Can Slovakia overcome the paradox of Euro-sceptic politics and Euro-optimist policies?

While the Slovak Prime Minister talks sovereignty, the Slovak diplomats discuss deeper integration. Yet, internal politics and foreign policy don’t stand alone. Although interest in preserving its EU membership are directing Slovak EU policies today, tomorrow the situation may well turn around – just like in the UK.

Photo: Rastislav Polak

It is hard to forget the fallout from the British referendum, but let’s put that aside for just a moment. On July 1st, Slovakia took over the Presidency of the Council of the EU, and Slovak leaders began to publicly express their readiness.

“It was worth investing in good preparation,” Slovakia’s Foreign and European Minister Miroslav Lajčák said after speaking to members of the European Parliament on June 8th; while Ivan Korčok, the Plenipotentiary of the Slovak Government for the EU Council Presidency, boasted that his, “ preparatory file had over 300 pages,” according to a press release. 1

But is Prime Minister Robert Fico ready? It is he who was elected. And just two weeks before Korčok spoke, Fico shared his thoughts in his first interview since his recent heart surgery. “So this is what the presidency is about, creating space for sovereign opinions,” he said. He also touched upon refugee quotas, calling them “pointless,” and then topped it all off with the much reported, “Islam has no place in Slovakia.” 2

Fico’s turnarounds

Yet, in a not so distant past it was Fico, who finalized Slovakia’s integration into the Schengen Area and the Euro-zone. Indeed, in Brussels a week after his initial comments his tone had changed: “We are well aware of the presidency country’s role, and we want to be an honest broker. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we will change our national positions; we will just refrain from putting them on the table,” he said. 3

In Brussels, he undoubtedly spoke on the advice of Minister Lajčák, who won his seat in March’s parliamentary elections, running as number seven on Fico’s Direction-Social Democracy party (Smer-SD) ticket. Lajčák does typically exercise more diplomacy. But this is part of the problem.

There is discord between what Fico says at home and what he declares abroad – between his own rhetoric and the policies executed by Korčok and Lajčák. In a more general sense, this highlights a rather paradoxical combination of Euro-sceptic politics and Euro-optimist policies.

A Euro-sceptic nation?

In 2014 Slovakia had the lowest turnout in the European Parliamentary elections, with only 13% of eligible voters bothering to get out to the polling stations. This figure trumped the already sad 20% turnout for 2009’s EP elections. 4

This may be because Slovaks’ trust in the EU has been on the decline. According to the Standard Eurobarometer, between spring 2010 5 and autumn 2015,  6 Slovaks who reported that they trusted the EU fell from 65% to 39%. On the contrary, those reporting their distrust of the EU increased from 28% to 51%. In 2015 alone, in only half a year, trust fell by 9% and distrust rose by 13%. It is clear that Slovakia has become a Euro-sceptic nation.

More proof of this is the shift in the composition of the Slovak parliament. In the March 2016 elections, two new parties won parliamentary seats:  the openly anti-EU and fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia (Kotleba) and the rather marginal, center-right Freedom and Solidarity (SaS). What’s more, SaS’ leader, Richard Sulik, who is known for his anti-EU sentiments is now the leader of opposition and almost got to form the government.

The gap between the rhetoric at home and abroad, and between the politics and policies has without a doubt taken a toll on public opinion. However, Slovakia’s EU Council Presidency could present an opportunity to bridge this gap. As Korčok and Lajčák put it, the presidency might allow Slovakia to show that it too can participate in steering the EU; it has a role to play, and its voice will be heard in Brussels. Unfortunately, none of the parties seized the opportunity ahead of the presidency to show the public that the country’s voice in the EU actually matters.

