Central European states of Poland, Hungary, Czechia and Slovakia, grouped in the regional platform of cooperation called Visegrád Group (V4) have all faced the pandemic of SARS-CoV-2 with a similar time. In Czechia on 1 March first three confirmed cases of coronavirus were announced, on 4 March first two of them were recorded in Hungary and Poland (singe case) and on 6 March followed Slovakia with its first registered person infected. Over two months later, as of 20 May, Poland had 19268 cases (50.7 per 100 000 population), Czechia had 8647 reported cases (81.4), Hungary 3598 cases (36.8) and Slovakia 1495 cases (27.4). The numbers show that among V4 states Czechia is still in the lead in reported cases per 100 000 population, however it was surpassed by Hungary in deaths when compared to the population size. When it comes to deaths registered as caused by COVID-19, Hungary had 470 such cases (4.8 per 100 000 population), Czechia 302 (2,8), Poland 948 (2,5) and Slovakia 28 (0,5).
Fighting coronavirus led to the implementation of early lockdown, which took part in V4 countries within 3 weeks of identifying its first case. Additionally, extraordinary states defined by law were introduced in Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary. Some preventive measures were taken even before the first recorded cases of infection. For instance, in Czechia visas were suspended for Chinese citizens and Slovakia introduced random border controls. As the consequence of lockdowns, public life in V4 countries have been reduced to a minimum: places like schools, restaurants, cafes, pubs, shopping centres were closed, and mass events were banned. Simultaneously quarantine was introduced for instance for people who returned from abroad. The obligatory masks or other nose and mouth coverings were implemented exceedingly early in Czechia and Slovakia (as first states in the European Union). Also, Hungary and Poland followed their example.
Economic growth of Central European states is not so much endangered as in majority of the rest of EU countries, however V4 still faces a perspective of a recession. For 2020 International Monetary Fund forecasts GDP decline for all these countries: 6.5% for Czechia, 6.2 for Slovakia, 4,6% for Poland and 3.1% for Hungary. The situation of V4 due to its interconnections with other EU countries, especially Germany, will depend on their economic condition. As the region where many factories of international concerns are located (like car industry), possible changes in supply chains will affect V4 economies immensely. In reaction to the upcoming recession decision makers prepared support packages for economies and introduced helping measures for businesses. They contain, among others tax exemptions, low-interest loans, extension of the deadline for submitting a tax declaration and the possibility of shortening working time with state funding of employees' salaries. In Hungary government took over the payment of 70% of salaries in the event of shorter working hours, in Poland self-employed people and micro-companies have been exempted from social security payments for three months. In both Czechia and Slovakia governments approved kurzarbeit solutions, allowing businesses to reduce the working hours of employees, whose salaries would be paid by the state.
Prospects of an economic crisis prompted V4 governments to take steps towards post-virus normality and to gradually ease sanctions. Czechia, together with countries like Austria or Denmark, was at the European forefront when it comes to loosing lockdowns (already in the first half of April). Slovakia joins states cautiously lifting of measures with its 4 gradual plans starting on April 22. Poland began lifting some restrictions from April 19. Hungary lifted first of them on 28 April but outside Budapest, in the capital city the process started on May 18. Loosing lockdowns in V4 countries takes place under strict hygienic conditions and while wearing masks in public. A return to the restriction is possible if the epidemic situation worsens.
Slovakia and Poland faced prospect of political changes in the time of coronavirus pandemic. While the former witnessed the government change (the swearing-in to office of Igor Matovič took place on 21 March), the latter had to postpone its presidential election, which was scheduled for 10 May. In Hungary, in late March the parliament adopted an emergency law that gave Prime Minister Viktor Orbán extensive powers, which sparked controversies abroad. Time limit was excluded in ruling by decree, however later Prime Minister Orbán announced that he could give up its ability to rule by decree at the end of May. In Czechia and Slovakia the approach towards easing restrictions were subjects to tensions inside ruling coalitions, but without endangering the functioning of governments.
The outcomes of joint Visegrád actions are rather modest and have focused more on the showing helping hand in external actions than coordinating its fight with pandemic withing the grouping. According to joint governments’ decisions V4 should share their experiences in the fight against coronavirus, including with immediate neighbours in the Eastern Partnership. V4 agreed to dedicate part of the International Visegrád Fund (up to EUR 250,000) for combating the impact of the pandemic in the partner countries under the V4 East Solidarity programme. Moreover, Czech Prime Minister Babiš on behalf of the V4 announced a total of 3 million euros (750,000 euros each from each country) for vaccine development and treatment for COVID-19 as a contribution to the actions coordinated by the European Commission. Among challenges caused by the pandemic standing before V4 is the reestablishment of free movement through the borders. Currently this issue is high on the agenda of the regional coordination. Another topic which requires intensive regional cooperation is the next, post-pandemic budget of the European Union. Visegrád countries are bound by common interests including dedication to cohesion policy, however the pandemic brings a new reality to this negotiation process.
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ukasz Ogrodnik is an analyst in Central Europe Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). His main research areas are: Visegrd Group in ...Read More +