If a serious financial crisis, an imperialist Russia and a migration crisis cannot motivate the member states of the Visegrad Four group to cooperate on defence, what can?
Europe is going through one of the most testing periods in its recent history, and defence policy cooperation – both at the European and regional level – has been perceived as one of the ways of responding to its problems. The impact of the economic recession has still not been entirely overcome. Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the migration crisis have fundamentally challenged the idea of Europe as a place of stability.
The prospects for enhanced defence and security cooperation might thus seem good. One of the regions where defence cooperation has gained an increased profile is Central Europe, where Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have formed the Visegrad Four (V4) group. While the group still has no permanent bureaucratic structures or a secretariat, the national leaders meet regularly and the presidency rotates among them. When the countries of the V4 – which have similar histories, cultural roots and ambitions for economic development – joined the EU in 2004, they started to play a more independent role in European politics. Poland’s increased standing in Europe provided a further boost to defence cooperation. In essence, the rationale for V4 defence cooperation has been based on three elements – financial, political and strategic.
First, there is a strong case for V4 defence cooperation in order to make significant financial savings for each state. According to official NATO data for the fiscal year of 2016, the cumulative annual defence expenditures of the V4 group stands at only €12.43 billion – with Poland spending the most (€8.57 billion), compared with the Czech Republic (€1.77 billion), Hungary (€1.15 billion) and Slovakia (€0.94 billion). This is a relatively low level of expenditure; as such, there is limited opportunity to obtain the type of savings that come with scale. For instance, the collective defence expenditure of V4 countries is far lower than the British (€47.68 billion), the French (€39.84 billion) and the German (€37.14 billion) budgets. Savings through joint efforts on military modernisation, research and development, and procurement have been identified as strong drivers of cooperation.
Second, V4 cooperation can increase the political profile of the group at the European level. Its coordinated approaches on the migration crisis and energy security are perhaps the best-known examples. On the latter, there have been successful gas infrastructure projects, and on the former a coordinated political approach on the European Commission’s mandatory migrant quota system. More complex cooperation – including on defence – could further increase the profile of the V4 group.
Third, the geopolitics of Europe has fundamentally changed during the past decade. The pillars of European stability have been eroded by the conflict in Ukraine, the migration crisis and the threat of terrorism. The perception of security has been undeniably weakened in Central Europe. While the V4 states have different understandings as to the severity of the current situation, the feeling that European stability is under threat is certainly shared among the V4 members. Such an environment might make the notion of defence and security cooperation mutually reassuring. In 2014, a stronger framework for defence integration was established. The V4 defence ministers signed two strategic documents: the ‘Long Term Vision of the Visegrad Countries on Deepening their Defence Cooperation’ and the ‘Framework for an Enhanced Visegrad Defence Planning Cooperation’. These documents indicate the ambitions of the member states to deepen their cooperation in a number of key areas. The signatories reiterated the importance of integrating their processes for capability development and joint procurement, and of the need to standardise legal regulation in regional defence industries. They further called for cooperation in military education, training and an increase in the number of joint exercises.
Two and half years later, progress has been made on the latter, with more exercises and joint troops stationing. In 2016, the V4 EU Battlegroup became fully operational – representing a major milestone in the group’s defence cooperation. As an EU Battlegroup, if this force is on rotational standby, it may be deployed in any area within 6,000 km of Brussels for a 120day mission. Poland commands the 3,700-strong V4 Battlegroup and is its largest contributor – providing 1,800 troops. (the Czech Republic provides a further 700, Hungary 640, and Slovakia 560.) It specialises in combat engineering, health, logistics and protection against weapons of mass destruction. Yet there are limits to these defence ambitions. While the V4 Battlegroup has already scheduled its second duty rotation for 2019, it has not yet been deployed to conduct actual crisis management operations and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. Instead, the V4 intends to send a military unit (for the purposes of training and exercises) to the Baltic region to enhance the NATO military presence there. Moreover, it is worth noting that developing the V4 Battlegroup did not require any significant innovation in terms of defence cooperation. Despite its high-profile image, the V4 Battlegroup is only viable because it is largely deliverable without the significant integration of the defence-industrial complexes of the region; it consists of units that have been an integral part of national armies for a long time and were developed neither specifically for the Battlegroup nor to widen the scope of national military capabilities.
