Euroscepticism in Slovakia: The broken promise of prosperity and stability
Marta Králiková, Comenius University Bratislava
The attitude of Slovak citizens towards the European Union is to some extent a paradox: despite a positive perception of the EU and recognition of its merits, there is generally little interest and low level of participation in European affairs. The recent internal crises in the EU and geopolitical developments, however, have shown that this permissive attitude changes when identity or well-being of citizens are challenged. How have the scepticism and criticism towards the EU taken root in Slovak society?
Celebrations of 10 years of Slovakia in the EU in 2014 were marked with positive and EU-optimistic evaluations. Slovak membership in the EU was portrayed as a ‘success story’ with no alternative enabling the country to fully develop its potential. The reality confirms the EU’s contributions: the European structural and investment funds cover 80% of public investment in Slovakia, and have allowed for improvement of living standards through improved health care, education, social services, and transport infrastructure. Slovakia’s place at the heart of European integration has been consensually highlighted among all political parties and supported by the favourable popular attitude.
The initial ‘honeymoon’ of EU-optimism and harmonisation of Slovakia’s position, along with EU policies have, however, taken a more autonomous trajectory since 2011 due to challenges faced by the EU, but also due to domestic developments. These factors have triggered critical debates on Slovakia’s role as a fully-fledged and reliable partner for the EU, as well as on its degree of integration and limits of supranational cooperation.
Firstly, it was the Greek debt crisis in October 2011 that brought the end of the ‘permissive consensus’ on EU policies, provoking unprecedented lively discussion over proposals to contribute to the Greek bailout. Its rejection resulted in early parliamentary elections. Fortified by the negative consequences of the financial crisis, domestic political instability has had a significant effect on public opinion: positive perception of the EU has declined from 46% in late 2010 to 24% at the end of 2012, while negative and neutral positions towards the EU have been rising.
The following parliamentary elections in 2012 marked an important shift in the debate about the EU. The Slovak National Party portrayed the EU largely as a threat to Christian values, rejecting multiculturalism, Islamisation and liberal migration policy, while the liberal party, Freedom and Solidarity, targeted the EU’s bureaucracy, centralisation and excessive regulations. It also criticised the EU’s economic policy for promoting ‘a road to socialism’ by ‘denying market principles and common sense’. The party has remained the most vocal EU-critical actor on the Slovak political scene, recently calling for a euro-realist reform of the EU. The following crises, however, have incited a more critical stance to the EU across the political spectrum, as well as the emergence of new actors who openly reject the EU.
The changing picture of the EU
The crisis and the subsequent war in Ukraine have been one of the sources of critical debates about the EU. Highly polarised political and public debates about the nature of the ‘crisis’, its causes and solutions and in particular the sanctions against Russia have not bypassed the role of the EU in the crisis. While for some, the EU symbolised an anchor of liberal-democratic order, freedom, and support for Ukrainian people and sovereignty, for others, it was considered an intruder, meddling in internal affairs of Ukraine and supporting extremists, while antagonising Russia. Since the Ukrainian crisis, the activities of pro-Russian organisations and media in Slovakia have strengthened, leaving the Slovak population vulnerable to subversive foreign influence and undermining the pro-Western orientation of Slovakia.
The polarised picture of the EU has become more divided since the refugee crisis, especially in reaction to the proposal of the European Commission to introduce a quota distribution system. Slovakia resisted providing help to larger numbers of asylum-seekers, despite the fact that so far, it has not been affected by negative consequences of migration. During the height of asylum applications in other European countries, Slovakia received 330 asylum applications in 2015 from which it approved only eight applicants. However, the political discourse, heated up by the upcoming parliamentary elections, was infused with emotions and fear, while the notion of ‘dictate from Brussels’ resurfaced as a threat to the protection of national sovereignty and security.
(When) are we the EU?
The bolder positioning of the political parties vis-à-vis the EU has also prompted a shift in public perception of the EU, supporting an increased alienation of Slovak citizens from the EU. In general, the citizens understand European integration mainly through the prism of prosperity and tangible socio-economic benefits. The EU is valued as a tap for public investment in the form of European funds rather than a space for active participation and a community based on common values. Along with the freedom to study, travel, and work in the EU, economic prosperity has been considered the most important achievement of the first five years of EU membership (2004-2009).
