Visegrád Four Cooperation and the COVID-19 Challenge
The Visegrád Four—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—used to exemplify low-key but efficient regional cooperation, particularly in advocating common interests in the European Council. The V4’s approach was not always popular with other countries. But it was effective.
Now the pandemic poses an unprecedented challenge to the V4. Early signs were promising. The Covid-19 outbreak prompted an extraordinary prime ministers’ meeting in Prague on March 4, where the four countries pledged intensified cooperation. The V4 health ministers decided to institute regular Monday information exchanges. Since then, ministerial meetings have been virtual.
But the spread of the virus forced all governments to turn away from the regional format and to focus on national level decision-making. All four countries imposed states of emergency with measures including quarantine, restriction of social interaction, travel bans, and border closures.
These were not coordinated. Their spillover effects have harmed regional ties. Hungary’s closure of its border with Austria on Tuesday stranded Romanians and Bulgarians wishing to return home, as well as other travelers. Queues are stretching 20km (12 miles) into Austria. Poland’s border closure on Sunday cut off the three Baltic states from their land routes with the rest of Europe, leading to huge queues on the border with Germany. Poland has allowed limited, police-escorted “humanitarian convoys” of buses and vans to cross its territory, but has not made similar arrangements for private cars. The European Council president Ursula von der Leyen held emergency talks with prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki. The willingness to share information varies too. Hungary is one of six EU countries that has elected to not release recent data on the domestic spread of the coronavirus.
There are also impressive examples of innovation and best practice at the national level. In Poland, for example:
The government, in cooperation with the state carrier LOT Airlines, is organizing special charter flights to bring Polish citizens back home under the banner Flight Back Home, with the hashtag #LotDoDomu trending across Polish social media.
A growing number of Polish restaurants are offering prepare and donate meals to medical staff, with the hashtag #gastropomaga (gastronomy is helping).
IHelpYou is a mobile and web app that links those in need of help, from shopping to walking their dog, with people who are ready to provide assistance in this time of crisis.
The story so far is that solidarity, and nerves, are fraying. Visegrád Four cooperation proved effective in peacetime but pandemic conditions are straining this regional bond to the limit, and perhaps beyond.
March 19, 2020