EU presidency strengthened Slovakia's government
Slovakia's first ever EU presidency drew praise from Brussels officials and succeeded in strengthening the government's political position at home, but probably failed to spark higher public interest in European affairs.
Prime minister Robert Fico's government will pass its six-month chairmanship of the EU Council to Malta in January after a turbulent period that included the fallout from the Brexit vote, disputes on trade agreements with Canada and US, and the surprise American presidential election result.
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“The key success of the Slovak presidency was to get the remaining EU-27 [minus the UK] to agree on the need to keep convincing the European public that it is essential to continue in this unique project,” Fico noted.
The Slovak presidency has repeatedly used similar rhetoric about the positive outcomes of European integration.
Political scientist Michal Cirner of Presov University told EUobserver that despite the “utmost effort" of the government, the presidency "has not become a top public debate issue, because there is a weak understanding of the whole Brussels business and more interest in other less abstract topics".
“Most ordinary people would probably comment that the whole EU presidency was just about gentlemen's entertainment paid by our money,” he said.
For some Slovaks, such sentiments were boosted by accusations against the foreign affairs ministry of Miroslav Lajcak regarding overpriced presidency events in Bratislava and alleged fraud in their management.
On the national political level, some analysts expected key changes in the Slovak government after the country's term at the EU helm, mainly on the part of Fico's Social Democratic Smer-SD party.
Some speculated that Fico would resign next year due to health problems, following heart surgery just weeks before his presidency tasks kicked off in July.
But “towards the end of this year, we can see that Robert Fico feels as fit as ever for future political fights”, noted political commentator Marian Lesko.
He suggested that the ruling coalition, composed of Smer-SD, the centre-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and Slovak-Hungarian Most-Hid party, would continue despite some internal disputes or different political views – in a bid to prevent early elections and a likely boost of far-right parties.
A 'responsible coalition'
It was also initially widely assumed that interior minister Robert Kalinak (Smer-SD) would walk out after finishing his duties in Brussels because of corruption allegations linking him to a prominent businessman who faces charges of tax fraud.
However, as Michal Cirner stated: “If he hasn't left in the heat of the pressure by media, opposition and a part of the public, why would he go now?”
Kalinak was recently re-elected with a high support as Smer-SD vice-chairman, while top party officials praised him for how well he managed things at the EU level.
“The ruling parties present the Slovak EU presidency as a great triumph and a reason to maintain their 'responsible' coalition of standard political parties,” said Cirner.
“They will loudly refer to their performance in Brussels as a key success and remind it to the voters well until the next election.”
Despite all the pro-Europe messages over the past six months, the Slovak government may return to a more critical rhetoric, primarily following their national interests in key policies and agendas.
Fico has often highlighted Slovakia's role in achieving a quick ratification of Paris climate agreement at the EU level but “it is just logical that Bratislava will continue to protect its industry and energy-intensive sectors”, energy analyst Jozef Badida told EUobserver.
No more political correctness
Similarly, Bratislava has tabled a new concept of “effective solidarity” to establish new EU asylum rules and called for a compromise on the controversial issue of migration and refugee crisis. But it continued to vehemently resist the agreed EU quota on migrant relocation.
While the image of Slovakia and its EU presidency was initially strongly influenced by Fico's anti-refugee rhetoric, he is finishing the job with the same appeal for stopping political correctness in European and national public debates.
In a speech at a European socialists meeting in Prague early December, he said it was essential to speak openly about the EU's hypocrisy and bureaucracy, because the far-right makes progress by doing so.
Recent polls have shown that radicalism is on the rise in Slovakia.
A survey by Polis agency published on Wednesday (21 December) put the extreme-right People's Party-Our Slovakia (LSNS) of Marian Kotleba at 11 percent of voting intentions, ahead of all the ruling coalition parties except Smer-SD (27.7 percent). At the March elections LSNS got 8 percent of the votes.
According to a research by the Institute for Public Affairs, Kotleba's party is the most popular among Slovaks aged 18-39.
In another poll by INEKO institute, over 40 percent of Slovaks said they were convinced that the quality of democracy has deteriorated over the past five years, and one quarter did not oppose the idea of establishing dictatorship.