If the art of creating the Brussels compromise consisted, for many years, of searching for solutions that are acceptable to both the “engine of European integration” and to the countries of the EU’s north and south, then in no case can it ignore the voice of the member states from Central Europe – Rafał Paweł Perl
In this jubilee year marking the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Visegrád Group, Poland finds itself presiding over this regional initiative, which also consists of Slovakia, Czechia and Hungary. In this interview for CorD Magazine, Polish Ambassador Rafał Paweł Perl says that the aim of the group is to continue to “strengthen its collective influence in the EU, while deepening cohesion within the Group”.
The member countries of the Visegrád Group support the expansion of the EU to encompass the countries of the Balkans, including Serbia, which they also see as a partner in the extended variation of regional cooperation dubbed V4 Plus.
How much has the connecting of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Czechia influenced political, economic and general social changes in your countries?
In the past 30 years, Central European countries – among them the countries of the Visegrád Group: Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – underwent an amazing evolution. We entered the ‘90s as post-communist countries, associated not only with glorious battles against oppressive systems, but also with poverty and drab, economic failure caused by a centrally-planned economy that spanned decades and USSR-allied Eastern Bloc countries. Difficult social and economic transformation was accompanied by, on the one side, the release of enormous energy aimed at strengthening the newly regained political sovereignty and, on the other, the developing of an entrepreneurial spirit and free competition. The result of the first tendency was a joint declaration that the then Czechoslovakia, the Republic of Poland and Hungary signed on 15th February 1991, when the then-leaders of our countries decided to work together towards EU integration. Thanks to consistent efforts of individual countries and cooperation within V4, we managed to achieve goals that had seemed very distant in the early ‘90s: NATO membership followed by the simultaneous accession of V4 members to the EU on 1st May 2004. This political success would not have been possible without the success of reform measures in the economic field – together with continuous GDP and investment growth, Central Europe became one of the flywheels of the European economy. According to statistics, the V4 countries together represent the 4th biggest EU economy and the 5th biggest exporter in Europe.
Thanks to consistent efforts of individual countries and cooperation within V4, we managed to achieve goals that had seemed very distant in the early ‘90s: NATO membership followed by the simultaneous accession of V4 members to the EU on 1st May 2004
What are the Visegrád Group’s priorities today?
The EU remains the main platform for V4 cooperation. It is through effectively influencing the EU agenda that our four countries can partially impact on the global order and make an actual impact on the immediate neighbourhood. One of the brands of V4 as a group is maintaining the existing rules of cohesion policy and providing constant support to the enlargement process. The main goals of the current V4 Polish presidency (running from July 2020 until end of June 2021) are the further strengthening of our collective influence on the EU decision-making process (i.e. in the field of sectoral politics or the digital agenda), cooperation and the coordination of action within the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and deepening of the comcohesion within the Group (with an emphasis on developing contacts between our societies and “V4-connectivity” links and synergy).
The Visegrád Group has been viewed with respect in the European Union for decades, as a good example of regional integration within the EU. However, in recent years – starting with the emergence of the migrant crisis – you have often been dubbed “EU rebels”. How do you view relations between the V4 countries and the rest of the EU?
V4 cooperation is a good example of the added value that regional cooperation creates – this is why we welcome and support all initiatives aimed at that kind of interaction in the Western Balkans. Continuation of the long-term partnership and usage of pre-accession proven mechanisms of coordination brought – and is still bringing – measurable effects in the form of the V4’s constructive influence on shaping the internal and external EU agenda. V4 representatives, at the level of prime ministers and foreign ministers, as well as heads of other ministries, regularly meet ahead of most important EU meetings, in order to discuss individual countries’ stances or find a common denominator that would ease making decisions in favour not only of the EU as a whole, but our region as well.
It is worth noting that, in Brussels, V4 leaders represent over 64 million EU citizens (the Visegrád countries together represent the 4th largest EU population) and, in light of the EU rules linking voting power to population, can and should be a determinant of certain aspirations related to shaping the future of the EU. If the art of creating the Brussels compromise for many years consisted of searching for solutions acceptable to both the “engine of European integration” and to the countries of the EU’s north and south, then in no case can it ignore the voice of the member states from Central Europe.
Are there any grounds for criticism from Brussels insisting that certain public policies in the V4 countries contradict the EU’s fundamental values? The Polish law virtually banning women from exercising their right to abortions has been cited as the latest example.
With regard to critical opinions appearing in the public domain and relating to alleged threats against fundamental values in countries like Poland, it is worth noting that there has been a mix up of two conceptual systems that deal with two separate realms. Firstly, we can address a dispute between the Polish Government and the European Commission in terms of European law, within the so-called implementation of Article 7 that mostly deals with justice reform in our country. The impasse that has existed on this issue for several months results from the lack of support of several member states for the European Commission’s stance.
Member states either support Polish argumentation or consider the European Court of Justice (whose judgements are strictly enforced by Poland) – and not the European Commission – as the competent authority in such complicated European law-related matters. A completely separate area relates to particularly sensitive issues, such as the anti-abortion/pro-life stance, same-sex marriages or euthanasia, which – also due to an historical, social or religious context – remain within the individual country’s jurisdiction and do not fall under the scope of EU law. It is important to point out that the only EU country to fully ban abortions is Malta, while the cited limitation (and not prohibition) of three to two prerequisites for terminations of pregnancies in Poland is a result of a legally unquestionable decision of judges sitting on the Constitutional Tribunal – the body responsible for interpreting the Polish constitution.
It is worth noting that, in Brussels, V4 leaders represent over 64 million EU citizens (the Visegrád countries together represent the 4th largest EU population) and, in light of the EU rules linking voting power to population, can and should be a determinant of certain aspirations related to shaping the future of the EU
The members of the Visegrád Group support the continued enlargement of the EU, including Serbia’s European integration. However, how do you view Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s proposal that Serbia join the V4 group, in some way?
