Benjamin Cunningham reports for Politico that Europe’s Visegrad Four are an “illusionary union”. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are often lumped together in a Euroskeptic club hostile to closer integration, he writes — “wary of domination by big Western European countries like Germany and wary of accepting migrants, especially Muslims” — but they are actually riven by tensions.
In particular, the Czechs and Slovaks are keener than their fellow Central Europeans on building strong relations with Germany, their key economic and political ally.
The two also worry about being left on the sidelines if the European Union consolidates itself in reaction to the threat posed by Britain’s exit, according to Cunningham.
Central European countries have endorsed the call for a more modest European Union in the wake of Britain’s referendum vote to leave the bloc on Thursday.
“The work of the union should get back to basics,” argue the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia in a statement that was released on Tuesday: “upholding the fundamental principles upon which the European projects has been founded, using the full and genuine potential of the four freedoms, achieving the still incomplete single market.”
When Germany temporarily shut its border with Austria this weekend and warned that the Schengen visa-free travel agreement would be at risk if Central European nations didn’t admit more immigrants, it seemed an ill-veiled threat to those states that have benefited the most from unimpeded access to the West.
But so far, it isn’t working.
On Tuesday, Hungary closed its border with Serbia altogether and said it would turn back asylum seekers who had crossed through a country it now considers safe.
In the early hours of Wednesday, Austria — which earlier likened Hungary’s policy to Nazi deportations — followed suit.
Serbia said the Hungarian measure was “unacceptable” and responded by bussing migrants to the border with Croatia instead, another European Union member state.
The moves come after European interior ministers failed to agree on a quota system at a Monday summit in Brussels.
The European Commission has proposed distributing asylum seekers proportionately across the countries that are in the European Union. Germany and Sweden now take in far more immigrants relative to their size than most. Germany’s Thomas de Maizière suggested that nations that don’t comply with the scheme — which could be forced through by a majority — should be penalized.
“I think we must talk about ways of exerting pressure,” the German minister told ZDF television before pointing out that some of the countries that oppose quotas are net beneficiaries of European Union funds.
Millions of workers from the former East Bloc nations that joined the union in 2004 have also benefited from Europe’s free-movement policy and its internal market to find jobs in richer Western countries.
But the Central Europeans won’t budge. Tomáš Prouza, the Czech state secretary for European affairs, said De Maizière’s threat was “empty but very damaging.” Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, insisted that his government would never agree to quotas and that threats of financial retaliation could lead to “the end of the EU.”
Slovakia earlier said it would prefer to only take in Christian refugees while Hungary’s Viktor Orbán argued that the migrant crisis was Germany’s to deal with. “Nobody would like to stay in Hungary so we don’t have difficulties with those who would like to stay in Hungary,” he said.
His German counterpart, Angela Merkel, backpedaled on Tuesday, saying, “I don’t think threats are the right way to achieve agreement.”
She expects Germany to take in as many as one million asylum seekers this year from the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. The cost of processing and sheltering the record number of migrants could be as high as €10 billion.
For weeks, Germany has warned that it may not be able to bear the strain. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said that now-welcoming attitudes toward newcomers could change if local governments are forced to choose “between caring for refugees and renovating a school or financing a swimming pool.”
Conservative German politicians have argued that Western Balkan nations, such as Serbia, should be declared “safe” so asylum seekers from the region can be returned.
Many applicants from the Balkans, numbering in the tens of thousands, are sent back already but they each need to be assessed anyway, delaying the process for refugees from countries like Syria.
Germany absorbed millions of refugees from the East in the aftermath of World War II and now has around 1.5 million citizens of Turkish descent and another two million from countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc.
Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, by contrast, are ethnically more homogenous than their Western neighbors and had far more traumatic experiences with population transfers during and immediately after the war.
Yet they are not the only ones wary of admitting more immigrants from especially Muslim states.
Denmark, where the nationalist Danish People’s Party got 21 percent of the votes in June’s election, closed a motorway and rail links with Germany last week in an attempt to stop migrants heading north to Sweden.
In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party is the largest in the polls and advocates leaving the European Union altogether to stop what it describes as the “Islamization” of the country.
In France, former president and conservative party leader Nicolas Sarkozy has said that Europe’s second largest nation may need to pull out of Schengen. He also argues that quotas will only make the crisis worse if they attract more asylum seekers.
The Socialist administration of François Hollande is ambivalent.
Germany’s only real allies on the issue are the very countries that resist its austerity program of fiscal consolidation and liberalization in the eurozone: Italy and Greece. They are bearing the brunt of the crisis on the Mediterranean. More than 400,000 people have made the dangerous boat crossing this year alone. The majority came through Turkey to European problem child Greece.
Mass immigration into the European Union is threatening to overwhelm governments and calling into question member states’ commitment to free travel within the bloc.
The German interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, warned on Wednesday that unless other European countries agreed to take in more refugees, the lack of border controls within the Schengen Area would be unsustainable.
“In the long run, there won’t be any Schengen without Dublin,” he said, referring to the agreement signed in the Irish capital that requires refugees to claim asylum in the country they first arrive in. Some border states, including Greece and Italy, have been lax in enforcing the rule, allowing refugees to travel north and claim asylum there.
De Maizière reported that Germany expects 800,000 refugees will arrive in the country this year. “Germany cannot bear the strain if, as has been the case, around 40 percent of all asylum seekers to Europe come here,” he said.
Russia appeared to expand its retaliation against Western sanctions on Thursday by cutting in half its natural gas flows to European Union member state Slovakia. Prime Minister Robert Fico told a news conference in Bratislava his country had been caught up in a “political war where gas is being used as a weapon.”
After an emergency government session, Fico said the national gas company SSP had concluded a five year deal with Germany’s E.on to receive up to two million cubic meters of gas per day via Austria to compensate for the drop in Russian supplies.
