Socialist leader: New member states still adjusting to EU

The EU’s decision to enlarge by taking on twelve new members was taken on the understanding that there was a lot of work outstanding, former Party of European Socialists (PES) MEP Jan Marinus Wiersma told EURACTIV Slovakia in an exclusive interview.

Jan Marinus Wiersma, a Dutch politician, has for many years been a prominent member of the European Parliament, sitting on the committee of foreign affairs. 

He was speaking to Zuzana Gabrižová of EURACTIV Slovakia.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

In your introduction to the PES pamphlet ‘Politics of the Past: The Use and Abuse of History’, you quote a French philosopher from the 19th century, Ernest Renan, who defined the nation as ‘a group of people united by common hatred of their neighbours and a shared misunderstanding of the past’. Did you use this quotation just because it is catchy, or do you see some truth in it? 

I never use this formulation because it is a very tough one. I have never used it during the presentation of the book either. But Renan is a very famous historian and it is a very catchy phrase. There are some politicians who behave like that but it is not a general rule. 

Of course there are always certain animosities, like between the Dutch and the Belgians and between the Dutch and the Germans. Basically the main expression of that was during football matches. There is nothing chauvinistic in being proud of your history and your writers and artists. Like everybody knows Rembrandt and that he is ours [Dutch] and not German. And I think there is nothing wrong with that. 

Historical education is important part of defining the self-identity of a country and I do not think that being proud of your country means that you have to hate the others. We should avoid situations in which politicians take the historical agenda and make projections in which the others are always to blame and that you use the history because you had a bad relationship in the past. 

What Renan tried to say is a very polarising remark, provocative, and I have never used it because as I try to emphasise now, ordinary people want to lead ordinary lives together with Hungarians or whoever is in their neighborhood. Roma have lived here for ages peacefully, even though in poverty, and were driving around this country. They have always lived in villages and it has never been a problem, and suddenly it has become a problem because politicians started to define the differences instead of looking for what has kept these communities together with Roma. And not all politicians are like this. The statement of Mr. Renan is very general. 

Of course, I am a cosmopolitan politician. I have always worked in my political career to reduce the importance of borders, also psychological borders. The enlargement of the European Union has always been my most important project. It is also my disappointment that in this region but also elsewhere (actually we see the same phenomenon in the Netherlands) the differences get more emphasis.

What was your impression of Slovakia back then when you were the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Slovakia’s accession to the EU? What has changed in terms of the political landscape? 

Well, when I became rapporteur in 1997 when Mr. Me?iar was still prime minister, the overall judgment of the Slovak government in Europe and in the European Parliament, but also in my view, was a negative one. Mr. Me?iar was governing the country in an authoritarian way, which was unacceptable to the rest of Europe. 

Fortunately in 1998 it became unacceptable also to the majority of the voters, who voted away the Me?iar government in Slovakia. I had the impression of the country that was still half in communist times, in authoritarian rule, and it was also a period of very strange process of privatisations that took place here, big robberies. I remember meetings with friends of party of Mr. Me?iar in strange places here in the country, in very strange factories […] that all is gone now. 

Compared to the other candidate countries it had a negative image. That is why EU decided not to start negotiations with Slovakia until 1999, until the changes in the constitution and until the government was a better representation of the people. Slovakia, which lagged behind in 1997, is now one of the frontrunners in terms of development and the economy. Slovakia was the second country to enter the euro zone, probably for the long time the last one, and we have seen very stable economic development and lots of investments. 

But of course there are still some problems, which are sometimes very difficult to see. How people live behind the walls of the apartment buildings. What you see in the streets are expensive cars and the renovated city of Bratislava, new highways, bars and restaurants. When I came here for the first time, there was only the Forum hotel. When I first came I had a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister [Josef] Kalman, because Me?iar has never wanted to see me, and we had to use interpreters. Today it is not necessary because most of the politicians speak English. Dzurinda [Mikuláš Dzurinda, centre-right prime minister from 1998 to 2006] speaks English; Fico [Robert Fico, the current prime minister] speaks English, as most ministers do now. 