This has, however, decreased since 2010 at the expense of a positive perception of the Euro and has brought with it negative associations connected to the EU such as the complicated bureaucracy, unemployment, or wasting money. The predominant identification is being part of the EU, at the expense of being the EU, which reinforces the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (in Brussels), but also increases disinterest in European affairs and the encourages a passive attitude. This is demonstrated by the fact that Slovakia has one of the lowest voting turnouts in European Parliamentary elections, but also by the low salience of European issues in the programmes of political parties and the lack of communication from the Slovak members of the European Parliament.
As a result, European issues remain rather distant for Slovaks, unless they have a visible and immediate effect on their lives. Situations such as the debt or migration crisis, requiring active demonstration of solidarity, are therefore an easy trigger for resentment against the EU.
Winners and losers of European integration
The recent tensions around Brexit, the US presidential election, terrorist attacks across Europe, and growing instability in the wider European neighbourhood have contributed to yet louder criticism of the EU and democracy. The two are often perceived as going hand in hand in Slovakia – the transition to democracy alongside with the EU accession were two processes inherently connected to the EU’s promises of prosperity, social and economic well-being, and the rise of living standards. The failure of one, therefore, seems to be integrally linked to the other.
Recent trends prove there is a growing dissatisfaction with democracy in Slovakia. People are critical mainly about politicians who work for their own interest, instead of public one, but also about the ineffective use of public money, and the inefficient law enforcement system.
The perception of democracy in Slovakia is closely linked to social and economic rights (provision of health care, adequate living standards, job opportunities, social and personal security), while political rights (political participation, minority protection) are considered less important. Despite positive economic development in the country, 12% of the Slovak population is still threatened by poverty and the level of unemployment is as high as 25% in some regions. Annually, approximately 30 000 young people leave the country in search of better education or employment.
Rather than a priori rejection of the normative ideal of the democracy, popular frustration is a litmus test of how it is put into practice by domestic politicians. Corruption scandals in which no one is made accountable, inaccessible and unequal law enforcement, and the inability of domestic politicians to improve core public sectors have had a substantial influence on support levels for the democratic regime and, in broader terms, for the liberal-democratic order that the EU represents.
Driving on an extremist wave
Dissatisfaction with the current establishment, democracy and the EU has been used by the extreme right-wing party Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia, which succeeded in gaining 8% of popular vote in the parliamentary elections in March 2016. Their programme is distinctly critical of ‘being dictated to and bullied by the elitist EU’, which is threatening Slovak sovereignty and interests. The party has initiated a petition to launch a referendum on leaving the EU.
Slovexit for them means a return to everything that was ‘lost’ in the process of European integration, from sovereignty and Christian values to food security. It addresses the gap created by the resentment towards liberal elites and globalisation, which is associated with Slovakia’s accession to the EU. As an example, the decrease in animal and farming production has been criticised as a result of Slovakia’s integration into the EU’s agricultural policy and spurred negative perceptions mainly in rural areas, where agriculture has been the most important source of income for low-qualified people.
The European funds themselves have become a source of corruption that fill the citizens with indignation not only towards domestic politicians but also towards the idleness of Brussels. Parts of the population are concerned about the disruption of their conservative attitudes, especially those concerning the rights of sexual minorities but also increasing diversity, migration, and new security threats. Anti-EU attitudes are reflected in the agenda of extremist organisations, such as the Slovak Revival Movement, the Slovak Conscripts or the Action Group Resistance Kysuce, which profit from organisational or military cooperation with Russia.
The radical rhetoric of these movements alongside the insufficient communication of the benefits of EU membership from the political elite contributes to confusion amongst citizens regarding country’s geopolitical orientation, which leads to doubts about the benefits of EU membership. According to polls from 2016, 35% of citizens would now support Slovakia’s exit from the EU.
In conclusion, appeals for solidarity and responsibility-sharing, but also geopolitical and security challenges have considerably transformed traditional EU-optimism on both popular and political levels. These concerns have acted as a catalyst for a more vocal defence of national interests in Slovakia’s relation to the EU.
Popular feelings about the EU are significantly shaped by domestic politicians’ framing and by the effectiveness of national governance, reflected in the social and economic well-being of the population. The political Euroscepticism has affected more actors, including the ruling political parties and it has been broadened in its forms: from objections to specific EU policies to clear rejection of the European project.
These developments indicate the need for the meaningful and constructive debate about the Slovakia’s vision on the future of the EU as well as for effective communication with citizens.
Marta Králiková is a PhD researcher at the Department of Political Science at Comenius University in Bratislava. Her research interests include EU external relations especially in the European neighbourhood, and the processes of democratic change and socio-political transformation in countries of Central and Eastern Europe.