Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini called for lawmakers to make renewed efforts to ensure social and economic cohesion in the EU in his ‘future of Europe’ speech to MEPs in Strasbourg on Tuesday (12 March) .
Delivering his speech to a nearly empty plenary chamber, Pellegrini said that Slovaks had sought a better future when they set out on the path of democratic change 30 years ago.
According to him, the accession of Slovakia and other countries to the EU in 2004 was a guarantee of stability and freedom. “We went back to where we always belonged – to the European and transatlantic areas, to the EU and NATO,” he said.
Slovak membership of the EU was a “successful story”, said Pellegrini, pointing out that the accession process had required significant structural changes to reduce unemployment and build democratic institutions.
He stressed that Slovakia wants to “belong to the most integrated EU countries in these difficult times” and that there was no alternative to EU membership.
Nevertheless, with reference to the Visegrad Four (V4) countries, the Slovak prime minister recalled the continuing differences between the Eastern and Western countries, adding that any disagreements need to be addressed through dialogue.
Growing social disparities in Europe are destroying the European project, he argued.
“We cannot be credible if we do not eliminate the differences between East and West, they still exist,” he said.
Pellegrini also urged EU lawmakers to adjust the long-term budget, and increase its focus on cohesion. “How can we speak about the MFF when we have no clear vision for the future of the EU? First we have to see what our priorities are and then decide what we use it for,” he said, agreeing with French President Emmanuel Macron’s vision for EU reform.
The Slovak PM also critisised the EU’s tendency towards “over-regulation” and called for a “more flexible regulatory framework that does not regulate every single detail of our lives.”
With an eye on the upcoming European elections in May, he expressed his hope that “voters will show maturity and select a candidate with a clear EU stance”, a reference to European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, who has taken unpaid leave to run in Slovakia’s presidential elections in May.
Pellegrini, however, admitted that Slovakia was not immune to attacks on values such as freedom of speech. The murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, who were shot dead at their home near Bratislava last February, “shook the Slovaks socially and politically”, he said.
Between praise and criticism
A tired European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker took a swipe at UK Prime Minister Theresa May over his lack of sleep, caused by late-night Brexit negotiations the night before.
“But I slept enough time to dream of Slovakia and Bratislava. Because negotiating with Mrs May yesterday I thought about the September 2016 summit three months after the decision of the British people to leave the European Union,” he told MEPs.
In response to Pellegrini’s speech, Juncker praised Slovakia’s achievement during its EU Council Presidency and urged the Slovak PM to work with some of the V4 countries to reduce their confrontation with the EU, “which is sometimes ridiculous and always harmful”.
MEPs mainly voiced concerns about press freedom and corruption in the country.
European People’s Party deputy (EPP) Esteban Gonzales Pons accused Pellegrini of harsh rhetoric against the opposition. “More lights need to be shed on the disparity between your warm words and your governments actions,” Gonzales said.
Socialist Josef Weidenholzer praised Pellegrini, but he also spoke of suspicions of links to the mafia on abuse of agricultural subsidies.
Dutch Liberal Sophie in´t Veld, who has repeatedly visited Slovakia as part of the European Parliament’s monitoring missions, also praised Pellegrini for her speech in which she felt “leadership and vision”. In’t Veld also called on Pellegrini to choose on which side of history he wanted to stand and to distance himself from his predecessor Robert Fico.