Central Europe’s Velvet Power: Can It Reinvigorate EU Foreign Policy?

Central Europe used to be a place of tragedy, according to Czech novelist Milan Kundera, a leading dissident voice during the communist era. Throughout its troubled history, the region, fatefully wedged between Germany and Russia, suffered deep wounds to its psyche at the hand of great powers: oppression by enemies, betrayal by friends. Its battered societies were so busy trying to survive, Kundera mused, that they did not have the leisure to look inward and focus on themselves.

But since the so-called Visegrad Four—the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia—shook off the Soviet yoke and topped a decade of successful political and economic reform by rejoining the West in its most exclusive clubs, the European Union and NATO, they have begun to pursue their own objectives, and they have distinguished themselves as actors on the world stage. In the realm of foreign policy, this means that they have been busy settling scores with former imperial overlords, courting mentors and protectors, learning how to articulate and defend their interests, and building their reputations by crafting new foreign policy brands. They have all stepped up their game and, in the case of Poland, transitioned to the premier league of European politics.


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The gradual embrace of Germany is one of the most important long-term developments in Central European geopolitics since the accession of the Visegrad states to the European Union. For Poland, it was a premeditated policy platform on which Donald Tusk’s liberal government took power in 2007; for the rest of the Visegrad Four, the repositioning vis-à-vis Germany came about more gradually.

Three years ago, as Warsaw began courting Berlin and Paris through the Weimar Triangle, a previously dormant regional grouping meant to promote cooperation between the Poles, Germans, and French, the Economist wrote that Poland’s foreign policy was becoming more realistic to allow the regional heavyweight to “dance with the big boys.” On the eve of the euro crisis, the country’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, sent a clear message when he said that he feared “Germany’s power less than her inactivity.” A strong Germany, he argued, was crucial for the survival of the European Union and the euro.

Slovakia jumped on the bandwagon next. When it rejected the first Greek bailout, observers speculated that then Prime Minister Iveta Radicova was not only speaking her mind, but reading Chancellor Angela Merkel’s, too. What may have been a bon mot became a reality when the rhetoric of frugality and solidarity by successive Slovak governments struck a chord in crisis-managing Berlin. This spring in Bratislava, at one of Central Europe’s leading foreign and security policy conferences, GLOBSEC, Slovakia’s foreign minister, Miroslav Lajcak, even sparked a bit of controversy when he said that his country would not have a problem with becoming a part of a “greater Germany”—a bold statement from a onetime Nazi puppet state.

To be sure, Central Europe’s pivot to Germany is not yet complete and perhaps never will be, given the complexity of state-to-state relationships in the multi-layered EU context, and the tug of nationalist interests in some parts of the diverse region, but the cooperation between CE and Germany is undoubtedly deepening. It is less clear where the distracted Hungary and the introspective Czech Republic stand, but the German-Polish-Slovak axis appears to be solid, as the bond of the three states rests on shared pro-European sentiments. In March, Poland made a point by holding a Weimar-Visegrad mini-summit in Warsaw, to facilitate greater coordination between Central Europe and Germany and France in discussions and votes on the future architecture of the Economic and Monetary Union and the strengthening of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy.


The pivot to Germany and the reset with Russia combined have opened a window of opportunity for CE states to advance their signature foreign policy enterprise: democracy support.

Given that Germany has recently been more vocal in its criticism of Russia’s “managed democracy,” Central European states should explore possibilities for leveraging and eventually channeling the transatlantic community’s democracy agenda. For that to happen, the US would have to add its blessing to Germany’s. Washington, which has recently suffered setbacks in Russia policy—especially regarding democracy assistance—and remains busy with its own pivot to Asia, could definitely benefit from consulting on the design and implementation of its democracy support programs, and perhaps also its overall communication strategy for Moscow, with the policymakers and experts in Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest, to strike an acceptable balance between sustaining assistance to civil society and maintaining a level of dialogue with the establishment.

The Visegrad states definitely seem willing to play this role. “Russia is ‘missionary territory,’” Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, said in a personal interview, in reference to his country’s desire to extend the European zone of stability, prosperity, and freedom farther East through democracy assistance.

Timing could not be better. Globally, the rules of the energy game are changing, which means that as Russian oil and gas reserves count for less in terms of international bargaining power, Moscow might eventually show more interest in closer cooperation with the EU and perhaps even NATO. Having learned invaluable lessons from efforts to project soft power in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, the CE states could help the community of democracies craft incentives—including upgrades to institutionalized cooperation with the EU, or conditionality linked to membership in the OECD—that could motivate the Kremlin to treat civil society less harshly at home and show more respect for democratic standards overall.


