Fico: EU leaders need to overcome fear
By Eszter Zalan
Slovak prime minister Robert Fico said Wednesday (6 July) that EU leaders have to come up with substantial answers to the loss of confidence in the EU by European citizens, otherwise it would lead to the rise of populism.
"We have to overcome the fear of political leaders that we won’t be able to manage the current crisis," he said in an address to the European Parliament to mark the start of the Slovak presidency of the EU Council.
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He added that confidence in the EU is diminishing because citizens have the same fear.
He added that fear triggers separatist forces, contributes to fragmentation and shakes the EU's institutional basis and European values and ideals. Fico said fear is reflected in the rise of nationalism and populism, which offer radical and simple solutions.
"People demand new trust," he said, adding that the EU cannot only focus on crisis management.
The Slovak PM said the informal summit of 27 leaders on 16 September in Bratislava will have to discuss the long-term vision for the EU and will mark the high point of the Slovak presidency.
He warned against a "business as usual" statement coming out of the Bratislava summit, which, he said, would only prove eurosceptics right.
"It would be harmful, if we would leave Bratislava with a statement saying that everything is fine, but [that] people don’t understand us," he said, adding that such a statement would only fuel more fragmentation and more referendums.
"It [the EU] needs to be more flexible, more responsive to diversity, get rid of the stamp of elitism and be more understandable for citizens, who perceive it as divorced from their reality and everyday problems," Fico warned. The UK vote, he said, was a confirmation of this.
On a positive note, Fico added that surveys show that in a majority of member states, citizens see EU membership positively. They still believe in the EU project, even though it is not perfect, but it makes sense and has no alternative.
Despite the pro-EU speech by Fico, the leader of the conservative EPP group Manfred Weber in a following debate reminded the house that there was a tone of populism in the recent Slovak elections.
The Slovak prime minister also warned that the British decision to leave the union mirrors the "failure of the EU to communicate" its achievements.
Fico advocated a simplified EU communications policy that is understandable to all.
"We need to simplify communication with the people. I regret that often we fail to explain that a stronger Europe is in the interest to all of us, not Brussels," he said.
He called the Brexit campaign "a laboratory" for arguments in favour of the EU and for what he called half-truths and lies against the EU.
With regards to migration, Fico said the Slovak presidency will focus on protection of external borders, preserving Schengen, and eliminating the causes of migration.
Slovakia is in a peculiar position as it has challenged the EU decision last year to distribute refugees across the continent on a quota basis, something that is also a part of the European Commission's proposal on reforming the bloc's asylum policy.
Some MEPs criticised Fico for earlier saying that Muslims are not welcome in Slovakia, on which he did not comment later.
The socialist prime minister said the European Border Guard agency should start functioning under the Slovak presidency.
Fico said Slovakia is in favour of a common asylum policy, but wants to secure certain flexibility for individual member states, referring to the possibility of not applying the EU's mandatory sharing of asylum seekers.
However, the commission vice-president Frans Timmermans warned member states that the EU's migration policy cannot be "a la carte".
He rebuffed suggestions that Slovakia lacked solidarity with member states that are overwhelmed by asylum seekers, citing the example of Slovakia helping out Austria with housing for refugees.