German-Polish European BLOG

Visegrad and Germany in the time of Brexit

Disputes over migration policy in recent years have skewed the picture of cooperation between the Visegrad Group countries and Germany. Accepting as satisfactory the working conclusion that the convergence of views on this matter increases, it is worth looking at the important bond between the V4 and Germany, the economic ties.

Mateusz Gniazdowski*

The awareness of the role of these ties and their political implications is still not great. Of course, the problems exist in the field of economic cooperation between the V4 and Germany, varying from the issues such as the outflow of profits and wage convergence through the cross-border effects of Energiewende, to the demand that Berlin should pay more attention to the interests of its Central European partners (the appeals of Poland and Slovakia regarding the Nord Stream 2). But there are still few people in Germany who realise that the V4 as a whole is Germany’s largest trading partner. All the while, in the V4 countries there is sometimes a problem with realising the difference in potentials and the fact that we are in the same boat with Germany. Despite the rapid economic growth in Central Europe, the largest economy of the V4 – Poland – is still smaller than the economy of Bavaria, and the smallest country of the V4 –  Slovakia (the only one in the V4 belonging to the eurozone) – has an economy smaller then Hamburg in terms of GDP.

Brexit may further strengthen the role of the Central European countries in the German economy

The V4 and Germany are vitally interested in increasing the competitiveness, innovativeness and economic efficiency of the EU. The German concept of Industry 4.0 requires an intensification of cooperation with the V4 countries, which is where important industrial plants of German corporations are located. There is also an interest in cooperation in, for example, vocational education. The economic symbiosis of Germany and the V4 countries manifests itself particularly clearly in the automotive industry. In the V4 countries, more than 3.6 million vehicles were manufactured in 2017. An important role here is played by plants belonging to German corporations which, while maintaining price competitiveness, match the quality of factories in Western Europe. It is also worthwhile to look at Brexit, which may mean difficulties with importing British goods and services to the EU market, with one fifth of British sales in EU countries being vehicles and one fifth machines. Brexit may, therefore, further strengthen the role of the Central European countries in the German economy, especially in the automotive industry. On the other hand, the future of this sector, especially in the face of challenges related to the withdrawal from diesel and the development of electromobility, will be particularly important in the coming decades for Germany’s relations with the V4.

After the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU, the dispute over the future of the Union may intensify. Despite many differences, the V4 support for a most open and free market EU model is much closer to Germany than to France and the countries of southern Europe. The strong voice of Poland and other countries of Central Europe in the debate on the future of the EU may be a way for Germany to counterbalance the countries of the South and stress the need for a responsible budget policy. As it was evident, especially in the case of the dispute over posted workers, some states may prefer to build a much more protectionist EU. Meanwhile, the Germans know what benefits for their economy originate from the EU cohesion policy in the V4 countries. From the perspective of the EU Member States which find themselves in stagnation, sometimes the dynamic growth of the V4 economies gives rise to bad emotions – it is often associated with the stream of the EU money, not an effect of the sacrifices and hard work of Central European nations.

 Visegrad vs. Germany at the time of Brexit

Taking economic development as the main bond between Germany and the V4 countries, it is impossible to disregard the security issue which, after all, also comes at a cost. The V4 countries are a zone of stability and safe development on Germany’s eastern border. In the field of security, apart from disputes (such as Nord Stream 2), there is also reciprocity on the part of Germany which is involved in maintaining the sanctions against Russia. The German military presence on the eastern flank of NATO is also important. In the field of security and military cooperation, sometimes it is easier to talk with Germans than with some of Poland’s the regional partners, whose cacophony of signals about basic strategic interests can sometimes be unbearable. Supporting the pro-Western aspirations of the countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans for years belonged to the canon of Visegrad solidarity. After a period of some perturbations in the V4, it will be worth coming back to this idea. Experiences from the achievements of good neighbourly cooperation in Central Europe in the field of cross-border cooperation can constitute an added value of the Berlin Process’ next year’s summit in Poland.

Also, the development of the political situation in Germany, despite the fears of it losing its traditional predictability, hints at some chances for a wider understanding and strengthening of dialogue. The demand to strengthen the role of national parliaments in the EU, declared by Poland, corresponds with the process we have been witnessing in Germany since the adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon. Bundestag’s position in the shaping of European policy has clearly increased and, after the recent elections, the parliament in Germany has become an emanation of the real social mood and the main forum of political disputes. Under these conditions, German and Central European politicians can more easily talk about the democratisation of the EU and about the principle of subsidiarity, which lays at the source of European integration and is especially important for the Central European nations.

*Mateusz Gniazdowski – deputy Director of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW).