Slovak echoes of Brexit

Round Table: Ministers and State Secretaries for European Affairs
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Informal Meeting of Ministers and State Secretaries for European Affairs on 7 th July 2016 in Bratislava

On 1 July 2016 Slovakia assumed the Presidency of the EU Council. The government had been planning to implement the agreement reached between the UK and the EU in February 2016. But now they have to deal with the fact that Great Britain is leaving the European Union.

The result of the referendum on Great Britain’s membership in the European Union has caused great turmoil across Europe, and will clearly impact the fate of the entire project of European integration. It marks the first time in the history of the European Union that a member state has adopted a decision to leave the common alliance, and the UK is one of the EU’s largest and most powerful countries both in economic and military terms. In view of the current situation in Europe and the world, this poses a new and very serious challenge for the EU.

The Slovak EU Presidency

Slovakia assumed the Presidency of the EU Council on 1 July 2016 (for the first time since its accession to the EU in 2004), and it must take this new situation into account. No one expects Slovakia to play the main role in managing the start of the “Brexit” process, of course; there are stronger and more experienced players who will take up this task. Slovakia’s government carefully prepared a set of standard priorities for its EU Presidency, and because it had anticipated a different outcome in the referendum vote it had instead been planning to participate actively in implementing the agreement reached between the UK and the EU in February 2016 as a condition of Britain’s continued membership. But today Slovakia and the other member states must come to terms with the fact that Britain’s membership of the EU is ending, which of course will have consequences not only for the European Union as a whole, but also for Slovakia as a member state.

Exceptions for Britain vs. an integrated Slovakia

What has the response been in Slovakia to the “Brexit” decision? Judging by the reactions and argumentation of certain politicians, awareness of the obvious fact that Slovakia is the most integrated EU member state in Central Europe (certainly among the Visegrád countries) and that its fate as such will depend to a great extent on how solidary the core EU will be is not among their strong suits. This is also reflected in their evaluation of the various contexts of “Brexit”, e.g. when comparing the situation of Great Britain to that of Slovakia.

Indeed, the fact is that whereas the United Kingdom joined the EU already in 1973 and is thus – unlike Slovakia – an “old” member state, it has nevertheless enjoyed a special status within the EU for many years – also unlike Slovakia. Relations between Brussels and London have been marked by a number of exceptions: the UK never belonged to the core of European integration, and was part of neither the Eurozone nor the Schengen zone. The public debate on EU membership in Britain was influenced by a discourse that questioned the self-evidence of membership, and even raised the possibility of its termination (unlike many other member states, including Slovakia, where such views are expressed only by representatives of marginal and extremist political forces). Great Britain’s special position in the EU was to be symbolised by the above-mentioned February 2016 agreement between the UK and the EU, which David Cameron’s government had introduced in order to persuade the British electorate to vote “remain”.

In contrast to Great Britain, however, for Slovakia EU membership is not only strategic, but also civilisational significance. Without it, the country would still be struggling over the nature of its statehood, and the sustainability of democratic government and the current socio-economic model would still be in doubt.

What about British Slovaks and EU funds?

Of the three most important issues that began to be considered and discussed in Slovakia in the wake of the British referendum, two have a purely material or practical dimension. These issues are broadly symptomatic of, and reveal much about, how EU membership and the benefits resulting from it are perceived. The first issue concerns the situation of Slovak citizens who currently live and work in the UK, and who number between 80,000 and 90,000 according to various estimates. The following questions have been posed: “What will happen now with respect to these citizens’ incomes, social welfare, legal status and possible return to Slovakia?” The second “Slovak” issue being discussed is the status of EU funds and what form they will take after “Brexit” has been implemented. The UK’s contribution to the EU budget constitutes 15 percent of the total, which would imply that the overall amount of EU funds (and thus also Slovakia’s drawing of these funds) will decrease by a proportional amount. This would mean that of the roughly one billion euros that Slovakia receives each year from the EU, only 850 million would remain, which constitutes a truly substantial cut and which certainly will not please that part of the bureaucratic establishment and business sphere which benefits from public procurement financed through EU funds.

“Slovexit”? – No way!

The third theme that resonates in Slovakia in the wake of the “Brexit” vote concerns its possible impact on domestic political developments with respect to the rise of populist and extremist forces, and the exploitation of anti-European sentiment by these forces in order to bolster their influence.

The reactions of Slovakia’s mainstream political parties to the referendum and to Britain’s departure from the EU have been largely negative, as have those of Slovak citizens (according to the Polis survey agency, 54.7 percent of Slovaks did not approve of British voters’ decision in the referendum, and only 16.6 percent welcomed it).The reactions of many politicians in government as well as in opposition parties to the referendum ranged from disappointment to resentment. As expected, only two parties enthusiastically welcomed the result: the neo-fascist parliamentary People’s Party – Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) led by Marian Kotleba, and the extra-parliamentary Slovak Communist Party.

The extremist ĽSNS immediately began collecting signatures for a petition calling for a referendum on leaving the EU and NATO, and it has not been shy about pursuing this effort at various public events, including fairs, religious pilgrimages, communal and municipal festivals. The neo-fascists see modern Slovakia as a colony of the EU, which has enslaved it.

Although it cannot be ruled out that the neo-fascists will eventually manage to collect enough signatures to call a referendum, the public mood on this issue is not particularly amenable to this objective. According to the aforementioned Polis survey agency, in the event of a referendum 74.1 percent of citizens would vote for the Slovak Republic to remain in the EU and only 12.7 percent would vote to leave.

Yet mainstream politicians should not be lulled into complacency by these generally optimistic figures. Indeed, they should stop casting “Brussels” as something that belongs not to “us” but to “them”. Slovak politicians should cease “fighting for national interests” in Brussels and instead state loud and clear that the EU is all of us, and that without it Slovakia would not be where it is today.

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