’s hopes for another regional plan, the so-called Three-Seas-Initiative, were also recently thwarted. The initiative was supposed to deepen cooperation between the countries bordering the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black seas, but continuing mutual distrust dampened its partners’ enthusiasm. Infrastructure projects – yes, please. But political opposition to Berlin or Brussels - no, thank you, was the response from Bratislava and Bucharest.
Even whether the Visegrad partners will support Poland in the rule of law vote is highly questionable. Maybe Warsaw can count on Budapest. But in the other Visegrad capitals, interest in a common front with the notorious Kaczynski-Orban axis is limited.
Does that mean that, for Germany, there is nothing to worry about on the Visegrad front? Not quite.
A political alliance against Brussels or Berlin may be a chimaera today, since the strategies and interests of the countries are too different. What they have in common though, may be very important in the long-term for Germany and Europe.
This concerns the emerging perception that EU-mandated economic liberalization in central and eastern Europe went too fast and too far; that foreign capital, which dominates the key sectors of their economies, has become a curse as well as a blessing; that protectionism is growing in the West; and that eastern companies face discrimination on the European market, with little support from the Commission, which is dominated by Westerners.
Germany, whose trade volume with Visegrad states exceeds its trade with any other partner, should be alert to these sentiments and not ignore its partners’ arguments.
Otherwise, the feeling that the EU does not care about economic development in the east could transform into a firm belief. And the spectre of a Visegrad alliance may become a reality after all.
A version of this argument was made by the author on WDR Radio.