reflections

Europe's Stalling Integration

4 MINS READMar 7, 2013 | 02:54 GMT
(Stratfor)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, the incorporation of the former Soviet satellites into Western Europe and NATO became one of the main objectives of the European Union. However, with the financial crisis threatening the heart of the eurozone, the political and economic integration of Central Europe has been put on the back burner, as illustrated by a low-profile summit to discuss economic and defense integration held in Warsaw on March 6.

The summit brought together the leaders of the Weimar Triangle (Germany, France and Poland) and the Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary). These two entities have a similar story. Both were born in 1991, after the reunification of Germany and the fall of communism in Europe. Both were aimed at strengthening ties between neighbors facing the new post-Cold War world. 

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These six countries had a similar geopolitical vision, as they considered the integration of Central European countries with the West as a counterweight to Russia's influence on its former satellites and its energy dominance. Moreover, the members of the Visegrad Group — all of which were occupied first by Germany and then by Russia during World War II — shared a common need to find a foreign military ally and therefore all developed close relations with the United States. As a result, between 1999 and 2004, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia became members of NATO and the European Union.

However, this scheme of alliances proved to have limitations. Instead of trading with each other, the Visegrad Four sought to penetrate the German market. Germany is the biggest export market for all four countries, and they tend to compete in the same sectors, such as cars and electronics. 

Moreover, while these countries share the need to reduce their dependence on external allies, they don't share the same strategic goals. Because of its location at the heart of the North European Plain, Poland has historically been exposed to invasion from the east and the west. That's not the case for Hungary, which is relatively protected from Russian invasion by the Carpathian Mountains in the east. During the summit, the Visegrad Four signed a letter of intent to form a "battlegroup" with soldiers from the four countries. However, this idea was already discussed in summits held in 2011 and 2012, and little progress has been made. There is also a problem of leadership: Poland sees itself as the natural leader of the region, a view that is not necessarily shared by the other members of the group.

The European crisis has only increased the divisions between Central and Western Europe. Except for Slovakia, the members of the Visegrad Group have retained their own currencies and, despite occasional rhetoric by their leaders, integration into the eurozone is not an immediate priority for them, since retaining the ability to independently apply monetary policy is helping them to mitigate the impact of the crisis. And because the European crisis particularly affects the eurozone, most of the measures designed by Brussels are meant for the countries that share the common currency, thus isolating non-eurozone members from the decision-making.

Central European countries did not receive financial support from Brussels to deal with the effects of the financial crisis and had to turn to the International Monetary Fund instead, as Hungary did in 2008. Furthermore, the debate over the European budget earlier this year also revealed conflicting views about the direction the European Union is heading. While Central European countries were particularly interested in preserving (and even increasing) European cohesion funds, Berlin sought to restrict them.

France's attendance at these summits adds another element to the political dynamics. Central European countries could see France as a counterbalance to Germany. At a time when the Franco-German alliance is under strain due to the European crisis, the rest of Europe is interested in keeping the balance of power between Paris and Berlin. Moreover, France is in favor of maintaining a robust European budget, which is supported by the Central European countries, which benefit from receiving cohesion funds. However, French President Francois Hollande's government is interested in weakening the euro to boost French exports. Central European countries may view this idea negatively because they benefit from the competitive advantages offered against an expensive euro.

The March 6 summit sought to send the message that European integration is still ongoing and that Central European countries are committed to it. However, the different interests of these six countries and the deep crisis in the eurozone make achieving consensus increasingly difficult. While a decade ago the countries of Western and Central Europe had a relatively shared strategic vision, the economic crisis has deepened the fractures that hitherto remained dormant.

Editor's note: A previous version of this analysis misstated which members of the Visegrad Group have retained their own currency; Slovakia is a member of the eurozone.

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