It turns out Slovakia’s presidency over the EU Council will not be a first-ever only for Slovakia, but for the whole union in a way. For the first time in its history, the EU will be dealing with the departure of one of its members.
“No other presiding country has ever faced such a tough task,” reads the official statement of the coalition Most-Híd party, in which it reacted to the results of the Brexit referendum which set the UK on a path out of the EU.
Slovak politicians spoke in unison that they respect the decision of the British voters, but most of them deemed it regrettable.
Only anti-system parties rejoiced the results of the British vote, with the Communist Party of Slovakia and the far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia suggesting they might attempt for a similar referendum in Slovakia. Analysts, however, do not expect such an initiative to meet with any success, despite the fact that eurosceptic moods have been on the rise in Slovakia too.
Presidency’s top topic
Although it is going to top the agenda of the EU in the coming months or even years, Brexit is not the only thing that Slovakia will be dealing with as a presiding country. The EU must continue functioning and deal with the issues that it has on the table at the moment, including the migration crisis but also the priorities of the Slovak presidency, Radovan Geist, publisher of the Euractiv.sk portal, said.
Still, talks about any other issue “will be in the shadow of the fact that the UK is leaving the EU and we still don’t know how it will be done and how the EU will look like in the future”, Geist told The Slovak Spectator.
President Andrej Kiska reacted to Brexit saying that the remaining countries now need to fix the EU “as a unique place of solidarity, prosperity, and security”. At the same time he said that the EU integration “is hurt by Brexit, not defeated”.
Most Slovak politicians stressed Slovakia’s role as the soon-to-be presiding country in the process of Britain’s departure from the union. Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák stated Slovakia is prepared for the fact that Brexit will dominate Slovakia’s presidency throughout the second half of 2016.
Practicalities of Brexit and Slovakia’s role
In line with the joint statement of top EU officials Lajčák too reiterated that Britain’s departure should happen as soon as possible, stressing he does not agree with British PM David Cameron’s decision to leave the start of the process only to his successor.
“We cannot afford to do that,” Lajčák said, as quoted by the SITA newswire. He also said it will be important to explain to citizens what the relationship between the UK and the EU will be like.
Slovakia’s EU Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič stressed that even though this is the first time a country is leaving the EU, the union is ready for this eventuality in its treaties.
“I am convinced that we’ve got good rules to be able to manage this process in a cultivated way,” Šefčovič stated in his official reaction to the Brexit vote.
At the early stages of the Brexit process, top EU officials and leaders of big EU countries will play the major role during political talks about how the departure should take place. Only once negotiations move towards technicalities, the presiding country’s role as the coordinator of the EU Council’s work begins.
“The question is how much this process will advance by the end of this year, when Slovakia’s presidency finishes,” Geist said, adding that the EU leaders are pushing for Brexit to take place as soon as possible, and it is likely that Slovakia indeed will coordinate part of the Brexit talks before it wraps up its presidency at the end of 2016.
Most reactions from Slovakia also stressed the EU’s need for change.
Lajčák believes citizens must hear from their leaders what EU they have to offer.
“It must be a new EU, it must be a better EU, a union that is closer to the people, that speaks a language they can understand,” Lajčák said, as quoted by SITA. Self-reflection is in place, he added, as the EU has taken up too many competencies, “it interferes in people’s lives more than they would please and influences things that could be left for national governments to decide”.
Šefčovič stressed the need for reflection both in Brussels as well as in the member states. He believes a more pragmatic approach and smoother communication would be in place.
“The EU has a number of concrete achievements,” Šefčovič said, listing the well-functioning single market, the free movement of labour, or student exchanges, which Europeans now “take for granted and all the negatives are automatically blamed on Brussels”.
Fico mentions migration
PM Robert Fico in his reaction to Brexit focused among others on migration policy, saying that “the giant part” of people in Europe refuse the migration policy of the EU and is discontented with the economic policy too.
“It’s up to us to say that the fundamental policies of the EU must go through fundamental changes,” Fico said, as quoted by the TASR newswire.
Political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) non-governmental think tank sees this as an attempt of Fico to confirm the legitimacy of his own anti-immigration rhetoric.
The Slovak PM, however, won’t be the only one to suggest that the EU should close its borders and forget about quotas, according to Radovan Geist. He considers it a part of the fight of how the results of the Brexit referendum should be interpreted.
“But I don’t think it was the main message of the referendum,” Geist told The Slovak Spectator.
The primary task of the prime minister of the presiding country is to draw our idea of how the EU should carry on and how we can contribute to that. The EU expects something else than talking about migration and pondering the reasons for Brexit, Mesežnikov noted.
Exit tendencies in Slovakia?
One of the main concerns international observers voiced is that Brexit could become contagious for other EU member states. This, however, is not the case of Slovakia, most local analysts say.
The result of an opinion poll by the Focus polling agency published on the day of the referendum confirms this, showing over 60 percent of those polled wishing that Slovakia should remain in the EU if a similar referendum was taking place in their country.
Only two political subjects from the far sides of the political spectrum called for a similar referendum to take place in Slovakia: the non-parliamentary Communist Party of Slovakia and the parliamentary far-right People’s Party-Our Slovakia. Mesežnikov doesn’t expect any other relevant political subject to show such tendencies.
“But we should prepare for this to become an issue of debate, and not only in Slovakia,” Mesežnikov said.