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17th Dec 2017

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Slovakia's eurosceptics end EU honeymoon

  • Slovakia had the lowest voter turnout in the last two EU elections (Photo: formulaphoto)

The EU honeymoon is over for Slovakia, say analysts, as eurosceptic voices for the first time make themselves clearly heard in the run-up to the European elections later this month.

In the last two rounds of EU elections, Slovak voters distinguished themselves by being the European citizens least inclined to vote, with 19.6 percent going to polls in 2009 and 17 percent in 2004. This apathy, despite Slovaks expressing strong support for EU institutions when surveyed.

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Adding to the chances of another potentially low turnout is the fact that voters have already been to the urns this year for a hotly contested presidential race. But new messages and new ways of getting these messages across may yet spark interest in the EU ballot.

Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), a fairly new liberal and pro-business political party with a minor position in the Slovak parliament, staged a series of cabaret performances across the country featuring its three top EP candidates, including its chairman Richard Sulik.

The programme, mocking EU legislation and entitled "Stop this nonsense, Brussels", includes a sketch about a European Commission bureaucrat explaining the benefits of an up to 900W vacuum-cleaner to a shop-assistant who loudly disagrees, saying: "But do you actually understand that it is supposed to vacuum-clean?"

Its author, well-known director Nikita Slovak, argues that a series of recent EU directives made a perfect topic for a cabaret – "funny and sad at the same time". One EU-funded project singled out for mockery concerns a vehicle worth €400,000 brought by a Slovak village for sweeping a 14-km-long road (although this had actually been okayed by Bratislava rather than Brussels).

The SaS party – currently polling around 5 percent – maintains it wants to support pro-reform forces in the European Parliament. "The success of Slovakia and Europe to a large extent depends on if and how fast we manage to fundamentally curb this regulation lunacy," Sulik told EUobserver.

He is certain that there will be many more similarly-minded newcomers to the EU parliamentary groups after May elections.

However, he clearly distinguishes his party from the strongest anti-European forces that call for a complete break-up of the EU, although at the height of the eurozone crisis the SaS took a tough stance against the EU's rescue loan for Greece and argued that Athens should leave the monetary union.

Back in October 2011, the party voted against proposals to bolster the temporary bailout fund causing a few hours of panic on the financial markets and eventually leading to the collapse of the then centre-right government.

According to Olga Gyarfasova, a sociologist and EU affairs lecturer at Comenius University in Bratislava, the financial crisis has accelerated the process of "getting realistic" about the EU's pros and cons following the first "honeymoon years" of Slovakia's membership.

"The EU is no longer [viewed as] an automatic ticket to increased prosperity but rather as an open possibility and chance to take," she says.

"And, obviously, the debate about the EU's rescue funds has played its part . . . along with over-regulation and centralisation in Brussels, the criticism centres on our obligation to help irresponsible and ill-disciplined countries."

"The so-called Greek loan is remembered by the Slovak public as something quite distant from authentic solidarity," Gyarfasova commented.

>Brussels worse than Budapest?

Apart from business-oriented euroscepticism (also voiced by other centre-right parties), parties further to the right, such as the Slovak National Party (SNS), polling at around 5 percent, use nationalist rhetoric.

Between 2006 and 2010 under its ex-leader, Jan Slota, the SNS served in the coalition government with the centre-left Smer party of current PM Robert Fico. Slota became known for his statements against the Hungarian minority in Slovakia – statements that eventually led to the Smer party being expelled from the European Socialists.

But the new SNS chairman, Andrej Danko, has moved the main political discourse of the party – currently represented by one MEP in the outgoing EU legislature – away from criticising ethnic Hungarians to criticising Brussels instead.

"When we joined the EU ten years ago, we were hopeful that our life would get better and our living standards would come closer to that of Western Europe," Danko told this website.

"But the Union's drive for creating a superstate is threatening our sovereignty," he added, pointing to pressure against national vetoes in EU decision-making and different standards for accepting national views on EU draft laws, often favouring larger member states.

"Nationalistic and patriotic voices can be heard more loudly ahead of this EP election. If they manage to get together and clarify their shared wishes, the chances of a key change at EU level would look much better," said Danko.

But EU expert Gyarfasova strongly doubts that 'Brussels-bashing' can motivate SNS voters as much as the Budapest card did in previous elections where Hungary's decision to give out passports to ethnic Hungarians in other States caused a general stir.

"Criticising Brussels is actually also about self-criticism. While referring to Budapest could be exploited politically and in terms of mobilisation as a sort of exterior threat, 'Brussels' also stands for us ourselves. And the politicians' attempt to play this 'Brussels card' needs to be de-masked."

Christian values

The final source of EU scepticism gathering momentum in Slovakia comes from religious and Christian conservative political forces: they protest attempts by the EU parliament to pressure member states to change their laws on same-sex marriages, sex education and abortion.

The debate was fuelled by Catholic bishops in December when they warned of Europe's "gender ideology". They also referred to the EU's "culture of death" which advocates human rights and children's rights "but what it is actually pushing for is harmful for people and children".

Several mass marches in support of traditional family set-ups were organised and a petition for a referendum on writing into the constitution that a marriage should be a union between a man and woman is under way.

Miriam Lexmann, a former Slovak diplomat, argues that some 'own-initiative' reports such as the one by Portugal Socialist MEP Edite Estrela on women's sexual and reproductive rights have shattered the EU assembly's credibility among Slovak Christian citizens.

"It was counterproductive to open such a divisive debate in the European Parliament as the EU has no competence to act in these issues," she said.

She added that these topics should be tackled by an "inclusive consensus where the maximum number of views is respected – including those based on religious values".

Whether Christian and other voters in Slovakia choose to express their disapproval by voting for parties critical of the EU, or opt to protest by ignoring the EU elections altogether, remains open however.

Current polls put the governing Smer party on almost 40 percent, followed by two centre-right parties, the Christian Democrats (12%) and the Party of Ordinary People (9%). There are 29 parties and 333 candidates – record numbers – fighting for Slovakia’s 13 seats in the EP on 24 May.

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