The formal orientation of the leadership has also moved from Moscow to Brussels very clearly. Even though they are still some old links to Russia, Slavic links. But in general you could say the country turned around, the orientation is Brussels, especially when I talk to young people. 

But there are some issues, as the poverty, not only the Roma, but also people who have to survive on old pensions. Not everybody is profiting from this economic modernisation, salaries are still relatively low compared what people are being paid in the Netherlands or Brussels. And inside Slovakia there is the difference between Bratislava and the rest of Slovakia. 

One pervasive issue is still corruption and the political landscape is still moving. And as I said earlier already, there are increased tensions with the Hungarian minority, with which we throught that we had basically solved the problems before 2004. 

Before the 2004 enlargement there were doubts as to whether countries like Slovakia were sufficiently prepared to join the EU. Would you now say that these doubts were unfounded? 

I was always a very strong supporter of the enlargement of the European Union, including Slovakia. We pushed very hard for it. After the accession I got some doubts and this is also the basis of the book about populism and quality of democracies in these new member states. 

If I had known in 2003 that after 2004 in Slovakia you would have a certain fragility and new tensions with minorities, populist parties moving to the forefront, I think I still would have said ‘yes’ to membership. Maybe we were doing the wrong thing with the ‘big bang’ – taking 10 countries at one time, which of course created the problem for the consolidation of the European Union, made things more difficult. Nevertheless the ratification process of Lisbon Treaty was concluded, which is a step forward. 

This process started in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. We had to decide, ‘now is the political moment to do it’, the people were expecting the real step of membership. If we had waited longer, the support for enlargement might have diminished – in my country, in Germany or in France. So it was a political opportunity and in the end it was a political decision because none of the countries were ready, and least of all Poland. 

If we had waited longer we could have had unrest and it could have had a negative effect on political stability in the candidate countries, although nobody was really ready. But then again, if you look at Netherlands it is also not 100% implementing all of the EU conditions and EU rules. 

I have more doubts about Romania and Bulgaria. I think that they maybe went too fast because the differences between Slovakia and Romania are enormous in terms of development and sophistication. But that was also a political decision in the end. I think we did the right thing at the right moment. I can be more open now about the hesitations we had then, but if I had expressed these hesitations then in my report to the European Parliament – look they are not ready but we have to decide politically to do it – that would have been dangerous. It is a responsibility we have taken and I still defend it. I am not saying that we acted stupidly by allowing ten countries in 2004. 

As vice-president of the Socialist group in the previous European Parliament, you had quite an insight into the situation when the membership of Smer (the political party of Prime Minister Robert Fico) was suspended as a result of forming a coalition with nationalists. What were arguments for and against PES’s decision not to uphold that suspension? 

I think the most important thing we did (the initiative came from the Socialist group, then the PES party followed our suggestion) was to give a clear signal to Smer and thereby to other parties, because we had information that Romanians might start to work together with the party, which was not really acceptable to us. So it was not as much a punishment as it was a signal that there is a limit to what is acceptable. That was one point. 

Secondly, basically, our problem was that Mr. Slota of the nationalist party was making unacceptable comments about Roma and about Hungarians and we said to Fico that ‘you have to make clear in the year to come where you stand for’. So we took a year to monitor. I personally hoped for that a change of coalition was possible. That didn’t happen. At least we hoped that Fico tried to curb Mr. Slota [Ján Slota, co-founder and president of the Slovak National Party, known as an extremist and chauvinist party], to make sure that what he says did not become government policy. 

There were actually some elements at least in the social sector where there were real improvements that also helped at least certain Roma groups to get into a better situation which was important to us. Finally of course we looked more closely at the situation in Slovakia. 

There was one thing that did not happen – Mr. Slota joining the Le Pen group, which would have been the limit. The man says crazy things. I talked to him once too, but in the end the party leader said stupid things but it did not ally himself with the extreme right in Europe. And that was also an important point that we observed. 

