Slovakia, the Visegrad Group and Brexit: Charity Should Begin at Home

Main Image Credit The prime ministers of the Visegrad member states meet in Prague in 2015: (from left to right) Robert Fico (Slovakia); Beata Szydlo (Poland); Bohuslav Sobotka (Czech Republica); and Viktor Orban (Hungary).

Slovakia’s prime minister is a harsh critic of Britain and of Brexit. This is understandable; however, a recent study suggests that he would be well-advised to pay more attention to his own country’s precarious affiliations to pan-European institutions.

Slovakia currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and it takes its job very seriously: Robert Fico, Slovakia’s prime minister, has led the other EU nations in warning the UK about the suffering it should expect after it leaves the Union.

In a recent Financial Times interview, Fico vowed that the EU would make Brexit ’very difficult for the UK, very difficult’. ‘The EU will take this opportunity to show the public: ”listen guys, now you will see why it is important to stay in the EU”,’ he added, using the sort of trans-Atlantic English ‘hip’ expressions most politicians adopt when they hope to sound cool and ‘hands-on’.

One may be tempted not to take Mr Fico’s threats too seriously. After all, no EU presidency will have a major role in the Brexit negotiations, and in any case Slovakia will not hold the post when Britain starts the negotiations; Malta will.

Furthermore, although Fico has the ability to make any Brexit deal he dislikes more difficult, he cannot block it: the deal can be adopted by a qualified majority which, clearly, is most likely to be ‘qualified’ by Germany rather than Slovakia.

Besides, Fico likes to court controversy and is hardly a paragon of EU solidarity himself: he blamed Georgia for the 2008 war with Russia, said absolutely nothing about Russia’s annexation of Ukraine, dismisses EU economic sanctions on Russia as ’senseless’, brushes aside EU Commission plans to allocate immigrants to his country and now promises to ’monitor every single Muslim in Slovakia’.

Still, Robert Fico’s statements do matter, for they represent a widely held view among the new members of the EU, especially about UK plans to restrict the free flow of labour – a touchy subject for all the former communist nations in the Union.

Furthermore – and despite his peculiarities – Fico is an active driver in the Visegrad Group of nations comprising (apart from Slovakia) Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, so he can be assumed to be punching above his country’s weight.

And more importantly, as Milan Nic, one of Slovakia’s most perceptive commentators observed recently, the main preoccupation at the moment of both Slovakia and the Czech Republic ’is to prepare for a realignment of the EU which will have Germany at its core’.  This is a grand and important plan, one which is perfectly feasible and even realistic.

So, for all these reasons, what the Slovak premier says does merit attention.

But a recent study completed by the Globsec Policy Institute, the Bratislava-based think tank where Milan Nic is a research director, reveals that Prime Minister Fico’s ardent European sentiments are not exactly shared by either his nation, or by the other Visegrad member states.

It should be said that the Globsec survey was conducted in Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic at different times; only in Hungary was it completed after the results of the Brexit referendum in the UK were known. And much of the work was initiated as part of a broader research topic which looked at Russia’s propaganda offensive in the region.

Still, the analysis and the figures gleaned from the various opinion polls completed for the study offer a rather dispiriting snapshot of opinion in Central Europe, indicating that the region is neither as pro-Western nor as pro-EU as these countries’ leaders would have us believe.

The Globsec study indicates that the Slovaks have the lowest affinity with the broader ‘West’ than the other Visegrad member states: only 23% claimed that their country is unequivocally ’part of the West’, compared with 32% of Hungarians and 30% of Czechs. Conversely, 12% of Slovak respondents answered that they consider themselves part of the East, double the comparable figure of Hungarians, and triple the Czech respondents’ figure.

That estrangement from the West – broadly defined – is also confirmed in attitudes towards the US: only a third of Slovaks believe that the US plays a positive role in the world; no less than 59% consider the US role to be negative. While the Czech respondents shared a similar – albeit it slightly less negative – view, the Hungarian respondents were markedly more sympathetic to the US, with just 39% considering its role in the world to be negative.

NATO does not fare much better either. Only 30% of the Slovak respondents believe that their country’s membership in the Alliance is ’a good thing’, compared to 47% of Hungarians and 44% of Czechs. More than half of the Slovaks said that they oppose the stationing of NATO infrastructure on their country’s soil. And almost half of the Slovaks surveyed identify the US and NATO as ’responsible for the Ukraine crisis’.

Finally, 47% of Slovaks appear to agree that their country will get more security by becoming a neutral nation in the heart of Europe than by staying in NATO; the comparable figures for these neutrality sentiments are only 30% in Hungary and 39% in the Czech Republic.

Compared to this rather disheartening public opinion landscape on security matters, the EU does appear to be more popular: 52% of Slovaks consider the EU a ’good thing’, about the same as the corresponding figure in Hungary and well above the Czech Republic, where support for the EU languishes at only 24%. And yet, by almost any yardstick, these are hardly ringing endorsements.

Of course, neither Slovakia nor the other Visegrad countries are unique in this respect; barring a few exceptions, politicians now in power throughout Europe are considerably more favourable to the EU than their electorates, which is one reason why just about the only proposition most EU leaders agree on is that none of them should ever contemplate a referendum on the Union.

Nor should the figures revealed by the Globsec report be interpreted as an indication that Slovakia or any other Central European nation is tempted to follow the British model; dissatisfaction or apathy about the EU and other pan-European institutions is not the same as a desire to leave them.

Still, the figures should give leaders like Prime Minister Fico some pause for thought. For, as the Slovak leader no doubt knows from his impeccable knowledge of idiomatic English, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Or, at the very least, they should not raise their voices too highly.

Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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