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5 May 2014 Beata Balogová Opinion
WHENEVER people who grew up in a communist country pass through one of those depilated border crossings without having to stop their car and present a passport, they recall being stressed out about customs officers searching bags and eventually staging a melodrama over an unreported candy bar. The time of strict passport controls on the Austrian, Hungarian or Polish borders has quite easily slipped into the nation’s historical memory, with the free movement of persons being one of the benefits that Slovaks most frequently associate with European Union membership.
A decade ago around 80 percent of Slovaks supported EU membership, viewing it as the country’s return to a space to which it should have always belonged, a space the country had been artificially torn out of by the damaging turns of history. The pursuit of EU entry united the nation, including otherwise politically incompatible forces in Slovakia. People took lessons from the uncontainable reign of Vladimír Mečiar and hoped that membership would draw a line that such local kings could not cross – especially when it comes to the treatment of minorities, freedom of press or competition rules. Today 66.3 percent of the population says that EU entry was the right decision.
When it comes down to quantifiable benefits, Slovakia has received €12.86 billion through European funds, with €4.848 being distributed among farmers and 100 kilometres of highways built from EU funding. Some 1,020 schools have been modernised, 56 hospitals reconstructed and 130,000 jobs supported from EU money, according to a list compiled by the Sme daily.
Slovaks have always been entangled in a strange paradox, though. While the country views EU membership positively, Slovakia has been a “champion” of low turnouts in elections for the European Parliament. Even in 2009, Slovakia remained faithful to its image as the country with the lowest voter turnout in the EU.
Yet, Slovaks have never really suffered any profound trauma by posting the lowest turnout, and while in 2009 there had been some brief metadiscourse about the lack of a European discourse in Slovakia, it was predictably overshadowed by the political parties discussing who was the winner – in terms of which party gained the higher number of seats in the European Parliament.
Robert Fico, who served as prime minister even back then, readily blamed the media for the nation’s lackadaisical attitude towards sending their representatives to Brussels.
“I will be frank with you – it happened to me yesterday – I stopped a person I know and asked him whether he will go to vote,” Fico said, as quoted by Sme. “He said ‘For what – for that Sk500,000 salary they will be making?’ Someone has created this image, so [the media] should do some self-reflection.”
Nevertheless, the assumption that those running for a four-year Brussels ride are drawn by the paycheck or that parties are treating the EP as a place to dispose of politicians whose ambitions party leaders regard as unhealthy, or as a reward for those who have tired of politics but are not yet ready to quit, still prevails. The media is not to be blamed for that.
MEP wannabees have invaded the social sites, imposing banal reports on those unfortunate enough to be in their circles. EP election billboards are sprouting like weeds, and this is likely the first and also the last time that some Slovaks will see the people who are supposed to represent them.
Paradoxically, the Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party, which brought down the best government Slovakia has ever had over a vote on the European bailout fund, is involved in intense campaigning: staging SaS leaders as musketeers with the slogan “all for Brussels, we for you”. Given the fact that the party has sunk to insignificance on the Slovak political scene, it is obvious that it will use the EP elections for promotional purposes only.
The ruling Smer will build its campaign by asking people to support pro-European forces.
In the aftermath of the economic crisis, with right-wing extremists Europe-wide targeting mainstream politics, the elections might be more significant than any time before. And there actually is much to discuss outside of petty party agendas: how to push extremism to the sidelines, and how to address immigration concerns, youth unemployment rates, regulation burdens, shared cultural heritage, European identity and environmental concerns. And the list goes on, far exceeding the formal frame of a verbal battle between EU sceptics and enthusiasts.
For anyone with any lingering doubt about whether it is actually good for Slovakia to be part of the EU and the sacrifices that it entails (like voting in EP elections), one need only take a peek at eastern Ukraine.
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“I have sleeping mats here for my colleagues.” SaS MP Ľubomír Galko said, showing media how he is prepared for the discussion held before the vote of no-confidence in PM Robert Fico, which ultimately lasted nearly 50 hours.