Miroslav Lajčák, the foreign minister of Slovakia, presented his country’s EU presidency priorities in front of a large Brussels audience today (1 June), in an effort to dispel fears that Bratislava will hijack the platform to promote its own national agenda.
The rotating presidency of the EU falls to Slovakia in July. But the latest pronouncements on Islam by Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico have caused widespread indignation.
Lajčák, who is a career diplomat and has also served as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and was one of the leading figures in the European External Action Service, spoke to an audience of 300 people, in an event organised by the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think tank.
The EU core
The Slovak minister started by saying that his country belonged to the EU’s core. Indeed, Slovakia is a member of Schengen and is the only country from the Visegrad Four to be member of the eurozone. He also pointed out that his country was historically committed to EU integration, and that the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia had as one of its principal credos, “Back to Europe.”
“We are in the core of Europe where we wanted to be, we are grateful for that, and we understand it’s time to give back,” he said.
Lajčák said that his country’s program for the presidency would only be ready after the 23 June UK referendum on Europe.
As Europe struggles with many external and internal challenges, he acknowledged that the UK referendum had the potential to change the EU project.
Regarding the guiding principles and the “four ambitions” of the Slovak presidency, Lajčák specified moving the dossiers of the economy forward. Regarding the single market, migration and external affairs, including trade and enlargement, Lajčák largely repeated recent statements by Slovakia´s State Secretary for European Affairs, Ivan Korčok.
Concerning migration, he said that the issue had opened philosophical questions, such as solidarity, tolerance, multiculturalism, safety.
“As a result, we observe a certain sense of political fragmentation, and this is my primary and greatest concern. Fragmentation make us vulnerable, internally as well as externally. However Slovakia is not going to spread defeatism. On the contrary, we want to approach current challenges from a positive angle. The fact that Europe has been tested does not mean at all that it has failed,” he said.
Pragmatic, uniting, listening to people
Lajčák said the Slovak presidency wants to be pragmatic and concentrate on projects that bring direct benefits to EU citizens, that it wants to unite Europe, and that it would focus on “peoples’ voice” in order to restore trust in the EU project.
EURACTIV asked Lajčák to comment on two issues he didn’t mention in his presentation – moving forward the contentious Posted Workers Directive, after 11 countries, including Slovakia, invoked a “yellow card” to stop the legislation, and the Schengen accession of Bulgaria and Romania.
On the Posted Workers Directive, Lajčák said what was needed is a discussion which would not lead to further divisions and fragmentation of the EU.
“We must not look at this issue as something that would put us on opposite sides. It’s very important to listen to each other, and that we find a solution that would be acceptable for us all. The different opinions of some member states do not meant that they are less European, or less mature, or less credible than the others,” he said.
Lajčák said that Slovakia believes that the Schengen accession of Bulgaria and Romania was long overdue. Indeed, it has been years since the Commission said that Sofia and Bucharest had fulfilled all the criteria, but the accession was blocked by countries such as Germany and the Netherlands.
“Bulgaria and Romania have met the conditions and now it’s time for us to do our part. That means to grant membership to Bulgaria and Romania. This issue has become even more urgent now in the midst of the migration crisis, where Bulgaria and Romania are playing a constructive role, and I think it’s in the interest of the EU. I would be personally pleased if it could be the Slovak presidency to bring the Schengen membership to those two countries,” he said.
Asked about Nord Stream 2, a project to double the capacity of a pipeline bringing Russian gas to Germany, which Slovakia opposes, together with several other countries, Lajčák started by saying that on energy, the EU was “not a real union”.
“The European Union is the largest consumer of energy, but we are not treated as the largest consumer, because we do not act as one, because we allow to be divided, to be played games with, to be blackmailed sometimes,” he said.
“On Nord Stream 2, I didn’t mention [this project] in my presentation. All I’m going to say is that we don’t like this project and we make no secret of it. We believe this is the project that goes directly against the basic principles of the European energy policy and the Energy Union,” he said.
But, he added, what is important is the legal opinion of the European Commission, and that Slovakia acts as an honest broker and would not promote its national agenda.
EURACTIV also asked Lajčák, who was nominated on 25 May as his country’s candidate for the post of UN Secretary General, what his campaign plans are, and which other candidates he sees as being his strongest rivals.
Lajčák said he would have no time to campaign and that his priority is the Slovak presidency.
“I’m certainly not going to comment on other candidates, but all I can say is that they are strong.”