Thu, 30 Nov 2023

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods. To subscribe, click here.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two issues: The upcoming parliamentary elections in Slovakia and an ambitious French-German discussion paper on the future of the EU.

Brief #1: Why Are Slovakia's Elections So Important?

What You Need To Know: It may not be the most talked-about vote this year, but Slovakia's parliamentary elections on September 30 could well have reverberations beyond the small Central European country. If polls are to be trusted, there is a good chance that Robert Fico, from the populist left-wing Direction-Social Democracy (Smer) party, will return to power after stints as prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to 2018. That could have a sizable impact on Western policies, notably regarding Ukraine.

On the campaign trail, Fico has ruled out more Slovak arms deliveries to its eastern neighbor, dismissed further EU sanctions on Russia, questioned the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, and parroted Kremlin narratives that NATO caused the war and that it began after 'Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started to murder Russian citizens in Donbas and Luhansk.' Fico's positions on many of these issues are close to those of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and, according to Dominka Hajdu from the Bratislava-based think tank Globsec: 'This has the potential to further crumble EU and NATO unity when it comes to the overall support for Ukraine, because in addition to Hungary, there would be another country in Central Europe which would question and perhaps counter some of the decisions supporting Ukraine.'

Deep Background: To understand recent political developments in Slovakia, it's worth going back to 2018. Since then, the country has seen five different prime ministers. That year also saw the biggest street protests since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, sparked by the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova. Fico resigned and his political ally Peter Pellegrini took over, only to split from Smer to form his own center-left party called Voice.

Powered by general discontent among the population, the center-right, antiestablishment Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) movement stormed into first place in the 2020 general elections with 25 percent of the vote. They ran primarily on an anti-corruption ticket and formed a coalition government with a motley crew of parties including libertarians, nationalists, and Christian democrats.

The new government, led by Igor Matovic, was stung by criticism of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and then the soaring energy prices and double-digit inflation that followed the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The coalition government was also blighted by constant infighting, which eventually led to Matovic stepping aside in favor of his deputy, Eduard Heger, in 2021. One of the coalition partners, the liberal Freedom and Solidary party (SASKA), then quit the ruling coalition, leading to the downfall of the Heger government through a no-confidence vote. That paved the way for the upcoming elections and the current caretaker government led by technocrat Ludovit Odor.

OLaNO's fall from grace has been so spectacular that it looks like the party won't even clear the 7 percent electoral threshold for two- or three-party alliances (the threshold is 5 percent for single parties). Instead, Smer looks set to finish first with around 22 percent of the vote (it got 18 percent in 2020), which would leave the party holding some 40 seats in parliament. With 76 seats needed to form a majority, coalition partners will be needed. The far-right Republika party, which is currently polling around 8 percent, is widely thought to be too extreme and unpalatable to govern with, but there are a few other nationalist parties with similarly soft stances on Moscow that Smer could team up with. And while the odds favor Fico, one cannot rule out a late surge for Progressive Slovakia -- a liberal party currently expected to get around 30 seats -- which is expected to soak up most of the pro-Western vote that OLaNO once enjoyed.

Progressive Slovakia's leader, Michal Simecka, is one of the vice presidents of the European Parliament and the grandson of the famous Czechoslovak communist dissident Milan Simecka. The main issue would be whether Simecka could form a viable coalition. Here, the ultimate kingmaker appears to be the Voice party -- currently polling in third just behind Progressive Slovakia -- and its leader Pellegrini. Milder on issues related to Ukraine, Grigorij Meseznikov, the president of the Slovak-based Institute for Public Affairs (IVO,) calls Voice 'the human face of Smer.' With most of its current members coming from Fico's party, Meseznikov notes that while Pellegrini and Fico 'have really quite bad personal relations,' Pellegrini's 'position in the party could be shaky if the majority of party members after the elections will [look favorably on a] coalition with Smer.'

