By Paul Taylor
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Poland's crackdown on the judiciary and public media, emulating Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's accumulation of power, has raised fears in the European Union of a new illiberal axis based on the Visegrad group of central European states.
But diplomats say that beyond an occasional joint effort to block an unpopular EU policy, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have too little in common to form a coherent bloc to resist deeper EU integration or dismantle liberal values.
They differ on such major issues as relations with Russia - their former communist master - ties with Germany, membership of the euro currency and the place of religion in their societies.
Nearly 12 years after they joined the EU, the four states have little interest in being lumped together in the eyes of investors as an awkward squad of ex-communist countries.
"Visegrad is overblown," said a senior Slovak diplomat. "For each of us, our bilateral relationship with Germany is far more important than our shared interests in Visegrad."
Each has become embedded in the German economy's extended production line. Slovakia - the biggest auto assembler in the region - has joined the euro area, but the others have so far kept their national currencies.
Poland has taken the toughest line against Russia since Vladimir Putin's 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, while Hungary has gone ahead with deeper energy and political ties with Moscow, and Prague and Bratislava have been cautious on EU sanctions.
The perception of a populist wave of Eurosceptic nationalism sweeping central Europe strengthened last year when the four states united to oppose being forced to take mandatory quotas of refugees flooding into the EU. The former Polish government did eventually agree to accept a share on a voluntary basis.
The October election victory of Polish conservative Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law and Justice (PiS) party with its Eurosceptic rhetoric and moves to shackle the constitutional court and public media, combined with talk of building up the Visegrad group, raised warning flags in Brussels and Berlin.
The European Commission will discuss Poland's media and constitutional court legislation and the framework for the rule of law in Europe on Wednesday. An EU diplomat said the mere fact that the EU executive was discussing the issue was in itself a punishment, even if no disciplinary procedure is launched.
But diplomats say there is less than meets the eye to the grouping founded in the medieval Visegrad Castle in Hungary in 1991 to sweep away the remnants of communism, overcome historic animosities and join the European integration process.
"Visegrad is effective when we agree with each other, but unlike the Franco-German partnership, it doesn't create pressure to find a common denominator when we differ," a Czech aide said.
Before taking office as foreign and Europe ministers, PiS politicians Witold Waszczykowski and Konrad Szymanski talked of building up the Visegrad Group as a counterweight to the Franco-German alliance that has long dominated the EU. But this idea - along with a possible enlargement of the group to include the three Baltic states, Romania and Bulgaria - was still-born.
Diplomats said Poland hoped to build a so-called blocking minority within the 28 member states after losing voting clout when the EU reformed its decision-making system in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty to give greater weight to population size.
With a combined population of 63 million, the four countries have fewer citizens than Britain or France, let alone Germany.
Neither the Balts nor the east Balkan states showed any enthusiasm for joining an eastern front. Each is more keen to nurture its own ties with Berlin, seen as the EU's power center.
Even the political friendship between Kaczynski and Orban may be less symbiotic than their recent words have suggested.
With Poland under pressure from Brussels over its judiciary and media laws, the two leaders held six hours of talks on a political strategy in a castle in southern Poland last week.
Three days later, Orban pledged that he would veto any EU move to impose sanctions on Poland over its civil rights record.
"The European Union should not think about applying any sort of sanctions against Poland because that would require full unanimity and Hungary will never support any sort of sanctions against Poland," he told Kossuth Radio.
Kaczynski has tried to turn the dispute with Brussels over the Polish legislation into a battle with Berlin.
"No amount of pressure and no words, particularly not German ones, can turn Poland away from its path," he said on Sunday at a ceremony commemorating his twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, killed in a 2010 air crash near Smolensk, Russia.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, a populist social democrat, has rivalled Orban and Kaczynski in anti-migrant rhetoric and blamed Germany for drawing more refugees to Europe by rolling out the red carpet for Syrians.
But neither he nor Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has tried to emulate the Hungarian and Polish crackdowns on the media, judicial independence or civil society groups.
After meeting his Polish counterpart in Prague on Monday, Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said that Czech diplomacy "should help the Poles to find ways to cooperate with Brussels".
Sobotka has found his political footing by opposing statements by figurehead Czech President Milos Zeman, who has expressed anti-Islamic views, sometimes supported by Finance Minister Andrej Babis, a billionaire populist.
"The mere fact that the Czech Republic is now the most moderate in the Visegrad Group, even though it has Zeman and Babis, shows how bizarre the situation is," an EU diplomat said.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, Wiktor Szary in Warsaw, Robert Muller in Prague; Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by David Stamp)