The presidency of the European Council will transition from the Netherlands to Slovakia for the next six months in July. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s strong anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rhetoric is a potential source of rift within the Council, and Brexit looms over all policy ambitions.
“It may seem strange, but sorry, Islam has no place in Slovakia,” to Fico. Despite his strong stance, Fico has tried to alleviate concerns at a meeting with the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, by clarifying, “We won’t change our national position, but we won’t put it on the table during our presidency.” While this may be his spoken intention, the immigration issue may very well be an unavoidable topic on the EU Council’s table.
Several of the planned Slovak initiatives are relatively uncontroversial…
Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak recently provided a priority list of policy initiatives to be pursued in a Slovak presidency. The top priority of the forthcoming presidency will be jobs, growth, and competitiveness. As part of the Trio Programme – a list of key initiatives agreed upon by the Dutch, Slovak, and Maltese Council presidencies – Slovakia will attempt to provide better guidance and follow-up in implementing Country-Specific Recommendations (CSR’s), a central element of the European Semester.
Another primary priority for Slovakia is revision to the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). The framework sets limits on the annual general budgets of the EU, and if needed revisions are accomplished, the MFF should ensure budgetary discipline for the EU and greater predictability for EU finances.
Finally, a critical economic initiative is the continued deepening of the internal market. Also part of the Trio Programme, Slovakia plans to follow up on the new Internal Market Strategy as well as push for legislative initiatives to facilitate cross-border provision of services.
…but others could cause rift within the Council
Following economic and internal market development, immigration is on the Slovak list of policy priorities. Mr. Fico would specifically like to use the Slovak EU Council presidency to reverse what he views as the “fragmentation of the EU”, with a restoration of the requirements of the Schengen agreement. In response to the recent immigration crisis, several Schengen area states have imposed temporary border checkpoints and stronger protections for the zone’s outer borders. Mr. Fico would like to see the zone free of borders again. If successful, these actions would ease cross-border labor migration and commerce.
While Mr. Fico stated Slovakia’s domestic concerns over Islam and immigration would not be brought to the Council table, the Dublin Regulation of EU asylum seekers is likely to emerge as a topic of discussion. The Dublin Regulation requires that each EU member state accept a quota of asylum seekers to mitigate pressure on periphery countries. Members states unwilling to accept seekers under the quota must pay a fine of €250,000 per individual refused. Slovakia would like to pursue possible amendments to the Dublin Regulation to relax these requirements during the six months of its presidency.
Potential disruptive factors from internal and external risks may impede the agenda
Despite an ambitious agenda, circumstances may prevent any progress that Slovakia hopes to make. There is growing concern in Brussels that Slovakia is not prepared to handle the challenges of the EU Council presidency. More specifically, Bratislava may have difficulty differentiating local and national policy priorities from those of the broader Union. One EU diplomat went as far as to comment, “We can certainly expect less professionalism than from the Dutch.”
Additionally, Slovakia will preside over the Council during the European Commission’s political cycle, usually a period of heightened legislative activity. This factor combined with Slovakia’s comparatively smaller staff representation in Brussels may slow policy implementation. Recognizing the experience gap between the incoming Slovak presidency and the outgoing Dutch presidency, EU representatives have been working closely with Fico’s government to ease the transition and mitigate potential challenges.
Last but not least, Brexit presents a risk of overshadowing the Slovak presidency entirely. It already significantly inhibited agenda implementation during the six months of the Dutch presidency as a mere possibility. Even if the United Kingdom remains a member, Brussels will be preoccupied implementing a range of concessions negotiated by British Prime Minister Cameron in February. These include a “red card” mechanism for member states to block Commission proposals, a new British 4-year “emergency break” on in-work benefits, and guarantees that non-Eurozone states will not need to contribute to bailout funding or efforts to prop-up the Euro. Implementing these changes will be a priority for the Slovak presidency and limit its ability to make significant progress on other policy goals.