Having lost the UK as their principal ally, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia are emerging as a determined and vocal lobby
The streets of Bratislava have been spruced up at a cost of 14m (12m). Potholes have been plugged, new benches and shiny rubbish bins brought in to adorn the green spaces, along with mobile toilets and free wireless connections. Its all meant to convey the message that Slovakia is taking its current presidency of the council of the European Union extremely seriously.
For the next six months, the government of this small country of 5.5million citizens will hold that rotating role. But all of its plans to set the agenda have suddenly become irrelevant. Brexit is the only agenda now. No one saw it coming, said Dariusz Kaan, central European analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. The reactions across the region have been of genuine shock and helplessness.
The Slovakian prime minister, Robert Fico, is now faced with the herculean task of continuing with business as usual when nothing is as it was.
This is a brutal start for our presidency, his foreign minister, Miroslav Lajk , admitted to journalists. We are in the centre of the volcano and everyone is looking to us. Brexit is the number one order of the day regardless of any other plans we had, he said.
The fallout across the region, said Kaan, will likely be felt economically and politically for years to come. Particularly palpable in central Europe, he said, was the fear that Germany and [Jean-Claude] Juncker [the commission president] will use a Brexit to help speed up EU integration, deeply opposed by Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, as theyre afraid of simply being marginalised.
But the coming half-year could also be a chance for these central European countries members of the Visegrd group to have their voices more clearly heard in the EU than ever before. The genuine concerns of our citizens need to be better reflected, the groups four prime ministers said in a joint statement delivered last week, in which it appealed for the EUs executive to be restrained. Instead of endless theoretical debates on more Europe or less Europe, we need to focus on better Europe, they wrote.
With the exit of the UK, the V4 will have lost their leading EU partner. London was always seen as an invaluable ally in Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava and Budapest because it shared a common perception of European problems, as Polands foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, put it.
Britain was also admired for the courageous decision to open its labour market to the new members immediately unlike Germany and France, which instituted transitional arrangements. Thanks to that decision, an estimated 1.2 million people from the V4 live in the UK. But thanks to a looming Brexit, partly prompted by concerns over migration, they, like the EU itself, now face an unsure future.
Of even greater concern to V4 leaders is the loss of a heavyweight that had until now helped rein in the integrationist instincts of Germany and France. Warsaw in particular had welcomed Britains insistence that the EU should concentrate on expanding rather than deepening the EU.
On other points, too, the UK was a valuable friend, supporting the V4 in their desire to keep their age-old enemy Russia in check by continuing with sanctions when other EU members wanted to relax them.
Already, there appears to be a stuggle to get central European voices heard in the post-Brexit debate. There was fury among V4 members when, the day after the Brexit result was revealed, only the foreign ministers from the EUs six founding states were invited to Berlin by the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to pledge their support for an ever closer union. Steinmeier and Jean-Marc Ayrault, his French counterpart, ended the meeting with a petition for a European political union constructed around the euro.
For countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary that have not adopted the euro and say it makes sense to do so only once their citizens incomes are higher the nightmare scenario is a two-speed Europe in which their interests would be a low priority. If Britain had voted to stay in the EU and carved out its own niche with various opt-outs, that would have made an alternative model of EU membership more realistic, Pawel Swidlicki, a policy analyst at thinktank Open Europe, said. Now that Britain is leaving, the Visegrd Four have to answer some tough questions.
The despair that has swept across central European countries as a result of Brexit is most keenly felt in Poland, as one of the EUs largest countries and soon to be its largest outside the eurozone as well as, crucially, the country with the most citizens living in Britain.
Surveys suggest that Poles still overwhelmingly support EU membership, although they remain divided over what it should mean. Jan Zaleski, 20, a Law and Justice party supporter in Praga, Warsaw, said that, to him, the EUs scope should be limited to the original idea of free trade and free movement of people. We didnt sign up to being governed by Brussels. Nato is there to defend us and the EU is there for trade and to allow us to travel. We Poles have been dominated by both Russia and Germany. After all we have been through, we did not go into the EU to be under the thumb of Brussels, said Zaleski, a veterinary student.