The unequivocal conviction that the EU enlargement process needs to be continued remains deeply embedded in the thinking of successive V4 governments, which was already reflected in the text of the first Visegrád Declaration signed thirty years ago: “it is the conviction of the signatory states that, in the light of the political and economic challenges they face, as well as social renewal efforts, their cooperation is an important step on the road to pan-European integration”.
The Visegrád Four countries have been active for a number of years within the EU’s informal “friends of enlargement” group, also known as the Tallinn Group. As V4, we have strived for years, by consistently supporting the pro-European aspirations of countries like Serbia at a political, expert and technical level, to put into practise the idea of a democratic, safe, stable and prosperous Europe. Serbia and other countries of this region, as countries in the immediate or close neighbourhood of the Visegrád Four, are particularly dear to us, which is reflected in regular high-level meetings organised in the V4-WB format by each subsequent Visegrád presidency.
What forms the essence of the V4 Plus initiative?
V4+ is a proven format of cooperation and consultation with the most important V4 partners, which can be both multilateral (V4 + Western Balkans, Eastern Partnership countries, Benelux), as well as more individual (V4 + Japan, South Korea, USA or Israel).
Regardless of the basic advantage, which is the possibility of building comprehensive political, economic or cultural relations covering the entire region of Central Europe and selected partners, from a practical point of view (in this case I refer to my personal experience as chief of staff to the foreign minister responsible, among others, for preparing the calendar and meeting agenda of two successive heads of Polish diplomacy), it is a solution that significantly eases the maintaining of regular, personal high-level contacts, which are reflected in the implementation of specific cooperation projects.
Having arrived in Serbia last year, how would you now assess bilateral relations between Poland and Serbia?
Our bilateral relations are based on respect and partnership, resulting from a long history of mutual ties, historical and cultural similarities, as well as friendship between our societies. We have for many years been consistently supporting Belgrade’s pro-EU aspirations, both in the political sphere and by sharing our specific EU-related expertise within annual meetings of the so-called Belgrade Conference. I hope that very good contacts at the highest political level will also translate into further expansion of sectoral cooperation, where both sides have a lot to offer each other. Here I’m referring in particular to areas such as modern technologies and artificial intelligence, energy, agriculture, biotechnology and environmental protection.
Polish companies have so far invested over 250 million euros in Serbia. Regardless of the Englishsounding names of many products and brands, which are rarely directly associated with our country, Polish clothes, shoes and cosmetics are widely available on the local market
An invitation for Polish President Duda to once again visit Serbia was extended during your first meeting with Serbian President Vučić. Is this invitation being considered?
We are grateful for President Vučić’s invitation and I am personally very much counting on the possibility of organising the visit of the President of the Republic of Poland to Serbia. Should the epidemiological situation in both countries permit, I hope that President Andrzej Duda will be able to pay a visit to Belgrade later this year. It should be recalled that the last visit at such a high level took place in 2009.
It goes without saying that each visit of a head of state is a rather complicated ceremonial and protocol endeavour. Nevertheless, it is an excellent opportunity to bring new dynamism to our bilateral relations. The joint presence of high level officials and representatives of the business community from both countries usually leads to the achieving of tangible results, charting the path for future cooperation.
Compared to the level of political relations, economic cooperation between Poland and Serbia is lagging behind. Do you see possibilities for the two countries’ economies to be brought closer together?
Although I do not fully agree with your assessment of Polish-Serbian bilateral economic relations, I do believe that they certainly have great potential for further development. Our bilateral trade exchange amounts to approximately 1.3 billion euros, which, according to official statistics of the Serbian government, means that we are Serbia’s 8th largest trade partner. Polish companies have so far invested over 250 million euros in Serbia. Regardless of the English-sounding names of many products and brands, which are rarely directly associated with our country, Polish clothes, shoes and cosmetics are widely available on the local market. The inhabitants of Serbia are also buying Polish food (including organic products), furniture and medicines, use banks and services that operate thanks to Polish-made IT software, and fly planes that are serviced in Belgrade by a Polish-Czech company. Sectors such as ICT and new technologies (also in the field of urban space management), agri-food processing, mining and energy, environmental protection and biotechnology are particularly prospective when it comes to the further development of bilateral cooperation.
Local media in Serbia recently reported on a joint initiative of Polish and Serbian students aimed at bridging the cultural gap between the two countries through the dissemination of country-specific knowledge. It was then stated that Polish people know very little about Serbia, which they still view as part of the former Yugoslavia through the prism of war crimes trials. Is that also the impression you have; and do you intend to strengthen cooperation in the domain of culture?
I believe that expanding social, scientific and cultural contacts is certainly one of the best recipes for building the future of our bilateral cooperation and increasing mutual knowledge about our countries. Although some representatives of older generations perceive Serbia only as a post-Yugoslav state, and Poland is seen as a poor and grey post-communist state, general public perception of each other is very positive. It is based on common values connecting Poles and Serbs: attachment to the family, respect for history and tradition, as well as legendary hospitality.
As the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland in Belgrade, I am also pleased to see growing academic exchanges (more and more Polish students choose to study in Serbia, within the EU Erasmus programme), as well as strengthening relations between our cultural institutions and local governments.
According to statistics, the V4 countries together represent the 4th biggest EU economy and the 5th biggest exporter in Europe.
V4 cooperation is a good example of the added value that regional cooperation creates – this is why we welcome and support all initiatives aimed at that kind of interaction in the Western Balkans
Our bilateral trade exchange amounts to approximately 1.3 billion euros, which, according to official statistics of the Serbian government, means that we are Serbia’s 8th largest trade partner