What is the Visegrad Group and why has its Israel summit been cancelled?

Diplomatic tensions between Warsaw and Jerusalem boil over following Netanyahu’s comments about Holocaust

Visegrad Group
(Image credit: Getty Images)

A meeting of leaders from the four former communist states that comprise the Visegrad Group has been cancelled, amid a diplomatic row with Israel.

Poland announced today that it was withdrawing from the talks, which were to take place in Jerusalem, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly said that “Poles cooperated with the Germans” during the Holocaust. The remaining three nations in the group - Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - have since said they will only hold bilateral meetings with Israel.

What is the Visegrad Group?

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The Visegrad Group, also known as the V4, is a cultural and political alliance of the four Central European states. The group takes its name from the Hungarian city of Visegrad, where kings once met for economic and political negotiations.

V4 describes itself as “reflect[ing] the efforts of the countries of the Central European region to work together in a number of fields of common interest within the all-European integration”.

But its actual functions are a matter of debate. Deutsche Welle reports that “despite their differences and the fact that they belong to different political groupings within the EU, in recent years one topic, in particular, has brought the V4 together: the refugee question”.

“All four countries categorically reject fixed EU distribution quotas,” the German newspaper adds.

The Visegrad members - particularly the nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary - want a so-called Europe of homelands, rather than a political union in the mould of the EU.

BBC Europe editor Katya Adler says that Hungary’s foreign minister once told her they were the “bad boys” of Europe - but she claims they are more “Brussels-sceptic” than “Eurosceptic”, with “a common, though varying degree of dislike for EU centralisation”.

Why was the summit to take place in Israel?

The summit would have been the first time the V4 had met outside of Europe since the group was founded, in 1991. Israel had offered to host the meeting in a bid to strengthen ties with members of the EU.

“Netanyahu has been seeking Visegrad support for Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians amid signs that their attitude on the matter is diverging from the rest of the European Union,” says Deutsche Welle.

But Netanyahu’s comments last week about the Holocaust have caused a major rift between Israel and Poland.

What exactly did Netanyahu say?

The row began on Thursday when Netanyahu’s alleged comments about Poles helping Nazis were reported. His office later said he was misquoted by domestic media as saying “the Poles”, suggesting blame of the entire nation rather than individuals.

However, Israel’s newly appointing acting foreign minister, Israel Katz, triggered further anger with his assertions during a radio broadcast today.

“Historical truth cannot be changed. Many Poles collaborated with the Nazis and took part in the destruction of the Jews during the Holocaust,” Katz said. “Anti-Semitism was innate among the Poles before the Holocaust, during it and after it too.”

Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki said the comments were “disgraceful” and promptly pulled out of this week’s summit in Jerusalem.

Reuters reports that Poland’s nationalist government has “sought to debunk references to potential Polish collaboration in the Holocaust”, in an effort to “fight for the truth”. Tensions with Jerusalem have been high after Warsaw’s introduction last year of the so-called Holocaust Distortion Law, under which claiming that Poland or the Polish people were complicit in the Holocaust is a punishable offence.

During the Second World War, Poland suffered “brutal occupation by the Nazi and Soviet regimes”, during which more than five million Poles died, the BBC reports. Around three million of them were Jews.

Morawiecki last week tweeted a message insisting that there was “no Polish regime” during that brutal period.

“However, individual Poles did take part in killing Jews during and after the War,” according to The New York Times.

The newspaper continues: “Many Holocaust survivors and their relatives carry painful memories of persecution at Polish hands. In Israel, there has been anger at what many there perceive to be Polish attempts today to whitewash that history.”

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