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The EU Slovak presidency at its end: Exploring the Slovak position on the European migration policy

A guest-comment from Anna Borgström Korba

The so called „migration crisis“ has uncovered a cleavage between the Eastern and the Western members states of the European Union. The four Visegrad States in particular formed a strong block against the European proposal which tried to handle the increasing number of asylum seekers in Europe through binding quotas among all EU countries. In this article, the author elaborates on the position of Slovakia, as the holder of the presidency of the European Union in the second semester of 2016, regarding migration and asylum policy. The article builds on an interview with Vladimir Simonak, Head of unit of the Home Affairs at the Slovak Permanent Representation in Brussels. This article does not differentiate between „migrants“ and „asylum seekers“; the word migrant will cover both groups.

Slovakia’s position towards the current European migration and asylum policy could be summarized by three statements. Firstly, Slovakia opposes binding quotas for member states set by the European Union. Secondly, Slovakia seeks to avoid Muslim migrants in the country. Thirdly, Slovakia understands solidarity not as a concept which should be applied within the European Union but in the direct aid to people in war-threatened areas and the protection of the EU borders. “The Slovak government is of the opinion that the EU should deal with the underlying reasons of the migration crisis and terrorism rather than with their consequences. The efforts should be therefore directed to improving conditions in the migrants countries rather than dealing with consequences“, explains Mr. Simonak. At the Bratislava summit in September this year, Slovak Prime Minister Fico reiterated that his country is ready to strengthen the security of EU borders and is advocating for two parallel alternative approaches in which some EU members will accept the EU quotas while the others participate only in security measures.

The escalation of the migration crisis has questioned the general Slovak statement on human rights and has put the country which until then had never experienced any substantial migration waves) under pressure. To understand what is behind the Slovak position towards the EU´s migration policy we first need to take a historical perspective.

Slovakia has no colonial past, and no direct historical relationships with oversees cultures, as it was the case for colonial powers such as France, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany. Moreover, it had a historically weak engagement in international affairs. Under Hungarian rule for almost 900 years until the collapse of Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the main effort of Slovaks had been their self-determination in the Central European context. After the collapse of Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia was formed, but its integration into the world economy was undermined by the Second World War. At the end of World War II, Czechoslovakia was revitalized but included in the Soviet bloc and its internationalization was therefore again limited, this time by the Cold War. The first independent engagement in international issues did not open up for Slovakia until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The ethnic composition in Slovakia is also typical for the Central European countries, with no significant representation of non-European communities. Slovakia is currently representing German, Hungarian, Polish, Ruthenian and Roma minority. Hungarians represent the largest ethnic minority; their activities, together with those of the Roma minority, remain very sensitive issues in Slovak domestic politics. The request of Hungarians to strengthen minority rights is generally perceived by Slovaks as an effort to gain autonomy and, gradually, separation from Slovakia. The issues of patriotism and ethnic politics therefore attract voters very easily and create opportunity for the rise of nationalist parties. The short period of Slovak independence and self-determination inevitably had a negative impact on the country’s current position.

To understand the low tolerance for other religions it is significant to understand the development of the role of religion in this post-communist society. After the ban of religion and forced materialism during the communist era, the importance of religion significantly and gradually increased; it took however two decades to create bridges between the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Church represented in the country.

The economic development of the country also plays a strong role in the Slovak opposition to the proposed EU quotas. Within the last decade, Slovakia has enjoyed a good economic growth and a stable macroeconomic development. Slovaks are also proud of adopting the Euro in 2009 as the first Visegrad country to do so. Despite these facts, the country has failed to maintain a strong middle class, it suffers from high unemployment and strong brain drain. Corruption hinders both the blossoming of state projects, as well as the effective spending of the EU funds. Corruption subsequently weakens regional policies and contributes to the fact that some regions are depopulated and lack low wage workforce, for example in the healthcare or in the construction sectors. Contrary to the German position, the Slovak government does not however believe in migration as a positive stimulus for the economic growth. “There would be some job opportunities appearing by providing services to arriving people but this is a costly way of creating new work opportunities“ – argues Mr. Simonak.

Despite the Slovak position on the European Union’s migration policy today, Slovak politicians will have to face the issue of globalization and with it also that of migration. In order to become a more diverse society in the future, Slovakia will need to deal with issues of non-EU migration and fundamental human rights applicable for all nationalities and minorities. Slovakia has become an open and independent country 23 years ago. Now it has to responsibly face its global challenges.