Drilling Down:

Fico's calibrated pro-Russian narrative is understandable when looking at sentiments in wider Slovak society, which are markedly different compared to, say, neighboring Poland and the Czech Republic. A study by Globsec conducted earlier this year noted that 69 percent of Slovak respondents agreed that, by providing military equipment to Ukraine, Slovakia is provoking Russia and bringing itself closer to war. Only 58 percent would vote to stay in NATO. Nikoleta Nemeckayova, a policy analyst with the Prague-based think tank AMO who has researched Slovak political parties' views on Russia, told me that 'the Kremlin doesn't have to make any direct attempts to sway public opinion and also the results of the elections. So, what we are seeing is not influence campaigns coming from Russia, as such, but rather Slovak political parties trying to use the current sentiment in Slovakia, which also includes positive sentiment toward Russia, to win the elections.' Nemeckayova explained that the positive sentiment toward Russia in segments of Slovak society comes from various sources: nostalgia for the country's communist past; disappointment with life in the European Union; and also for historical reasons, such as attempts to create a separate Slovak national identity in the multicultural 19th-century Habsburg empire that was 'linked to Russia through pan-Slavism.' Russia, she said, was then seen as the 'big brother to the east that could [free the country from the] subjugation of Austria-Hungary.' It could be that Fico decides to tone down his anti-Western rhetoric if he gets elected. In his previous stints in office, he did just that, for example by green-lighting sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea in 2014 and criticizing Kremlin foreign policy in front of domestic audiences. A possible alliance with Voice could also moderate Fico's foreign policy, and there has been talk among Slovak diplomats and wonks that Miroslav Lajcak, currently the EU's Western Balkans envoy, could be tapped as foreign minister. It does, however, appear that Smer's return to power would align the country closer to Orban's Hungary on hot-button issues such as LGBT rights or migration, even if Fico has never been as ambitious as Orban in saying he wanted to create an 'illiberal democracy.' Another concern is that, if in power, Smer could attempt to weaken the judicial system in the country -- and, by extension, try to keep Fico out of jail himself. In 2022, Slovakia's special prosecutor looked into allegations that Fico used confidential tax and police records against political opponents. That same year, the Slovak parliament narrowly failed to suspend Fico's immunity from prosecution, which every deputy enjoys by law. The former prime minister has also threatened to dismiss investigators at the National Criminal Agency if given the opportunity.

Brief #2: What An Enlarged EU Might Look Like To The French And Germans

What You Need To Know: European Union reform is one of the hottest topics in Brussels again. This is due to a growing acceptance in the bloc that it will have to enlarge to some degree -- a shift that has come about because of Russia's war on Ukraine. But the question of when the bloc is ready to take in new members can only be answered once Brussels figures out how it will function when it expands from the current crop of 27 members to 30 plus.

In this context, a 60-page report, Sailing On High Seas: Reforming And Enlarging The EU For The 21st Century, released on September 19 is significant. That's primarily because the report was initiated by France and Germany, the two largest member states in the bloc without whom nothing in the EU really works. For months, 12 think tankers (calling themselves the Group of 12) from the two countries have deliberated on what needs to change inside the bloc to accommodate new members.

When EU leaders meet in the Spanish city of Granada on October 6, they are expected to discuss the report with a view to reaching some sort of decision on the way forward when they convene again in Brussels on December 14-15. Not everything proposed in the document will be taken on board -- perhaps not even the majority of it -- but it offers a good indication of some of the things a larger EU will have to do to remain politically nimble and relevant in the future.

Deep Background: While this might be an exercise largely for policy wonks in member states, the six EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia), as well as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, will be watching closely.

In places, the report is uncompromising: 'the EU is not ready yet to welcome new members, neither institutionally nor policy-wise.' That point is hammered home: 'Not all governments agree that expanding the EU to the Western Balkans, Ukraine, and Moldova is really a geopolitical necessity. Likewise, improving the EU's capacity to act or to protect the EUs fundamental principles do not necessarily garner support across the EU.'

The report puts a heavy emphasis on the need to strengthen the rule of law inside the existing bloc first. It may not be talked about openly inside the EU, but one of the main gripes in many Western EU states about the previous enlargements of 2004 and 2007 is the democratic backsliding among some of those new eastern members since then. The EU is already trying to get its own house in order, with ongoing rule-of-law procedures against Hungary and Poland, an investigation into the alleged misuse of EU funds by the previous Czech government, and the continued refusal to let Bulgaria and Romania into the visa-free Schengen zone over corruption fears.

