Slovakia and the EU presidency in 2016

Given that the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the European Union is scheduled for the second half of 2016 – in a “trio” with the Netherlands (January – June 2016) and Malta (January – June 2017) – writing about its priorities is a very difficult task, almost in the realm of the supernatural. Especially because one cannot predict, with any certainty, how the EU will look in a few weeks’ time – much less in a few years.

Foto: Creative Commons/ European Parliament

We cannot exclude the possibility that following recent disturbances, which began in the Euro zone, unforeseen changes might be made to the Lisbon Treaty. Theoretically, the current institutional and legislative framework – a result of hard-fought battles – and the functioning of the EU might be altered, including a modification of the existing form and period of the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Even if we suppose there won’t be any changes, the difficulty of determining the contours of the Slovak Presidency remains, given the absence of any discussion on the subject by public experts. This is the case, in spite of the fact that the Presidency of the Council of the European Union is an axiomatic point in the Slovak political calendar. Due to the early elections in March of 2012, it is expected that both political and diplomatic preparations for this historic event will only commence after the new government assumes power. Therefore, the thoughts expressed in this article are only the reflections of the author’s private opinions.

Litmus test of maturity

One thing about which we can be certain is that the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the European Union will have a greater impact on the position and reputation of our country in the European Union and the transatlantic community than the non-permanent membership of Slovakia on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in 2006 – 2007. To date, the place on the UNSC was the most serious litmus test of maturity and professionalism to be faced by Slovak diplomacy, still in its infancy. The Slovak Presidency of the Council of the European Union will be a significant political challenge that will test the administrative and technical capacities of Slovakia, and enhance the practical experience of civil service personnel, broadening their knowledge of the European agenda and helping to form their perceptions of the EU.

Slovakia has an advantage in preparing for its first performance in this role, given that it can draw on observations of the preparation and performance of the consecutive Hungarian and Polish Presidencies, as well as the experiences of other new member states – including Slovenia and the Czech Republic. In particular, the Hungarian experience demonstrated that it is extremely important for the presiding country not to draw too much attention to complications arising from domestic political developments or to make assertions that do not relate to the agenda of the Presidency. Such activities can be interpreted as being at odds with the commonly accepted values of the Union and thereby overshadow the otherwise positive outcomes. By contrast, the professional management of  European affairs and avoidance of internal squabbling marked the presidencies of Poland and Slovenia, thereby weakening the claims of some political forces and media in larger and “older” member states about the readiness of “new” states to fulfill such roles. Slovakia will also need to disprove such misconceptions, held in some parts of the Union, about the reliability of Central and East European States.

Naturally, no government can influence the entire economic and political development domestically, much less in the Union as a whole. However, they can predict and control the effects of their own political conduct on their European partners and the public in other EU Member States, something the Slovak political elite has already experienced, negatively, in association with the expansion of the euro bailout fund (EFSF) in 2011. This premise of the preparation strategy for the upcoming Presidency of the Council of the European Union is closely interconnected with another political dimension – building a strong and permanent consensus among political forces in ensuring the material, financial, personnel and logistical conditions are all at the disposal of the presidency.

Continuity is the key

Here, it should be noted that regular parliamentary elections in Slovakia ought to be held in the first half of March in 2016, three months before assuming the Presidency. It will be crucial to avoid a disruption in the preparations based on changes in the government. In particular, it will be essential not to change key staff members involved in expert and logistical preparation, which could lead to mistakes being made domestically or causing partners to become anxious, especially the rest of the aforementioned “trio”. Equally important, it will be the avoidance of abrupt changes in political approaches after the parliamentary elections. Individuals assuming political offices should become an integral part of the team involved in the preparations for the Presidency, and open lines of communication must be established with partners from the trio, other members states and EU institutions.

Regardless of its political composition, I am convinced that the Slovak government will manage the EU Presidency in 2016, and it will utilize the positive experience gained from the two Central European presidencies in 2011. In this respect, it is important to remind ourselves that leading Hungarian politicians and diplomats greatly appreciated the parallel Slovak Presidency of the V4 Group, which was quite dynamic and effective in supporting the priorities of the Hungarian EU Presidency. In 2011, the V4 Group of states experienced a revival and one of its most successful periods. The potential of the V4 “brand” was also noticed by the “big players” in EU institutions. We might also expect that Slovakia will offer its experience as an inspiration to other countries, especially to those countries that aspire to the EU membership.

As far as the substantive preparation for the Presidency is concerned, it will be crucial to synchronize the drafting of the joint trio program, in which every member lays out its priorities for the actual EU work program. It will be important that the government takes into account the need to fulfill the program of the preceding Dutch Presidency, while respecting the evolving legislative work plan of EU bodies as well as the expectations and requirements of the EU Member States.

A chance for stronger EU-Arab cooperation

As the Slovak Republic will share the Presidency with the Netherlands, with which it cooperates in supporting the transformation processes in Tunisia, within the framework of the Community of Democracies, we may expect that five years following the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” will provide a meaningful opportunity to evaluate the tangible outcome of this movement and the role of the EU as a global actor. Participation of the Netherlands offers another opportunity – to strengthen V4 cooperation with the Benelux countries, thereby counterbalancing the growing influence of the Franco-German alliance that comes at the expense of communal decision-making. It should be in the interest of all small and medium sized EU countries to strengthen the communal method of dealing with problems and promoting EU goals. It can be expected that the Slovak government will elevate the voices of small states with limited influence on the so called “big players” in the EU, especially through consultations with the V4 Group, the Benelux Union and the Nordic Council.

One can safely assume that the Slovak government will promote the European policies through the common lens of Visegrad cooperation and Central European regional interest (energy and road infrastructure, cohesion policy, EU enlargement, Eastern Partnership and placing additional focus on Slovakia’s largest neighbor – Ukraine), under the new Multiannual Financial Framework and new European legislative. As with all other member states, Slovakia also sees its presidency as a unique opportunity to realize its foreign policy goals in the European Union, and promote itself as a dynamically growing country devoted to European values.

The challenge of water security

In this context, one of the potential priorities of the Slovak Presidency could be the issue of water security, which is increasingly problematic due to climate changes. Changes in the water cycle are resulting in extreme weather patterns, which have affected Central European countries in the past. For this reason, water will attain strategic security importance in the near future. In the future, water will perhaps become more important than crude oil. As a state with strategic resources of drinking water and the next President from the region of the Danube, Slovakia could indirectly follow up on the importance the Hungarian Presidency assigned to this issue five years ago and review the implementation of the Danube Strategy or even propose its re-examination, if appropriate. Keeping water quality high, securing the access of citizens to water, its effective conservation, and its efficient use must all become common goals within Central European countries and Europe as a whole.

Another issue on the agenda of the Slovak Presidency, with the potential for evaluation and revision in mind, could be progress in the implementation of the Roma Strategy and the related national strategies. Not only is the elimination of poverty, social exclusion and discrimination on a racial or ethnic basis at the core of EU values, but it is increasingly becoming an issue that is misused by the groups representing national populism, xenophobia and far right extremism.

Last but not least, topical challenges concerning EU sectoral policies may find their way in the priorities of the Slovak EU Presidency. These include issues such as energy security, and challenges in the area of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CSFP). However, it would be premature to speculate about specific contents. Much will depend on developments that cannot be known in advance. Ultimately, the choice of priorities, preparation and implementation will involve the ambitions of future governing political parties, which cannot be known yet.

This is an abbreviated version of article published in Visegrad Insight 1/2012.

Peter Weiss

Peter Weiss

is Slovak Ambassador in Hungary.