Like I said, we wanted to give a signal and after one year, we concluded that at least we made a point clear to the Smer party. We saw that our colleagues we worked with – Monika Be?ová, Miloš Koterec, Vladimír Ma?ka (MEPs from Smer) – are really doing their work in European Parliament and also in human rights issues in a way that we found proper, also in the Roma issue. One of the most important follow-ups for the group internally after the Smer episode was to keep working with Smer on minority issues and nationalism issues. We also insist to go into the issue of minorities’ protection, populism and so on with Smer, but also with Hungarian colleagues. 

How do you explain that Smer is so popular now when, as you mentioned in your introduction, social democratic parties are having an extremely difficult time around Europe? 

I see the basic reason is a combination of being smart and having luck. Being smart is taking distance from the very neo-liberal policies of Dzurinda’s former government. They went too far. I told Dzurinda that several times. He forgot about the needs of the people. I think Fico was very well capable of addressing those concerns and also as a prime minister, because of the lucky economic situation, was able to develop a more social profile that probably fits better with the Slovak people than the very neo-liberal capitalist open market agenda of Dzurinda. I think this extends his popularity. 

The luck is economic circumstances. He profited from the neo-liberal agenda of Dzurinda in the sense that economy was in good shape and with investments that were planned even before Fico’s government with some areas very successful, especially in the automotive industry. 

Let’s go back to the Roma issue. You said that before accession our government did whatever Brussels requested, but the situation after five years in the EU is not what was expected. So the question is – did EU take a full advantage of conditionality before accession? Because once in EU, the Roma issue is due to be solved on a national level. 

I was very much involved as a rapporteur; I think I was one of the first European politicians to go the Roma neighbourhood in Košice, it was all over the news, but the accession was seven years later. I wanted two things. I wanted Slovakia and the government to do something about this problem, but I also knew it will not be solved in five years. It is so complicated it will take generations, because of poverty and cultural problems. But even if you know it will take 25 years, you have to start somewhere. 

We agreed in this case with Mr. Pal Csaky [who was deputy prime minister for European affairs, human rights and minorities at that time] that the Slovak government will present a strategy and long-term plan to achieve certain goals in ten years’ time, so it means after accession. We could not do much more because if we had said ‘I want your Roma problem solved before you join the European Union’, it would have meant you have to wait for 25 years and then of course everybody would have been very angry with the Roma and that would not help anybody. But the risk and a danger became very clear after accession; we did not have the leverage, the instruments any more to force Slovakia, Hungary, Romania or other new member states to do what they promised. 

But it is not as negative as I sometimes say it. Improvements happened. I was in Romania a month ago and you can see that government structures dealing with this issue have more money, pay more attention to educational problems. You have more Roma involved in local administration there to help their own people, you see more Roma elected in local councils, but you still see the slums and the poor areas in the villages and unacceptable situations. It basically remains the human rights’ problem in civilised society. Everybody should help to solve that kind of problem including the Roma themselves. But it will take time, five years is not enough, Slovakia or Hungary do not have billions of euros to solve it so quickly. What we were trying to do in the last five years was keep some pressure on governments. 

So what are the biggest mistakes we have made since 2004 in solving the Roma issue? 

Basically I think politicians do not care enough, there is also not enough indignation in society, people do not say ‘This is not acceptable!’ I see most people in Slovakia accept the situation. ‘It has always been like this, why should we change it? It is their problem, I have my own problems, I can only survive with two jobs.’ 

It is just not present in society, so politicians can ignore it, from time to time have to do something, because Europe is looking over their shoulders. There is also cultural misunderstanding. Slovaks do not understand Roma culture, the way they live, what their cultural outlook is. This is a kind of invisible wall between the Roma community and Slovaks. This wall does not exist between Slovaks and Hungarians – the same people, same lives, same schools. But the Roma have their own cultural heritage, they live separately, they live in poverty with traditions that are hardly acceptable to the majority. A famous example I always use is: often in Bratislava and also elsewhere people complain ‘our Roma are always begging’. If you talk to the Roma they will say begging is a profession, a regular job.

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