Long but silent preparations

The government only adopted and published the presidency program on June 30th this year, after the British referendum. 7 Earlier in February, Fico’s previous government agreed on the presidency’s basic principles,  8 some of which were further elaborated in the new government’s program declaration in April. 9 The program focuses on migration, the Euro-zone, internal market and foreign affairs, and the ministries had been working on it for months, without making many statements to the public.  10

Migration is sure to be one of the dominant themes of the Slovak Presidency. According to the program, the presidency will focus on a “return to Schengen,” the protection of external borders, cooperation with third countries, and a reform of the asylum system. The Commission’s proposal on the last point focuses heavily on mandatory quotas, which Slovakia continues to reject. But Slovakia, realizing that the debate will dominate its presidency, made concessions so that it may serve as an honest broker.

Migration’s magic number

On June 2nd, after Fico “played diplomat” in Brussels, the newspaper Denník N revealed that Slovakia was planning to accept 100 refugees from the Greek and Italian camps, under the relocation scheme, originally directing the now infamous quotas. 11

Slovakia had already accommodated Austria’s asylum seekers 12 and facilitated the arrival of almost 150 Christians directly from Iraq, 13 but so far has not participated in the controversial relocation scheme (although the asylum-seekers can still procedurally rejected).

The Office of the Prime Minister declined to comment, and so the story fell from the media’s radar. If we did not know any better, we would think 100 was the magic number – the right amount to appease Brussels and keep Slovaks from complaining – not too many, not too few.

This “sacrifice” made for the sake of Slovakia’s first EU Council Presidency is not to be communicated at home. Because Fico’s Smer-SD built its March parliamentary campaign on anti-immigrant rhetoric, it is simply too politically dangerous.  14 Openly agreeing to accept refugees now is blatant hypocrisy on a critical issue, which would cost the party public support. And unfortunately building short-term public support is more important than explaining European policy to Slovakia’s own tax-payers.

Eurozone: deepening integration

The Slovak Ministry of Finance will preside over one of the most important EU Council formations, the EcoFin, which will focus on the reinforcement of the European Fund for Strategic Investments, the adoption of the EU’s 2016 budget, the fight against tax fraud, as well as the management of the EU’s seven-year budgetary framework discussions, including a reform of the EU’s structural funds.

But most interestingly, the presidency program conveys Slovakia’s intention to pursue the steps lined out in the “Five Presidents Report: Completing Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union”.  “We are talking looking to respect the budgetary rules, and continue with structural reforms, the Banking Union and possible new anti-crisis management instruments, like the common European unemployment insurance scheme,” said Finance Minister Peter Kažimír, speaking to

The government’s program also lists “progress in building the Capital Markets Union,” as a priority of the Slovak Presidency, but the finance ministry has made only modest efforts communicating Slovakia’s ambition to pursue a deeper integration to the general public.

Internal market: solidarity or solitary

The Energy Union and the Digital Single Market, are the “the flagships,” of the Slovak presidency as Korčok told the European Parliament.

Slovakia has expressed its support for moving forward with two key components of the Energy Union. 15 One is the mechanism that will allow the European Commission to check inter-governmental agreements on natural gas deliveries’ compatibility with European Law, and Slovakia is to represent the EU Council in their negotiations with the European Parliament. The other is the strengthening of the Commission’s 2010’s Security of Gas Supply Regulation, which would reinforce solidarity between member states in the case of a gas crisis. The EU Council’s legislative work for this directive occurs at an earlier stage and requires a consensus of the EU 28.

The Digital Single Market strategy also aims for a deeper integration. In the words of the Slovak EU Council Presidency program, “the market aims to enable people to freely cross online borders, just as they do in real life.“  16 Slovakia will more than likely support the Commission’s recent initiatives to digitalize the European industry, lift laws that geo-block Internet content and allow for a sharing economy.

Foreign affairs: reinforcing the EU foreign policy

It would be unfair to accuse the Slovak Government of Euro-optimism in every single field, but deeper integration has been a long-term goal of Slovakia’s European policy. Naturally, as a small state, it must respect rules, rather than rely on its own economic, military or diplomatic power. And the rules can only be enforced – so the logic goes – by supranational bodies like the European Commission.

