Merkel meets V4 in Bratislava: What does it mean?

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Germany’s Chacellor Angela Merkel meets V4 in Bratislava. Credit: Andrej Matisak


1. As Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Bratislava on Thursday for a meeting with Visegrad Group PMs, how would you assess Germany-V4 relations? Is the V4 for the German government more or less one group or is it also about some differentiation?

2. Merkel is on her way out of politics but she is still quite popular. Who is and how would you describe a typical supporter of Merkel?


Josef Janning, Head of ECFR Berlin Office, Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

1. V4 are very important for Germany, both economically and politically. V4 trade is larger than trade with US or China for Germany and the political preferences of the V4 are highly relevant in the EU context. And it is this context where differences are — bilateral relations between Germany and each of the V4 are generally good.

Berlin is acutely aware of the differences which exist among the four countries — notably some unease in Prague and Bratislava about the very vocal positions of the Polish and Hungarian government vis-a-vis Brussels.

In my work I have contributed to that understanding. Our analysis of interactions between member states shows the linkage between V4 and the EU center to be weak, and also we find disappointment in Czechia and Slovakia about the two other V4. More is here.

2. The typical Merkel supporter is a middle of the road voter with no strong ideological preferences, one who prefers hands-on politicians over strong or charismatic leaders. Merkel is unpretentious and comes across as focused on the issues and processes. This way Merkel has won a broader base in the population, well beyond her own party — whereas she has lost many on the conservative side of her party who would prefer to articulate the differences to other parties more strongly, and who have opposed (and still do) her refugee policy.

Christian Schweiger, Visiting Professor Comparative European Governance Systems, Technische Universität Chemnitz

1. I think overall they remain politically vital for both sides, as particularly the V4 countries remain part of the German production chain, particularly for the car industry. On the political side I would say that relations have been rather strained since the dispute over migration quotas following the 2015 migration crisis. The anti-German undertones in the generally eurosceptic domestic agenda of the Czech, Hungarian and Polish governments have not gone unnoticed in Berlin. This explains why particularly Hungary and Poland have been the focus of the debate about a perceived general lack of solidarity debate amongst CEE member states, which includes considerations about cutting them off from strutural EU funds. Hungary and Poland have of course also been in the limelight of the public debate due to the trend towards illiberalism and “democratic backsliding”, which is seen as extremely critical in Berlin. Slovakia stands out of the V4 group as an exception to a certain extent. In addition to being the only member of the euro core group there has been less of a trend towards illiberalism than in the other three countries, in spite of Slovakia’s rigid opposition towards migration quotas and the recent corruption scandals. Overall I would say that the political debate in Germany is currently torn between those who advocate a stricter approach towards the V4 and those who advocate a new dialogue.

2. This is a difficult one as Merkel has of course lost support amongst traditional Conservatives over the years, mainly due to her liberal attitude towards same sex marriage, migration and also her generally Social Democratic welfare policies. At the same time she has won support amongst traditional Green and liberal Social Democratic voters who support her on these issues. Generally Merkel represents the consensual, anti-reformist middle of the way approach which many Germans already appreciated under Helmut Kohl. The German middle classes prefer their leader not to rock the boat too much and to represent stability. This is why Merkel was able to win elections with empty slogans like “A Germany where we like to live and where life is good” and “You know me”.

Kramp-Karrenbauer’s election as her successor as CDU leader reconfirms this attitude.

Jörg Forbrig, Senior Transatlantic Fellow for Central and Eastern Europe, German Marshall Fund

1. There is something schizophrenic about relations between Germany and the V4. On the one hand, in terms of substance, they are deeper than ever. For each of the V4 countries, Germany is by far the largest trade partner, while for Germany, the V4 as a group top all other countries. On the other hand, politically, there seems to be an ever longer list of controversies between individual V4 countries and Germany. Views differ on refugees and migration, on the future of Europe, on domestic politics, on the U.S., on security, on energy. In short, relations are intense, in both a positive and a negative sense.

Berlin clearly acknowledges that, while the V4 strongly positioned themselves as a group during the refugee crisis, the four countries clearly differ among themselves on many other accounts. On issues of domestic and EU politics, Hungary and Poland are distinct from the Czech and Slovak republics. On Russia no less than the U.S., Hungary and Poland do not see eye-to-eye. Slovakia is, as a Eurozone member, in the core of the EU, while the other three remain outside. The anti-German rhetoric of the Polish government is unique among V4 countries. So obviously, the V4 is much less of a bloc than the joint refusal of the German position on refugees may have suggested.

2. Merkel is by far the most popular politician in Germany, and her position has only gotten stronger since her announcement to step down after the next election. Three of five Germans have confidence in her after fourteen years in office, for several reasons. First, her centrist policies resonate with the voters of all parties other than the far left and the far right. Those moderate parties still garner around 75 percent of all votes. Second, Germans feel that the global environment is becoming ever more turbulent, and they appreciate Merkel’s steady hand in navigating this complicated environment. Third, people feel that while they and their country are doing better than ever, they are unsure what the future holds. They credit Merkel with the good state of affairs today and they are yet to see her worthy successor. So in short, the typical Merkel supporter is the typical German, and it is those calling for her demise that stand out in Germany.

Edit Zgut, Foreign Policy Analyst

The V4 group has been always a homogenous platform that has shown unprecedented unity by rejecting the mandatory relocation scheme but it is divided regarding many significant policy issues. Berlin might have been approaching them in a 2+2 structures, where HU and PL are strongly advocating for strong intergovernmentalism, an institutional structure giving primacy to national sovereignty. Because of its Eurozone membership, Slovakia seemed to be more open for to Brussels to take further competences from Eurozone members. The Czech Republic was somewhere in between with an open but Eurosceptic agenda. But today Mr. Babis seems to get closer to HU and PL to adopt harsher rhetorics against multispeed EU/ deeper integration based on the Eurozone and to curb the competences of Brussels. Slovakia as the most integrated and well-established country is a bit of an odd one out due to its obligations within the Eurozone. During their meeting one of the hot potatoes will be the next MFF negotiation where the V4 countries are against the idea of implementing rule of law conditionalities. While it is being supported by Berlin, Merkel has been cautious not to intent any interference into domestic politics in CEE. What Germany has to take into account is that the Hungarian government is trying to undermine the process from within to make sure that it will not get punished financially for violating the rule of law. The Hungarian government will continue arguing that behind the criticism of Berlin/Brussels is that they are not accepting migrants, but Viktor Orbán uses it only as a pretext to transform the political system and to cement its authoritarian regime on the EU level.

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