Combating authoritarianism around the globe has been Central Europe’s foreign policy trademark ever since the downfall of communism. As outspoken advocates of human rights and former satellite countries who have “been there,” the Visegrad states have engaged in fierce verbal shoot-outs (often to the irritation of “old Europe”) with dictatorships, for instance in Burma, Cuba, and North Korea, both from home and at the UN, the EU, and the Council of Europe. They have vigorously defended the cause of the “colorful revolutionaries” in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe in the mid-2000s, and supported other democratic aspirants across the post-Soviet world, most notably in Belarus.

These days, they are extending the “transition know-how” that they possess as recent graduates of post-authoritarian transformation to would-be democratizers in North Africa. A flurry of statements expressing moral support in international and CE media for protesters in the early days of the Arab Awakening has already translated into valuable long-term democracy assistance initiatives, such as an inter-governmental Tunisian-Polish Institute for Democracy and Development, a soon-to-be-launched joint venture described by Poland’s former ambassador to Tunis, Krzysztof Olendzki, as “a do tank heavily focused on civil society and political education.”

In the Maghreb, Central Europe has a distinct advantage over established donors—the US included—due to its pristine reputation and experience from post-communist transformation, which make it uniquely positioned to lead the dialogue on democracy-building and civil society development. “The greatest strength of the Visegrad Group is the modesty we have,” the Czech foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, said at GLOBSEC in April. Indeed, Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, and Slovaks, with no history of colonial rule or cooperation with the deposed authoritarians, as well as fresh experience with reforms and enthusiasm to share their knowledge, can approach Tunisians or Libyans as peers, sharing on-the-ground lessons rather than teaching conventional wisdoms.

The international community should recognize and harness their value added in this strategically vital region. CE states have a long track record of successful collaboration with the EU and the US in Europe’s eastern neighborhood. The EU’s Eastern Partnership, a European neighborhood policy toolkit that provides an institutionalized forum for discussing visa agreements, free trade deals, and strategic partnership agreements with the EU’s eastern neighbors, was masterminded by Poland in tandem with Sweden. Iurie Leanca, the foreign minister of tiny but perky Moldova—one of the six beneficiaries of the Eastern Partnership scheme—says that he is “very grateful to the . . . Visegrad countries, as well as to neighbors Romania and Bulgaria, for the support they have been providing us throughout the reform process since the first day.” He singles out Slovakia as a particularly instructive example for his country: “In the 1990s, Slovakia was lagging behind in the democratization and NATO and EU integration processes because of internal politics. But it showed political will, motivation, and courage and made up for this delay.”

The newly established European Endowment for Democracy marks another foreign policy triumph for Central European countries, Poland in particular. Polish deputy foreign minister Jerzy Pomianowski, EED’s director, reports that the institution is now being warmly welcomed as a “new kid on the block,” and that discussions about opportunities for cooperation with its US counterpart, the National Endowment for Democracy, are currently under way. The US and Central Europe already have a history of institutionalized cooperation on democracy assistance: via the Warsaw-
based Community of Democracies, as well as via the Emerging Donors Challenge Fund under the US State Department. They can also capitalize on shared experience gathered through multiple other institutional channels, both governmental and nongovernmental, including USAID, Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.


But returning to Kundera, while the Visegrad countries now have the luxury to focus on themselves, it appears that self-inquiry has played second fiddle to self-promotion. Central Europeans have skillfully used powerful allies and international and regional organizations and forums to advance their democracy agendas, but they have contributed less substance—and applied little creativity, for that matter—to the intellectual and policy dialogue on the future of European foreign and security policy than was expected at the time of their grand entrance to the European Union, in 2004.

Indeed, back then, many observers hoped that the new member states would inject a dose of energy into the discourse on the format and content of Europe’s collective efforts on the global stage. But, as Sonja Licht, a Serbian dissident intellectual who is currently presiding over the Foreign Policy Council at the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, puts it: “When those hopes were voiced, the situation in Europe was very different. Everybody felt good, no crisis was on the horizon.” A decade later, reality does not yield to easy optimism.

The European Union that the Visegrad states are navigating today is profoundly different from the one that they joined. Largely as a result of the ongoing euro crisis, the EU and its member states have little appetite for activism in the foreign policy arena. Director of the Open Society European Policy Institute Heather Grabbe, a seasoned expert in European affairs, admitted at a talk in Washington this spring that reinvigorating the common foreign and security policy or boosting Europe’s famed “soft power” currently ranks fairly low on the EU’s to-do list.

