Presburg Castle in Bratislava, by Guillaume Speurt, via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Putting the Fox in Charge of the Hen House?

On July 1 Slovakia took over the EU Council Presidency. Until now the government led by Prime Minister Fico refuses to assume responsibility in the refugee situation and attracted attention with islamophobic and populist comments. Is it now able to play the intermediator in Europe? 

How strong is the consensus on values in present-day Europe? Not particularly, if we look at EU member states in East Central Europe and the accession candidates in Southeast Europe. Whereas the Visegrad Group states of Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary, as they entered the EU in 2004, symbolized the future of EU expansion, today they represent Euroskepticism and isolation. The current political debate over the extent to which our eastern neighbors are prepared for and able to absorb refugees in general and Muslim refugees in particular points to a fundamentally different conception of society in these countries that emphasizes ethnic and religious homogeneity.

Politics shaped by friend vs. foe mindset

Strict external boundaries coupled with internal marginalization: Long before the first groups of refugees arrived in Europe, the situation for minorities was not comfortable in East-Central and Southeast Europe. Among most East-Central and Southeast European countries with a significant Roma minority, including Slovakia, the Transformation Index BTI  registers systematic civil rights discrimination – from social stigmatization to arbitrary police violence. As Slovakia’s Public Defender of Rights Jana Dubovcová approached the Fico government and parliament with a report on police brutality against Roma the minister of the interior accused her of being a liar aiming to instrumentalize the situation for her own gain.

But this is only the most visible example of social illiberalism in the country. A polarizing friend vs. foe mindset, combined with a vivid paranoia over the loss of power, has spread across East Central and Southeast Europe. Several governments in Poland, Serbia and Hungary have been ushered into power with a clear voter mandate following successful anti-establishment electoral campaigns riding on populist slogans against corruption, persistent social inequality and the EU’s broken promises of economic growth. These governments have interpreted their success as an electoral revolution and, ergo, as their sanctioned mission to implement uncompromisingly their political agenda without seeking input from the opposition or civil society and, where possible, to institutionalize this agenda.

Simply taking rather than negotiating this license to govern as an absolute right, many of these governments are developing authoritarian features. This often involves the erosion of institutional monitoring authority when, as is the case in Hungary, the separation of powers is hollowed out or, in the case of Poland, the independence of administrative institutions and the judiciary are undermined. This also involves repressing independent voices critical of the government, beginning with state media organizations. This is followed by attacks waged at critical voices in civil society and independent journalists, a tactic vividly demonstrated in Macedonia, which received only 4 out of 10 possible points for freedom of expression in the BTI 2016 – on par with Egypt and Russia. BTI data reflect this trend overall: on regional average, the separation of powers has declined by 0.8 points on the 10-point scale (Hungary has suffered the largest loss of 5 points), and the freedom of expression by an average 1.7 points.

Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, whose government took over the EU Council Presidency on 1 July 2016, has long since taken advantage of majoritarian logic. The current BTI country report for Slovakia, which draws on the period prior to the March 5 2016 election when his Smer-SD held a plural majority, points to a weakening in the separation of powers amid an oft-quoted sentiment among government functionaries that “We won the elections, therefore we do not need an opposition.”

“Islam has no place in Slovakia”

Things have changed since then. Following an unprecedented xenophobic and populist-driven campaign, during which Fico railed against the EU’s plans to allocate a supposed “tens of thousands” (the Dublin Regulation would allocate 802) of refugees to Slovakia and warned against an “isolated Muslim community,” the Smer-SD lost its plural majority and received only 49 (it previously held 83) seats in parliament – in part because voters chose to vote for the real right, thereby helping the right-wing nationalist SNS (15 seats) and the extreme-right Kobleba-L’SNS (14 seats) into parliament. Since the elections, as head of an extremely heterogeneous coalition of social democrats, nationalists, Christian democrats and representatives of the Hungarian minority, Fico has stayed the course, stating recently “It will look strange, but I’m sorry, Islam has no place in Slovakia.

Given this state of affairs, Slovakia’s EU Council Presidency is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. How can we expect the Fico government to steer Europe through the choppy waters of a populist-charged refugee crisis?  Efforts targeting diplomatic moderation often point to the fact that the significance of the EU Council Presidency has subsided somewhat since the standing office of the President of the European Council (currently held by Donald Tusk) was institutionalized with the Lisbon Treaty of 2009. Furthermore, as part of the so-called trio Presidency, Slovakia must confer with the Netherlands and Malta, and Slovakia’s non-partisan foreign minister, Miroslav Lajčák, is an experienced and respected diplomat likely to help reconcile differences.

Slovakia has to demonstrate that it identifies with European values

Nonetheless, it’s unclear how credibly a government that has acted with such obstinate exaggeration with regard to refugee issues can serve as a mediator and moderator. How can a government that has refused majority decisions reached within the EU and dug in its heels so firmly on its rejection of 802 refugees that it refuses even compensation payments (instead of taking on refugees) be expected to negotiate and adopt EU legislation as per the mandate of the EU Council Presidency? At the EU ministers of the interior meeting in early June in Bratislava, Jean Asselborn, Luxemburg’s foreign and migration minister, expressed his hope that the Slovakian government would assume a more European attitude with its new responsibility. He also waged criticisms directed at the Viktor Orbán-led Hungarian government for adding one on top to the country’s case against the EU’s refugee allocation mechanism by voicing plans to hold a referendum against the mechanism. Spinning out the logic of such a referendum that is expected to succeed, Asselborn remarked, “But let’s imagine that every EU member state would do the same. We’d have to close the door on our values. We’d be in denial of the Geneva Convention – we’d still be a union, but one without values.” Slovakia now has six months in a high-profile position to convincingly demonstrate that the country not only recognizes EU statutes, but also identifies with and shares European values of solidarity and human rights.

Dr. Hauke Hartmann is Senior Expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung and directs the BTI project “Shaping Change – Strategies of Development and Transformation”.

Photo: Presburg Castle in Bratislava, by Guillaume Speurt, via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

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