To date, regional cooperation has not addressed this aspect of defence. Poland – the group’s largest military power – was the main advocate of the V4 Battlegroup as a way to further promote Warsaw’s defence ambitions. The country’s defence aspirations exceed those of the other members. Joint defence equipment acquisitions would be the most significant step forward for V4 defence cooperation in the near future. However, the prospect for both meaningful and substantive joint procurement seems to be rather distant. In the past few years, the rhetoric has not been matched by implementation. A number of factors are behind the ‘go it alone’ approach. First, although the V4 members may appear from the outside to be a united regional bloc, few people understand how each of the countries has its own particular understanding of its history and – as a result – its strategic reality. The reactions to the conflict in Ukraine give a glimpse of these differences.
Poland clearly believes that history shows that Russian revisionism and expansionism will inevitably collide with the V4’s existential interests. However, this point seems to be lost on Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – or at least it is seen in a less alarmist and deterministic way. With the rise of the terrorist threat and uncontrolled migration, Budapest, Bratislava and Prague perceive the threat emanating from the south of the continent to be much more serious than the threat from the east – from Russia – and so deserving of a significantly higher place in defence considerations. This divergence over threats has manifested itself in the V4’s stance on the formation of a European army. While Poland dismissed the idea as politically unfeasible, financially irresponsible and potentially duplicating the role already assigned to NATO, there was a considerably warmer reception towards the idea of enhanced EU defence cooperation among the rest of group. (This is not surprising for attentive observers, as Poland’s defence strategy – unlike the other V4 members – has been continually prioritising the transatlantic alliance over common European defence projects.)
Second, except for Poland, member states have persistently neglected their financial contributions and support for defence research and technology. With the Slovak, Hungarian and Czech defence industries being driven by purely economic and financial motivations – specifically maintaining market share, upholding profitability and protecting jobs – the region’s largest defence actor is the only state which recognises that there is also a strategic role for the national defence industry. If the V4 group intends to cooperate on defence projects, states contributing relatively less – in financial terms – to defence will have to increase their share, and all members will have to minimise the differences in their industrial approaches.
Third, cooperation is impeded by the completely different practices of the national defence industries for each of the V4 countries. While Poland has a robust defence industry that is inward-oriented, the Czech Republic has a smaller defence industry which is export-driven and oriented towards dual-use production – that is, it is not autonomous but also partially civilian production-oriented. The situation in Slovakia and Hungary is similar to that in the Czech Republic. This structural difference makes Polish industry uninterested and the other countries incapable of even-handed or equitable cooperation. Moreover, the V4 group does not have a positive track record in cooperating on projects that reach beyond its regional industrial bases. Most V4 countries need to complete the transition from legacy Soviet capabilities to fully NATO-compatible ones. As such, the modernisation of fighter jet fleets in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary was perceived as a good opportunity for joint procurement, but to no avail. Each of the three countries might eventually have SAAB-built Gripen jets. Yet even though they shared the same objective, joint acquisition plans failed to materialise. Moreover, V4 countries have so far failed to agree on legally binding stable financial frameworks for long-term acquisitions – a clear indication of the fundamental gap between ambitions and realities.
Similarly, as with budgetary commitments, this situation will not improve without some convergence in the procurement cycles and without adopting substantive, transparent and enforceable integration in common approaches to V4 defence planning. So far, there has not been sufficient momentum to drive further V4 defence cooperation. While the reasons for defence integration remain sound – even as fiscal constraints have eased somewhat (the decline of defence-related expenditures has been halted) – the process suffers from a lack of political commitment. Serious financial and migration crises and an imperialist Russia should motivate V4 states to cooperate on defence. If these events cannot drive cooperation, it is difficult to see what external pressure or crisis would. If internal and external factors cannot end the stagnation in V4 defence integration, the feasibility of the group’s ambitions more generally will be questioned. For the moment, the quest for substance in V4 defence cooperation continues, even though the destination remains out of sight.
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