Fico said SPP had recorded a more than 50 percent decline in flows for the second day in a row after smaller reductions throughout September.
The Slovak parliament approved expansion of Europe’s temporary bailout fund on Tuesday night but not before losing confidence in Prime Minister Iveta Radičová’s government. She tendered her resignation to compel the left-wing opposition to vote with the ruling party.
Eurozone leaders agreed to expand the €440 billion European Financial Stability Fund this summer to enable it to not only provide aid to heavily indebted nations in the periphery of the currency union but also to respond with short-term lines of credit to banks and governments in financial difficulty.
Slovakia was the last eurozone nation to ratify expansion of the rescue fund which has been used by Ireland and Portugal to finance their borrowing costs.
The vote broke up Radičová’s four party coalition. The junior Freedom and Solidarity party, a libertarian and Euroskeptic platform, abstained from an initial vote on expanding the EFSF. The three conservative factions in the coalition did approve the measure as did the opposition Social Democrats during a second vote. They had conditioned their support on early elections however which they hope will return them to government.
Slovakia, one of the poorest members of the eurozone, joined the single currency area in 2009 and voted against the Greek bailout the next year when it was keen to point out that average pensions and salaries in Slovakia are far lower than those in Greece, even after they were cut in austerity measures. Slovakia did approve the creation of the EFSF in May of last year.
Old-school socialists may allege that the credit crunch once and for all proved that free-market capitalism and globalization had failed yet across Europe, a new generation of liberal and conservative politicians is stepping up who favor even smaller government.
In the wake of the financial crisis, social democrat and labor parties across Europe lost ground to both their larger conservative counterparts as well as third or fourth party liberals who championed deregulation and austerity. As countries braced for spending cuts this summer, from Britain to the Netherlands to the Czech Republic, voters had greater confidence in candidates who were frank about the need to slash public spending than politicians on the left who resisted any suggestion of welfare reform. Read more “The Rise of a New Right in Europe”
Slovakia’s new ruling coalition refuses to participate in the European rescue effort of ailing Greece. Prime Minister Iveta Radičová’s government complains that with Greece being much wealthier than Slovakia, it shouldn’t be held accountable for that country’s fiscal woes.
After the meltdown in Greece last April, European leaders agreed to an unprecedented bailout effort to save both Greece from bankruptcy and the euro from decline. Together with the International Monetary Fund, the European Union pledged €110 billion, or $143 billion, to Greece’s aid.
A month later, Europe scrambled together another €750 billion, or nearly $1 trillion, in stabilization funds, in an effort to ensure investors that the common market and currency were safe.
After the election of the conservative Fidesz party in Hungary last month, neighboring Slovakia is also taking a right turn, evicting the imcumbent prime minister in favor of an array of small parties campaigning of a platform of free-market capitalism and ethnic harmony.
Since the ascendance of a right-wing coalition in September 2002, Slovakia has pushed through market reforms and prospered spectacularly. Major privatizations, especially in finance, are nearly complete while foreign investment is rising. Slovakia does suffer from a high unemployment rate, currently second in Europe. The country has been a member of the European Union and of NATO since 2004 and adopted the euro in January 2009.
Prime Minister Robert Fico led a broad government of social democrats, nationalists and conservatives since July 2006. Both minority partners lost significantly in April’s parliamentary elections. Fico managed to win rather more votes than four years ago but due to the collapse of his coalition and a surge in support for newcomers, the opposition, headed by Christian Democrat Iveta Radičová, is expected to form a new government. The sociology professor will become Slovakia’s first female prime minister. Her party won just 28 seats in parliament but should be able to gather 79 out of 150 seats for a new coalition.
Newcomers include Most-Híd (from the Slovak and Hungarian words for “bridge”), formerly rooted in Slovakia’s Hungarian minority but now seeking to cross the ethnic divide as well as Freedom and Solidarity, zealously neoliberal and architect of Slovakia’s flat tax.
The party of Vladimír Mečiar, who, as prime minister, led Slovakia to a disengagement from the Czech Republic and was heavily criticized for his authoritarian tendencies, failed even to pass the 5 percent treshold required to enter parliament. The xenophobic Slovak National Party squeaked in, losing more than half of its seats. Both were Fico’s coalition partners and have apparently disqualified him in the eyes of mainstream voters.
The new coalition faces daunting challenges. One is to rein in public spending. Slovakia’s deficit has risen to 6.8 percent of GDP following an economic contraction of almost 5 percent last year. The other is to repair ties with Hungary which have been damaged in recent years over language disputes and a Slovakian law that strips people of their passports if they take dual Hungarian citizenship. Radičová has signalled that she wants to get rid of this measure and for good reason: Hungary ranks among Slovakia’s foremost trading partners.
Slovakia’s election results echo those of the Czech Republic two weeks prior where perceived corruption on the part of traditional parties swung votes behind newcomers as well, particularly in Prague and among young people. The Social Democrats lost 18 seats in the republic’s Chamber of Deputies whereas the new, liberal conservative TOP 09 won 41, making it the third largest party in the country.
TOP 09 is led by the aristocratic former foreign affairs minister Prince Karel Schwarzenberg and champions free markets and European integration. He is set to form a coalition with the slightly more conservative Civic Democratic Party and the other newcomer, Public Affairs, which campaigned on transparency in government and fiscal conservatism.
Public finances are a matter of concern in the Czech Republic as well. The country wants to bring down its deficit to the European maximum of 3 percent by 2013, down from 5.3 percent this year. It will probably be more difficult to effectively put an end to corruption. The old parties maintained dangerously close ties with Czech business for so many years that it might be hard to root out this “cancer,” as Schwarzenberg calls it, within short time.