Robert Anderson in Prague -
The Party of European Socialists and Democrats (PES), the umbrella group for Europe’s centre-left parties, has put Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party on notice for violating the group’s values.
At a meeting of the PES presidency on October 9, the group stopped short of suspending Smer, despite Fico’s recent negative comments about refugees and his refusal to accept more than 100 into Slovakia. Alison Abrahams, PES spokeswoman, told bne IntelliNews that the group would continue to keep Smer under observation. “The situation will be monitored – there will not be an end date on such a monitoring,” she wrote via email.
The reprimand suggests Smer still does not grasp how to behave either as a progressive or a pro-European party. That weakness that could prove embarrassing when Slovakia takes over the EU’s rotating presidency next summer.
Slovakia is now in the EU’s naughty corner along with Viktor Orban, Hungary’s rightwing premier, with whom Fico has founded an increasingly close alliance. Both continue to rail against the EU’s policy of mandatory quotas of refugees. Slovakia has said it will refuse to accept its quota, and will challenge the legality of the EU decision in the European Court of Justice. Bratislava insists the vote on the issue should have been passed unanimously, rather than by majority.
Slovakia says instead that it will accept just 100 “Christian” refugees; the country does not have a tradition of accepting refugees from Islamic countries, it says, and does not even have any mosques. The refugees would not stay in the country anyway, Slovak officials have also argued, but would head to Germany. “I can hardly imagine Muslims integrating in Slovakia, without the members of their family, out of their environment. They would not have the opportunity to practice their religion. So let's not close our eyes to reality,” Fico said at a press conference on September 9. “We cannot tolerate an influx of 300,000 to 400,000 Muslim immigrants who would start building mosques all over the place,” he added.
In an interview with RTVS radio, he said Slovakia was “incapable of integrating the Roma. But still we pretend that we are able to integrate someone from Eritrea or someone from a completely different religion with different traditions". He has previously said that Slovakia was “built for Slovaks, not minorities”.
His government’s hardline stance is popular at home and appears to have bolstered Smer’s support in the run-up to general elections next March. But Fico has been strongly criticised by Andrej Kiska, the country’s independent president, who said in a speech to parliament on October 7 that Slovakia had left a “bad impression” and was now in an “isolated position”. Kiska added that Slovakia could easily accept hundreds or even a thousand refugees.
“When Slovakia voluntarily announced in July it would accept 100 people out of the total of 40,000, we lost sympathies in most of Europe, and we lost the understanding and comprehension they might have for our reasonable arguments," the president said. "Slovakia has become a target of jokes and ridicule in European and global media.”
As is not uncommon, Fico has got himself into deep water for playing to his domestic audience with comments that he now has to try to explain to his international partners.
Several European Social Democrats have called for Smer to be expelled from PES, including Italian MEP Gianni Pittella, head of the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament, who said Fico “has embarrassed the whole progressive family”. "The persistent unwillingness to take responsibility and show solidarity in the framework of the refugee crisis contrasts with our values and political convictions," Pittella said on September 23. "You cannot merely call yourself a progressive; you must also show it in your words and actions.”
Fico was called to Strasbourg on October 5 to explain his comments to Pittella and PES President Sergei Stanishe. In a follow-up letter sent on October 8, the Slovak PM denied having talked in the media about refugees or minorities in a discriminatory manner. He also highlighted a Slovak agreement with Austria under which migrants are temporarily housed on the Slovak side of the border. And he insisted that his government is “prepared to participate in all meaningful initiatives which may bring solutions to this migration crisis”.
Smer has form with the PES. Shortly after joining it was suspended in October 2006 when Fico formed his first government in coalition with the racist Slovak National Party (SNS). Jan Slota, the then-SNS leader, was notorious for once saying that the best way to handle Roma was with a “long whip in a small yard”. Smer’s suspension was only lifted in February 2008.
In reality Smer’s socialism has always been more of a marketing brand than a matter of conviction. Initially, Fico’s new party did not even pretend to be left wing, competing for voters with former premier Vladimir Meciar’s HZDS using similar populist and nationalist tactics. Like the HZDS, Smer was also ambivalent about EU membership. Fico campaigned in 2002 with the slogan “To the European Union! But not with bare bums”, arguing that Slovakia should not enter the bloc as a beggar.
Fico, himself a former Communist Party member, moved Smer into the vacant space on the left only once he had taken over the HZDS’ largely elderly, rural and less-educated electoral base. After merging with the moribund Slovak Social Democrats, he was finally accepted into PES, although Smer has never shared the group’s views on minority rights nor shown any sympathy for the problems of Slovakia’s impoverished Roma minority.
Smer also moved to become more pro-EU when the country’s centre-right parties, which had taken the country into the bloc, themselves became more Eurosceptic. Fico was able to wrap himself in the EU flag when the last centre-right government collapsed in October 2011 over whether to support the European Financial Stability Facility, the Eurozone rescue fund. He won credit for ensuring the measure passed, though he insisted on fresh elections before agreeing to do so.
Unlike Hungary's Orban – who enjoys provoking the EU and has had an easy ride from the centre-right European People’s Party – the reprimand is likely to embarrass the Slovak premier. Even more so, because he hopes to be still leading the government when it takes over the EU’s rotating presidency next July for the first time.
Moreover, if Slovakia follows through with its threat to mount a legal challenge to the EU quota decision, PES may eventually feel compelled to suspend the party – a decision that requires a super-qualified majority of votes from its membership. Becoming EU president after a public caning, and then being excluded from taking part in key party discussions, would really leave Slovakia with a bare bum.
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