Speaking to Brussels journalists on a press trip to Bratislava, the Slovak premier, and his foreign minister, shed light on their ambitions for steering the Union for the next six months, and laying the groundwork for a rethink of the EU, following the shock of the UK referendum.
Prime Minister Robert Fico outlined the priorities of the Slovak presidency of the Council of the EU which starts today (1 July). As announced previously by Slovak diplomats, the four priorities are “Economically strong Europe,” “Making the most of the single market,” “Balanced asylum and migration policy,” and “EU as a global player.”
Another objective of the Slovak presidency is better communication with the European public, Fico said. He added that his country wanted to focus on the positive agenda, and “create a place and scope for constructive discussion”.
As a positive example, Fico gave one element of the EU’s migration policy, specifically the creation of European coast and border guards.
As negative examples, Fico spoke about the Commission proposal to reform the Dublin asylum system. He said that it would be mistaken to claim that these proposals had support from the majority of member states.
Another negative example he gave was the Commission proposal that countries who refuse to take in refugees should be fined by 250,000 euro per person. He said that Slovakia belongs to the majority of countries that considers this proposal “absolutely irrational”. During its presidency, Slovakia will not ignore this topic, but would rather seek to create a space where it can be discussed among all member states, he said.
Politicians should recognize that they have failed in communicating the positives that the European project brings, the Slovak premier said.
“If you ask a Slovak citizen about the positives in the European agenda, he would find it very difficult to answer, and this is no longer tolerable,” Fico said. As an example, he mentioned the EU’s borderless Schengen system. He stated that he was from the generation that remembers closed borders, and that for himself, personally, the accession to Schengen had been a very strong emotional moment.
“But he said that if you ask a twenty-year-old Slovak for his opinion on Schengen, the young person would take it absolutely for granted, without noticing the contribution of the EU for this,” he said.
The Future of the EU
The Slovak prime minister said he was very pleased that the summit on 29 June endorsed the proposal he said he had initially made to French President François Hollande, and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to hold an informal summit on the future of the European Union in Bratislava. The EU-27 decided on Wednesday (29 June) that the summit will take place on 16 September.
The future of the EU can no longer be defined without the active involvement of the member states that joined after 2004, Fico argued. He said it was high time to acknowledge that these countries had a unique experience in transformation, processes that lasted for decades in the West, but took less time in that part of Europe.
‘Brussels has a very negative connotation’
“I’m very glad that we will meet outside Brussels, because Brussels has a very negative connotation these days. We will meet in Bratislava, another European capital, and have the chance to discuss the future of the EU,” Fico said.
The example to be set by the Bratislava summit should become the standard working method for the future, Fico said. In the EU, positions should be defined jointly, he said, adding that if the European Commission would find solutions agreeable to everyone, he would be happy.
Fico said that the Wednesday summit had demonstrated a general consensus for not opening up the basic treaties.
“There are policies of the EU which need to be clearly labelled as failed,” Fico said.
Fico added that he was briefed on a recent opinion poll which, he said, clearly shows that the majority of European citizens believe the current migration policy to be a failure.
“We need to identify which policies are not successful and try to give them new life,” he said.
Slovakia wants to contribute to the creation of mechanisms that function, Fico said, implying that the Commission’s policies didn’t. He gave as an example his country taking in refugees who had applied for asylum in Austria, to help the neighbouring country, which had reached its limit. This measure, decided bilaterally, he implied, was more successful than the Commission’s policies.
‘Unique experience’ in velvet divorce
Asked about the push of Scotland to preserve its status as an EU member, Fico said that Slovakia and the Czech Republic had a unique experience with the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia in 1993.
“We are ready to share this experience with anyone who is interested,” he stated, adding that Slovak diplomats had helped Montenegro secede from Yugoslavia in 2006. He added, however, that the future of Scotland was an internal issue for the United Kingdom.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Miroslav Lajčák spoke to the press in a separate event. Asked to comment on Fico’s statement which seems to advocate a return to the intergovernmental method, he said that in the document adopted at the informal summit held in Brussels, the lead of the Council was clearly stressed.
“I think this is logical, because this is where European citizens live. They live not in institutions, they live in the member states. So it’s logical that European policy should be driven by the member states, by the agreement of our democratically elected heads of government,” Lajčák said.
However, he added that if there was one thing he didn’t want to see, which was institutional competition. Lajčák said that he recognized that the European Parliament resolution, and the document adopted by the leaders of the EU-27, didn’t go in the same direction, but gave its preference for the member states being in the driving seat.
If European Union citizens were disenchanted with the EU, it is because there are “too much institutions and too little member states in setting the agenda”, Lajčák said.
“All of our leaders are excellent communicators, because this is why they are winning the elections, so how come the Union as a whole is unable to communicate with its citizens in a way they understand?” he asked.
‘Policy should be formulated by member states’
Lajčák stated that he had a lot of respect for the European Commission, and that he had worked for the European External Action Service, but repeated that policy should be formulated by the member states, while the role of the Commission was to implement it and make sure there are no conflicts between political decisions.
The foreign minister, who is a candidate for the post of UN Secretary-General, said that the Lisbon Treaty, which set up the posts of Council President and of High Representative for Foreign Affairs, had lowered the importance of the rotating presidencies.
Similarly, in Lajčák’s view, the Spitzenkandidaten model had also changed the balance among the three institutions, to the detriment of the Council, because before it was the heads of state and government who agreed on who leads the European Commission.
There are moments, Lajčák said, when member states are sidelined, because in his opinion, there have been situations when the Council agrees on something, but then the Commission comes up with a proposal that doesn’t reflect this agreement.
Democratic legitimacy lies with the heads of state and government who have been elected and who represent Europe’s 500 million citizens, Lajčák repeated.
“There is a feeling that this role has been diminished over the years,” he said.
To those familiar with Slovak EU politics the support for the intergovernmental method comes as a big surprise, said Zuzana Gabrizova, chief editor of EURACTIV Slovakia. Slovakia had consistently advocated that as a small nation, it favoured strong EU institutions.