Slovakia takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on July 1 at one of the most difficult times in the bloc’s history. Bratislava will be faced with the ongoing uncertainty of the UK referendum vote to leave the EU, while the migrant and Greek debt crises still lurk in the background.
It could look like a disaster waiting to happen. Slovakia is a small country of just 5.5mn and a relatively recent new member of the EU, having joined in 2004. It will run its first EU presidency under a weakened government, and has long had a rocky reputation in the rest of the bloc. “It would have been extremely difficult even with a vote to remain,” says one Slovak diplomat. “Now….”
Nevertheless, the outcome is unlikely to be overly dramatic. Slovakia even has the chance to improve its international image.
“Whereas many remember with dismay the badly handled Czech presidency in 2009, the recent presidencies of Baltic countries Latvia and Lithuania have shown that these six-month marathons can be very well-run operations, and a great opportunity for small EU member states to raise their profile in the bloc,” says Iana Dreyer, editor of Borderlex and a regular bne IntelliNews contributor.
The Czech example is the one to avoid. An arrogant and incompetent eurosceptic government had already made a hash of its presidency even before it was forced to step down, leaving the EU Council rudderless.
Slovakia also has form at drawing unwelcome attention from its fellow EU states. In 2011, the country's parliament refused to back a revamp of the European Financial Stability Facility, temporarily halting efforts to bail out Greece. It also toppled the government in Bratislava. The impasse was only resolved via a deal in which Robert Fico’s left-wing Smer voted for the revamp in return for snap elections, at which the party returned to power in 2012.
Fico himself has also antagonised Brussels with his outspoken comments on the ongoing migration crisis. He has launched a suit in the European Court of Justice against the way mandatory migrant quotas were passed by the European Council, and he has used inflammatory language against Islamic asylum seekers. His comments have got him into hot water with the Party of European Socialists, the EU’s centre-left group, which had suspended him in 2006, during his first term as PM, for consorting with the nationalist Slovak National Party.
After narrowly winning a third term this March, Fico has struggled to impose his usual authority on his new broad coalition with nationalists, ethnic Hungarians and liberals. He has also been weakened by a recent triple heart bypass and damaging corruption allegations against his right hand man, Interior Minister Robert Kalinak.
In fact it is the European presidency itself that seems to be keeping the coalition together, alongside a lack of alternatives; an unsavoury ragbag of populists, eurosceptics and fascists sit on the opposition benches. “If the government collapses at this time it would cause big damage to the region’s reputation,” says the diplomat.
Slovakia, however, also has some advantages in its favour, most notably its diplomatic corps, which has proved a magnet for talented and ambitious recruits. Many have arrived in a bid to help Slovakia recover from its international isolation under strongman premier Vladimir Meciar in the mid 1990s.
“The Meciar trauma is still the driving force of Slovak policymakers,” says Vit Dostal, head of Czech foreign affairs think-tank AMO. “They were the ‘black hole’ of Europe as [former US Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright said. That still has an effect on Slovak behaviour.”
That allows Fico the confidence to leave the day to day running of the EU presidency to Ivan Korcok, State Secretary for European Affairs, and Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, both experienced diplomats.
Diplomats, rather than party placemen, have tended to lead the foreign ministry - especially under Smer. Past foreign ministers have gone on to senior positions in international diplomacy, including Eduard Kukan (UN special envoy on Kosovo 1999-2001) and Jan Kubis (head of the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan, previously OSCE Secretary-General). Lajcak is currently running for UN Secretary-General.
Secondly, to try to defuse the distrust whipped up in Western Europe by the spat over migration, the government has promised it will try to be an “honest broker”, rather than push its own views. Fico has already noticably moderated his language since the election. Slovakia’s position is anyway more nuanced than the PM's rhetoric might indicate – the country has accepted 1,200 migrants voluntarily from neighbouring Austria.
Moreover, Slovakia, together with the other Visegrad Group countries of Central Europe, feels the EU debate on migration is moving their way. Indeed, with the Brexit crisis in full swing, they are increasingly confident that no-one is going to try to force them to accept mandatory quotas anytime soon.
Instead, the EU will focus on creating “smart” external border controls, establishing the European Border and Coast Guard, repatriating failed asylum applicants, setting up reception centres outside the EU to assess claims, and using development aid as a carrot to help persuade source countries to stem migration flows and accept returnees. That should enable the much-valued Schengen system to be shored up.
"It is a difficult issue and the European Union is divided on it, but there are a number of other issues where we are united: the smart borders, the Schengen implementation, the registration [of migrants], return policies, cooperation with third countries," Lajcak told journalists in Brussels on June 1.
Thirdly, the rotating presidency is now not so important since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty created the permanent European Council president – currently former Polish premier Donald Tusk – who chairs summits. The rotating presidencies also now work in tandem both with their predecessor (the Netherlands, in Slovakia's case) and successor (Malta).
Moreover, the larger member states, with Tusk acting as go-between, are in reality likely to take control of the Brexit talks. “I don’t think we will play the big role in this,” says the Slovak diplomat. In any case, discussions will only likely get going in earnest once a new UK prime minister is appointed in September.
Yet Slovakia feels it has won an early victory by winning agreement to hold an informal meeting in Bratislava the same month to discuss Brexit and the future of the EU. Before the UK pulls the trigger on Article 50 to leave the bloc, the country believes it could have a role – using its good relations with Tusk – as a channel to prepare for a deal.
“It’s good that we are underestimated in all this chaos,” says Milan Nic, head of the Globsec Policy Institute in Bratislava.
Central Europe, with Slovakia taking the lead, will want to be involved in order to keep a close eye on any move to buy off the UK by putting further restrictions on their workers moving to Britain. There is also a risk that other countries will be encouraged to demand their own exceptions from the Brussels straitjacket, or even seek their own referenda on leaving the bloc. However, that would only likely take place after the Slovak presidency.
A significant danger is that the enormity of Brexit will prevent Slovakia achieving anything concrete over the next six months. “All they can do is appear competent, consensual and good managers,” says Sean Hanley, a lecturer at London University. “They don’t really have the chance to follow their own agenda.”
The Slovak government finally approved its presidency programme on June 29. Bratislava says it wants to focus the next six months on building the digital single market, improving the energy union, completing trade agreements with the US and Canada, deepening European Monetary Union, and starting work on the post 2020 EU budget.
In energy, for Central Europe the hot button issue is the Nordstream 2 pipeline. The Russian gas pipeline expansion is backed by Germany and other Western European states, but most new member states regard it as an additional threat to their energy security.
Trade will also be sensitive, given the political divisions over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership treaty with the US, although Central Europe is mostly in favour because of its desire to strengthen Washington’s geopolitical commitment to the continent. Beijing's bid to secure market economy status under World Trade Organisation rules could also be divisive, given that CEE's steel industry is buckling under cheap imports from China.
Central Europe will also be keen for Ukraine and Georgia to secure visa-free access to the bloc, although with the Netherlands referendum decision on the Ukraine Association Agreement, this might be another issue the EU prefers not to touch at the moment.
EMU and the budget are fights waiting to happen, although ones where the main battles are likely to be postponed until after the Slovak presidency. Here Central Europe fears that growing populism and weakening solidarity could give the region a much less generous budget allocation than in the previous round.
Longer term, the debate will begin on whether the EU should react to Brexit by becoming an “a la carte” Europe, moving to a “two-tier” model, or a mixture of both. But that is something that looks like occupying the EU for several years to come, long after the Slovak presidency will be forgotten.