At the same time, some Central European countries that were predicted to energize the European dialogue and raise crucial international issues have been distracted by woes of their own, stemming, in part, from the post-traumatic stress disorder of the communist era. Hungary, the region’s black sheep du jour (Poland and Slovakia also experienced populist and nationalist surges in mid-2000s) has come under fire for democratic backsliding, and the introspective Czech Republic, a euro-skeptic loner with a tendency to isolate itself from the rest of the region, seems immersed in political infighting following a slide into polarization after this year’s presidential election and the collapse of the government.

Economically, three of the four Visegrad states currently have only modest growth prospects. Their situation is far less worrisome than that of other neighbors in a continent mired in crisis, but it does shift policymakers’ attention inward, away from that emphasis on foreign and security policy enabled by the double-digit growth of the 2000s.

Moreover, Central European states are starting to realize that the “transition know-how” that is the speciality of their foreign policy is increasingly irrelevant for the internal debate of an EU in crisis. Painful free-market reforms in small and open economies whose societies do not question their political legitimacy cannot be enacted in large, relatively closed economies wracked by social upheaval. So far, their own distinctive experiences have not allowed the Visegrad Four to make a substantive contribution to the austerity-versus-growth debate that is so intimately intertwined with Europe’s ability to project soft power and to present itself as a safe haven.

But lessons from post-communist transformation, if applied to democracy support, can revitalize the EU’s external policy, if CE countries re-conceptualize the notion of soft power and rebrand it for the era of multipolarity and austerity. As Andras Simonyi, Hungary’s former ambassador to the US and currently the director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, says: “If Central Europe wants to stay relevant, it must understand how soft power works. Having people like Vaclav Havel around was both a blessing and a curse. While they were here, it seemed easy to capture the attention of the world. But we must not exaggerate our own soft power. Across Europe, it is failing because we took it for granted. We thought we could be attractive without trying.”

To lead, rather than follow, the debate on soft power, Simonyi and others feel that Central Europeans should, for instance, update the agendas of their increasingly popular foreign and security policy forums. The freedom platform in Prague, Forum 2000, or the transatlantic get-together in Bratislava, GLOBSEC, among others, provide inviting opportunities for outreach to policy and opinion makers, but the organizers have so far been reactive or conservative in their choice of topics. Alongside covering acute crises like the one in Syria, or analyzing developments in policy realms such as the EU’s eastern neighborhood policy, which Central Europeans cannot afford to ignore, these forums might want to begin to delve into forward-looking, conceptual brainstorming about a long-term strategy for Europe’s foreign and security policy.

The dossier in which Visegrad countries could be trendsetters is US-EU cooperation in wider Europe, which spans regions as diverse as Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Levant. From Georgia to Morocco, Brussels and Washington pursue similar goals, but without linking policies or pooling resources. Some CE policymakers believe that the time is ripe for an institutional upgrade, which, if done smartly, could help alleviate European concerns over the perceived US exit from European affairs, while also freeing American hands in other parts of the world by entrusting more responsibility for regional stability to the EU. The institutional template that could kick-start the dialogue is the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which seeks to tie countries to the east and south of the EU into its regulatory frameworks. Central European policymakers, diplomats, and blue-ribbon experts should start considering modes of engagement for US actors—the State Department, USAID, NED, and the expert community—in the ENP. The effort to integrate the US would certainly not be unprecedented: Americans already participate in the Common Security and Defense Policy, under a 2011 framework agreement. US participation in the ENP could also reinvigorate the policy itself. Crucially, if Washington steps in, it might incentivize other regional players, notably Turkey and Russia, to take part.

However the future plays out, Central Europe is no longer a place of tragedy. But its velvet power is about more than accumulated lessons on the mechanics of democratic transition. It is about under-utilized intellectual potential and capacity for compassionate communication, once applied by Havelesque “cultural intellectuals,” a unique breed of policymakers often jailed or otherwise persecuted under communism, who came to wield political power despite their subconscious rejection of it. Capitalizing on this legacy of political imagination could allow Central Europeans to find a long-term vision for Europe’s foreign and security policy with a motivating power similar to that of a “Europe whole,
free and at peace.”

Kristina Mikulova, Ph.D., is a Transatlantic Policy Fellow in International Relations and Security at the European Union Institute for Security Studies and a governance consultant for the Europe and Central Asia region at the World Bank.

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