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ECJ backs Slovakia in Sólyom case

SLOVAKIA did not violate European law when it refused to allow Hungary’s then-president László Sólyom to enter the country on an unofficial visit in 2009, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on October 16. The court’s justices decided that the rights of state officials and private individuals to enter other EU member states differ, and that as a result the lawsuit brought by Hungary, which asserted that its president had been prevented from exercising his right to free movement within the EU, was unfounded, the SITA newswire reported.

SLOVAKIA did not violate European law when it refused to allow Hungary’s then-president László Sólyom to enter the country on an unofficial visit in 2009, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on October 16. The court’s justices decided that the rights of state officials and private individuals to enter other EU member states differ, and that as a result the lawsuit brought by Hungary, which asserted that its president had been prevented from exercising his right to free movement within the EU, was unfounded, the SITA newswire reported.

While the Slovak authorities welcomed the verdict, Hungarian officials issued a cautious response.
The Hungarian Ministry of Public Administration and Justice said the process was unique in the way that it raised the question of applying the assessment of the position of heads of state in international law and EU law, as well as the possibilities of applying EU law in similar cases, according to an official statement.

“The ruling clearly distinguished the usage of the right of free movement of individuals, which Slovakia fully and consistently respects, and the visits of heads of states, whose status is specific and is subject to international law, mostly the law on diplomatic relations,” read an official statement by Slovakia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry published on its website, adding that the verdict also stated that “EU law does not oblige Slovakia to guarantee the entry of the Hungarian president to its territory”.

Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was also premier at the time of the original incident, weighed in by saying that the ruling confirmed that even in delicate international issues Slovakia acts in a manner that respects the country’s international commitments.

“Under no circumstances did Slovakia infringe any law, either of the European Community or any other international rules in the field of contacts with foreign heads of state,” he added, as quoted by the TASR newswire.

The Hungarian ministry said it hopes that there will be no similar case in relations between Hungary and Slovakia or other EU members.

The dispute

The incident took place during the first Fico government, which was in office between 2006 and 2010 and comprised three political parties: Fico’s Smer, the Slovak National Party (SNS) and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Most of its period in office was characterised by growing tensions in Slovak-Hungarian relations, and marked by legislative moves like the controversial Slovak State Language Act, Hungary’s new citizenship law, and then Slovakia’s response to it, the amendment to the State Citizenship Act. According to the latter, anyone who seeks to obtain the citizenship of another country can be stripped of his or her Slovak passport.

Sólyom’s trip was originally organised as an unofficial, private visit to the border town of Komárno where a statue of Stephen I, Hungary’s founder and first king, was to be unveiled. No senior Slovak state representatives were invited to the ceremony. Komárno has a significant number of Hungarian-speaking residents and, like the rest of Slovakia, was part of the historical Hungarian Kingdom from the tenth century AD until 1918.

On August 20, 2009 the three highest representatives of the Slovak government, Prime Minister Robert Fico, President Ivan Gašparovič and Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška issued a joint written statement saying that Sólyom was not a welcome visitor to Slovakia on August 21 for several reasons, including the sensitivity of the date. August 21 is the anniversary of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia by several countries, including Hungary.

Then, on August 21, the Slovak authorities decided to deny Sólyom entry to Slovakia. The Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry officially conveyed a message to Sólyom asking him to disregard the invitation to Komárno, TASR wrote. The note denying entry reached Sólyom while he was at the Hungarian-Slovak border.

Sólyom did not cross the border and instead convened a press conference on the Hungarian side of the bridge between the Slovak town of Komárno and its sister town across the Danube, Komárom. He said that the diplomatic note issued by Slovakia to deny him entry was an unprecedented measure in relations between two allies, Slovakia and Hungary.

“I’m glad you’re coming from the other side of the bridge, where they’re unveiling the statue of Stephen I and you can see for yourself that there is no security risk,” Sólyom told journalists, as quoted by TASR. “No extremists are gathering there, nobody is planning to beat anybody up.”
Sólyom turned around on the Hungarian part of the bridge and returned to Komárom, accompanied by his entourage.

Though no problems with extremists from either country occurred during the unveiling of the statue in Komárno, a day later several dozen members of the extreme right-wing Hungarian political party Jobbik began partially blocking the border bridge between Komárno and Komárom in what was seen as a reaction to Slovakia’s refusal to let Sólyom attend the ceremony, according to the SITA newswire. Moreover, some 40 members of Jobbik also laid a wreath at the newly-unveiled statue on August 23, 2009, including the party’s vice-chairman and a then member of the European Parliament, Csanád Szegedi, TASR reported.

A few days after leaving office in 2010, Sólyom visited Komárno as a private citizen and laid a wreath at the King Stephen statue, thereby fulfilling a promise he made at the time he was turned back in 2009, the Associated Press newswire reported.

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