Thursday, June 20, 2024

Slovakia in the EU – success story or problem case?

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Slovakia was one of ten states that joined the European Union on 1 May 2004. To mark the 20th anniversary of Slovakia’s accession, Karen Henderson assesses whether the country should be regarded as a success story or a problem case for the EU’s enlargement process.

Although Slovakia’s international image was darkening in 2024 even before the attempted assassination of Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, it remains a major success story of EU enlargement.

In 1997, Slovakia was the only post-communist applicant state to receive a negative opinion from the European Commission for failing to meet the democratic conditions for membership. However, after a change of government in 1998, it became the “model pupil” of the accession process and caught up with the other Visegrád Group states – Czechia, Hungary and Poland – so that it was able to join the EU at the same time as they did in May 2004.

EU membership has undoubtedly been extremely beneficial for Slovakia. Politically, the shock of its near exclusion in 1997 led to EU membership being perceived as a national achievement that had to be carefully guarded, so that advice from the EU was usually taken seriously.

Economically, it has both increased the opportunities of individual citizens to work and study abroad, and as a major net recipient from the EU budget, some 80% of Slovak public investment involves EU funds. The security provided by Slovakia’s EU and Eurozone membership has also encouraged inward investment, and it has for many years led the world in per capita car production.

Socially, EU membership has forced Slovakia to address issues of gender and ethnic discrimination that would otherwise have been far lower on its list of priorities. Its achievements sometimes seem limited, with the introduction of registered partnership as far away as ever and some Roma still living in appalling conditions, yet at least the issues are discussed.

Slovakia and EU policymaking

Slovakia’s impact on EU policymaking has been limited and sometimes negative, although its first presidency of the Council of the EU in 2016 was generally considered successful. While the centre-right legacy was the defence of Slovakia’s flat tax regime and hence aversion to EU powers over taxation, left-nationalist parties have focused strongly on migration.

Although Slovakia has some of the lowest numbers of refugees and migrants in the EU, the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015 was politicised by a supposedly social democratic government to help maintain its popularity. Its resistance to accepting refugees has been supported by a number of neighbouring states, but Slovakia has taken the lead in creating a situation where the predictability of overreaction to any EU proposals for redistributing refugees is an impediment to EU policymaking.

Other EU concerns over Slovak policy are more recent. When Robert Fico’s fourth left-nationalist government entered office in October 2023 with alarming pro-Russian sympathies, Slovak policy towards Ukraine became chaotic, with the Prime Minister making contradictory statements to his domestic audience and to his international partners. Consequently, Slovakia’s responses to issues such as aid packages to Ukraine and its potential EU membership are worryingly unpredictable.

Slovakia’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law is now also seriously in question for the first time since the 1990s, with changes to the criminal code and the abolition of the Special Prosecutor’s Office dealing with corruption and serious crime endangering Slovakia’s ability to protect EU funding from abuse. It is therefore becoming a test case for the effectiveness of EU mechanisms for dealing with threats to the rule of law in a member state that have been refined over recent years in the light of challenges to democracy in Hungary and Poland.

Public opinion in Slovakia

When we look at public perceptions of EU membership, we can detect two main phases. Attitudes were largely positive for about twenty years from the mid-1990s. Even the nationalist Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, who by 1997 had nearly led the country to exclusion from membership negotiations, had supported EU accession, despite failing to understand the obligations it entailed.

The subsequent centre-right governments of Mikuláš Dzurinda from 1998 to 2006 were highly successful in framing European integration as Slovakia’s most vital national interest. When the first left-nationalist government of Robert Fico came to power in 2006, allegedly seeking a social democratic direction for Slovakia, it found itself a prisoner of this discourse and had to prove its competence by completing the integration process with Schengen Area membership in 2007 and accession to the Eurozone in 2009. The latter distinguished Slovakia from the other three Visegrád states.

The turning point in public and political attitudes to the EU came in 2015, when Fico, nearing the end of his second term of office, politicised the refugee crisis to bolster his support in the 2016 parliamentary election. This was part of his Smer-SD (Direction-Social Democracy) party’s gradual shift to the right, which eventually led, after the 2023 election, to its suspension from the Socialists and Democrats’ group in the European Parliament.

Linking the EU with immigration in the minds of many voters led to a decrease in public support for EU membership, with the Autumn 2015 Eurobarometer being the first to show more Slovaks having a negative image of the EU than the EU average. Despite this, Smer-SD still claimed to want to be in the “core” of the EU, although their perception of the core was largely restricted to economic issues.

Success story or problem case?

Fico shifted further to the right when Smer-SD lost the 2020 election and an anti-corruption campaign by the new government led to criminal charges against a number of Smer-SD allies, including Fico himself (although charges against him were later dropped).

Desperate to win the next election, Fico increasingly endorsed conspiracy theories, opposing COVID-19 vaccination and calling Slovakia’s President, Zuzana Čaputová, an “American agent”. This discourse, which was essentially hostile to the EU, resonated with a substantial minority of the electorate, and when he won the 2023 election, Slovakia appeared to be replacing Poland as a problem for the EU and as an ally of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

Yet comparing Slovakia with Hungary may exaggerate the threat to democracy. Slovakia has a strong and experienced opposition, and the government is keen to avoid direct confrontation with the EU. The insistence of both Smer-SD and its breakaway party Voice-Social Democracy (Hlas-SD) that they are social democrats makes allying themselves too closely with right-wing Eurosceptics problematic for their domestic rhetoric.

In many respects though Slovakia does conform to stereotypes of problematic central and east European states in the EU. The involvement of leading politicians with corruption, although by no means unknown in “old” member states, has been exacerbated in post-communist states by other economic challenges posed by the transition to a market economy.

While anti-LGBTI+ feeling is attributed by politicians to the nation’s Catholicism, many west European countries that are more strongly Catholic have accepted same-sex marriage. In Slovakia, opposition to LGBTI+ rights appears to be a top-down agenda that matters more to politicians than to the public.

Likewise, the Islamophobia of the government’s anti-migrant policy may resonate with some voters because the lack of international mobility in communist regimes left them unfamiliar with living side-by-side with foreigners. However, it is also essentially an issue publicised by politicians to gain support, rather than a response to public concern about a real influx of migrants observed by citizens in their day-to-day lives.

Although Slovakia’s EU membership is not questioned by any major Slovak political party, Slovak attitudes to the EU do remain worryingly inward-looking, although this is not unknown elsewhere in the EU. The country rarely projects any vision of a united Europe, with EU membership viewed as advantageous to the internal development of Slovakia, whether democratic or economic. Politicians have exploited EU-linked issues to gain advantage in domestic politics, rather than protecting the Slovak national interests they all claim to defend, which often require a strong and active European Union.

This article is part of a series organised by Eli Gateva on Rethinking Europe’s East-West Divide – 20 Years since the Big Bang Enlargement

Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: phM2019 /

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