The outward looking priorities of the Slovak Presidency include officiating progress in the EU’s enlargement, the Eastern Partnership, the Chinese trade question (granting China Market Economy Status) and cooperation between the EU and NATO. The program communicates that, “the Slovak Presidency is interested in reinforcing the Common Foreign and Security Policy including the Common Security and Defense Policy” – not exactly a euro-sceptic or even a euro-realist ambition.

Despite its pro-integrationist policies, the Slovak government still refuses to openly communicate solidarity for migration measures, whatsoever, or to integrate further into the Eurozone, the internal market or the foreign affairs arena.

Sovereignty as a leitmotif

So far, the Slovak Presidency policy debate has been quiet and dull. The presidency’s plans were first constructively – albeit vaguely – criticized as “too bureaucratic and not ambitious enough,” by two Slovak Mmmbers of the European Parliament. 17

One of them, Boris Zala, of Smer-SD, suggested that Slovakia take a more federalist approach to energy policy and justice and home affairs. The other MEP, Miroslav Mikolášik, of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), an opposition party, agreed with him. So the program was, in fact, only discussed in Slovakia by Brussels-based politicians representing mainstream European parties (PES and EPP); was only covered – and rightly so – in a couple of state-owned newswire stories.

In the second phase, the presidency debate was hijacked by the demagogy of the right-wing populist We Are Family party (SME Rodina). When Minister Lajčák discussed the presidency’s plans with the members of the Slovak National Council, Opposition Deputy Milan Krajniak had many questions:  18 “How are we protecting our sovereignty? Why do we want to jump into the Brussels hole? Why are you proposing a document that will reduce the Slovak Republic into a German economic colony and a Brussels province? If sovereignty was voted on 24 years ago, why now are we surrendering and giving up more competences to Brussels?”

Contrarily, in the case of small countries like Slovakia, EU membership does not weaken sovereignty – it reinforces it. The country would have never had so much say in an international system like the UN without it.

The peoples’ trust in the EU has declined, the turnout for the European parliamentary elections was low and the national election saw the emergence of a Euro-sceptic parliamentary majority. Although the Euro-optimistic policies and the Euro-sceptic politics paradox continues to play out, Slovakia should realize how much it has benefited from EU membership – both politically and economically – and should not back down from EU affairs.

But the Slovak government seems to want to lead the presidency debate in a business-as-usual fashion. Slovakia’s historical first presidency is threatened by the same malaise that has infected all Slovak EU policy since the country entered the bloc in 2004: a dullness and absence of any serious discourse. And now it has been invaded by demagogues.

Slovak Presidency and the British referendum

And here we get back to the British referendum. The Brits voted to leave the EU and now Slovakia is at the EU helm, as one of its (biggest) members prepares to quit it. In September, an informal European summit will take place in Bratislava under the presidency’s auspices to discuss the post-Brexit EU. By organizing the summit, Slovakia has given itself a chance to secure its place in the post-referendum debate. Because the rotating presidency is not an agenda-setter, but rather a debate moderator, the presidency will not grant Slovakia more influence.

However no summit can compensate for the absence of public debate in Slovakia. No meetings between the heads of state and the Slovak government will make up for ambiguous communication at home.

In reality, the beginnings of the British situation too much resemble the one in Slovakia now. The Brexit arguments were not based on facts, but emotions. Before the referendum campaign, the whole European debate was dominated by Euro-sceptic populists, like the British version of Milan Krajniak – Nigel Farage.

If the Slovak elite are championing Euro-optimistic policy pushes, then their rhetoric should match their actions. If not, they only create a communication gap between their politics and policies. Internal politics and foreign policies influence each other – they cannot be isolated. In Slovakia, although Euro-optimism still holds sway over the Euro-skepticism at home, the Brexit referendum reminds that the situation may well reverse, despite the opportunity the country’s first EU Council Presidency provides.


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Pavol Szalai

Pavol Szalai

is senior editor at