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24th Feb 2018

Focus

Slovakia to push migrant quotas down EU agenda

  • Slovak foreign minister Lajcak says his biggest concern is the EU's fragmentation (Photo: Council of the EU)

Mandatory quotas for relocation of refugees in EU countries will not feature high on the agenda of the Slovak presidency of the EU Council.

The quotas, which were proposed by the European Commission as part of the reform of the EU's asylum system, are only "one element of a very wide process and reform", Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak told EUobserver on Wednesday (1 June).

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  • Fico and is government met Juncker and the college of commissioners. Slovakia wants to be an "honest broker". (Photo: European Commission)

Speaking to journalists after a meeting with the commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, Slovak prime minister Robert Fico said he "would be lying” if he said that all member states would agree on all aspects of the proposal before the end of his EU presidency in December.

Fico and Lajcak were in Brussels with the whole Slovak government to meet the college of EU commissioners. They insisted that they would act as an "honest broker" during Slovakia’s chairmanship, especially when it comes to migration.

Slovakia is in a peculiar diplomatic position. As the new EU chair, one of its tasks will be to steer the asylum changes through the EU legislative process. But last year Bratislava challenged the idea of refugee quotas in the EU Court of Justice.

"We are not going to change our national position, but we are not going to put it on the table," Fico told journalists, adding that his government "fully realise[d] the role of the presidency country".

"What we want to do is to discuss the issue of migration in its complexity, and entirety. We want to focus particularly on issues where we can agree, so that we overcome the feeling of fragmentation in the EU," Lajcak said in the margins of an event organised by the European Policy Centre, a think tank in the EU capital.

"It is a difficult issue and the European Union is divided on it, but there are a number of other issues where we are united: the smart borders, the Schengen implementation, the registration [of migrants], return policies, cooperation with third countries," Lajcak said.

"There is a lot that can be done in our six-month presidency," he added.

"We are not ignoring the issues of quotas, we are ready to continue discussions, but it should be a discussion in a European spirit, without labelling, without [public] accusations,” said Lajcak, a career diplomat and an official candidate to become the next United Nations secretary general.

He added that the file will not be buried.

“There are a number of countries that do not support mandatory quotas, mandatory relocation, but that does not mean we should be stuck here, we have to focus on agendas which are important and needed, and progress in unity," Lajcak added.

Slovakia wanted to see the European Border and Coast Guard, a new EU agency to protect the bloc's external borders, turned into reality on the ground by the end of the year, he said.

Brexit

"It has the potential the change the entire European project," said Lajcak on the UK referendum on EU membership taking place, just days before Slovakia takes the helm of the presidency.

That is why the presidency's programme will only be officially endorsed by the government after the UK referendum.

Technically, in case of a Yes vote, the EU will have to turn its political agreement with the UK into a legal document. Lajcak said he hoped the referendum would yield a positive signal that confirmed that the European model is attractive to its citizens.

"I wish to see this as a turning point in the overall bad mood in Europe," he said. He did not elaborate what would happen if Britain voted to leave the EU.

TTIP-light is not an option

Lajcak warned that there is no need for a watered-down free trade agreement between the US and the EU. "TTIP-lite is not an option, it would send mixed signals," he said, calling the pact by its acronym.

He also said more could be done to inform the public on the nature of the agreement.

"We have become victims of how the negotations have been conducted, out of the public eye … [that] creates lots of space for conspiracy theories, which are picking up all over Europe," he said. He said the anti-TTIP critics should be seriously.

He said that the window of opportunity is closing for concluding talks before Barack Obama leaves office.

"We have weeks to find out if we could close and conclude negotations or not," he said.

Energy union

Speaking of energy security in the EU, Lajcak said Slovakia aims to move toward a reliable and competitive energy union and to reduce the energy dependency of EU.

"When it comes to energy, we are not a union, we are not treated as the largest consumer of energy, because we do not act as one. We allow ourselves to be divided, to be played games with, to be blackmailed sometimes, and we pay different prices for the same product and that is not normal," Lajcak said.

He said the EU could save €40 billion a year out of its €400 billion energy bill if the bloc acted together.

"The centrepiece is diversification of resources," said Lajcak, whose country overwhelmingly relies on Russian gas.

He lashed out against the planned gas pipeline North Stream 2, linking Russia with Germany. "We don't like this project. We believe it goes directly against European energy policies," he said, noting that because it increased dependence on one supplier.

"We see no economic need for this project, and we see a negative political implications of the project," he said, adding that further discussions will have to be based on the EU commission's legal opinion on the project.

EU unity is only alternative

Lajcak, who used to work for the commission's external service and was once the bloc's special envoy to Bosnia, spoke at length about the need for unity in the EU.

"A gap has risen between common citizens and the EU elite and mainstream politics," he said, adding that the migration crisis had caused political fragmentation.

"This is my primary and greatest concern. Fragmentation makes us vulearable internally and externally," he said.

"The fact the EU is being tested, it doesn't mean it is failing. We have to continue investing in the European project, it is the only viable alternative for this continent. Failure is not an option," Lajcak said.

"None of the crises can be resolved alone at the national level. No country in the EU is powerful enough to manage it on its own and no prescribed administrative proposal will work for all of us either," he said.

Ambivalent Slovakia prepares to take EU helm

Prime minister Robert Fico, one of main critics of EU migration policies, is about to lead Slovakia into its first presidency of the EU Council. He says he wants "normal dialogue" but will "not keep silent".

Slovakia to fight EU 'fragmentation'

When they take the presidency of the EU ministers council, Slovak authorities say they will try to avoid divisions on migration, manage the aftermath of the UK referendum and strengthen the single market.

Slovakia vote shocks Europe and its own society

With a weakened PM, a fragmented parliament and an extreme-right party winning seats for the first time, Slovakia is heading for uncertain times ahead of its EU presidency in July.

Smiles and frowns in Slovak EU logo

The Slovak EU presidency logo contains a smily emoji. But its 23 year-old designer made other faces in case things go wrong.

Opinion

What to expect from Bulgaria's EU presidency?

Corruption, organised crime, lack of foreign investment and digital skills make Bulgaria an unlikely standard bearer for the EU during its presidency. But perhaps Sofia can pull it off.

EU states loosen grip on tax havens

Finance ministers removed eight entities from the tax havens blacklist, while ruling out more transparency or sanctions - prompting criticism from tax-campaigning NGOs such as Oxfam.

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