Drilling Down:

To avoid these issues in the future -- and potentially deal with a few of them now -- the German-French report suggests Brussels be more active in freezing EU funds for errant member states, something that is already happening with regards to Hungary but only on a limited scale. Another idea is to remove the unanimity rule in Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, which could result in EU member states losing crucial voting rights in the Council of the European Union. The system proposed in the report would require an 80 percent majority for a vote to pass and would also mean that EU sanctions against a member state would kick in five years after being proposed if only a few countries opposed. Using their veto rights, Hungary and Poland have protected each other from proposed sanctions against their countries for backsliding on democracy, and the process has dragged on for years. The report also discusses the possible institutional changes that an enlarged EU would need to function efficiently. A larger EU budget is seen as a necessity, with the EU raising more money via taxation rather than just relying on member states' contributions. The possibility of increasing EU debt was also suggested -- a measure that was anathema to Germany during the eurozone crisis but was accepted as a onetime solution to power the EU economy after the coronavirus pandemic. That is nothing compared to perhaps the most controversial aspect of the entire document: 'Before the next enlargement, all remaining policy decisions should be transferred from unanimity to qualified-majority voting.' Known as QMV, the voting procedure in the Council of the European Union means that a decision is passed if 55 percent of EU member states vote in favor, representing at least 65 percent of the EU population. This could essentially mean an end to veto rights in sensitive areas such as enlargement, foreign policy, and the economy. But when might this all happen? If the EU does manage to reform itself, the authors recommend setting a goal for both sides (the EU and the candidate countries) to be ready for enlargement by 2030. The report outlines nine principles that should 'make the process more effective, credible, and politically guided.' Some of those principles are rather obvious and, in fact, already apply to candidates attempting to join the bloc. Take the first one, which is called 'fundamentals first.' It requires prospective candidate countries to adhere to the 'rule of law and democratic principles' in order to join the EU. Nothing new here. The same applies with the second 'geopolitical principle' that notes that member states, before joining, should be in full alignment with the EU's foreign policy decisions -- something that is required by member states already. But then it gets more interesting. Another principle is 'no fast-tracking' of certain candidate countries -- something that Ukraine, for example, is pushing for -- as it 'would damage EU integration and will erode trust in the other candidate countries.' That doesn't necessarily mean that the enlargement process will be slow. To stop the common practice of individual member states having the chance to veto the opening and closing of a country's 35 EU accession chapters, the report suggests a move to QMV, with only the final decision on a country's accession subject to 'double unanimity' -- meaning that all member states, plus their national parliaments, have to ratify the accession treaty. Another principle calls for a 'phasing-in' of candidate countries into various EU fields. That could mean that wannabe members would have full participation in policy areas such as energy or education before they get full membership. Built in would be a 'reversibility principle,' so countries could still be frozen out of a particular field if there was 'backpedaling on participation criteria.' But the most intriguing of the nine principles is perhaps regarding 'conflict resolution,' which offers some strong hints to countries such as Georgia, Kosovo, Moldova, Serbia, and Ukraine that in one way or another have territorial issues. That principle states that 'for security and stability reasons, countries with lasting military conflicts cannot join the EU. The same applies to countries with a territorial conflict with another candidate country or an EU member state.' According to a further clause, the accession of countries with disputed territories with a country outside the EU will have to include a clause that those territories will only be able to join the EU if their inhabitants are willing to do so. For Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, this could be a problem, as all have a Russian military presence on their territories, with Ukraine fighting an all-out war against its larger neighbor. The phrasing appears to give a 'Russian veto,' or at least gives Moscow the chance to meddle in a future settlement. One of the authors of the report, who wished to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak on the record, explained to me that no such Russia veto should exist but 'that a full extension of EU membership to a previously occupied territory needs, in our view...a political process.'

Looking Ahead

On September 28, the European Union's interior ministers meet in Brussels. One of the decisions they are expected to make is to extend the so-called 'temporary protection' measures for Ukrainians in the EU until 2025. This measure, first introduced in the weeks following Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, allows Ukrainian refugees in the bloc access to housing, health care, and the job market and has been prolonged annually since then.

The bloc's European affairs ministers also meet on September 28 but in the southeastern Spanish city of Murcia. They are expected to discuss the EU budget for the coming year and the enlargement question. Spain, which currently hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, also wants to talk about the bloc's 'strategic autonomy.' This usually means limiting foreign ownership -- normally by Chinese companies -- of critical infrastructure in the bloc; building up common strategic reserves, especially in the energy sector; and striking more trade deals with democracies around the world.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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