This article comes from The Buzz Around the Ballot edition of Visegrad Insight 2/2017 devoted do media landscapes and disinformation in Central Europe. Read full contents page here.
One afternoon this past summer, Visegrad Insight spoke with HE Rastislav Káčer, Ambassador of Slovakia to Hungary and the Honorary Chairman of the Board for Globsec. We spoke about Slovak attitudes to regional groupings and the EU
How does Slovakia see the future of the EU? What is your strategy for the future?
For Slovakia, the European Union has been a successful project though it’s not perfect. Human creations are never perfect, maybe God’s creations are perfect, but those built by humans definitely are not. They are as perfect as we make them and the EU has got one strength: it is a living creature. It is not an authoritarian regime; it is not an illiberal autocracy which you can’t reform. This is a system which evolves, and it is evolving into a success story.
The EU needs to go deeper in some areas that need more integration and in others where it needs less regulations to keep flexibility and a more competitive edge. So, the Slovak strategy is focused on making the EU better.
This spring in Warsaw, at a meeting with all four Visegrad prime ministers as well as their Belarussian equivalent, Robert Fico said at one point: “We should stop talking in ideological terms of ‘federalization’ or ‘stronger nations’ because this is a senseless debate. We need to cut the debate into rational chunks, into which areas we need to be more efficient, in which we need to integrate closer and in which not”.
He stressed, for example, the importance of internet security. We cannot cope with the threat of terrorism without working much closer in this area. He mentioned as well the importance of the eurozone. He said clearly the eurozone is a cornerstone of European integration. We are enthusiastic about the reforms within the eurozone which will make it a stronger and more competitive framework for the future, which will include the fiscal union and a much closer cooperation in budgeting and planning. So, these are the areas where we see a future for Europe.
Is Slovakia for a fiscal union?
Again, I would quote PM Robert Fico’s answer from an interview: “We have to complete the eurozone. We have to finish it. We cannot have a common currency for a long period without having a banking union.”
Our position is that there is no alternative for the eurozone. So, to us the creation of a core around the eurozone is a natural process that will occur within the EU, and we want to be part of this, but we want it to be a very transparent process. Whatever will be done, must be done transparently and consulted with the rest of the EU. There should be a balance between eurozone and non-eurozone members.
But this balance does not exist with the V4. The countries of Visegrad – and Visegrad has always played an important role for Slovakia –today it has manifested that they are not interested, in the short term at least, in joining the eurozone. Hungary says that it is not ready for the euro, and the eurozone is not ready for Hungary – whatever that would mean. Similarly, Poland has declared that it would not be beneficial to join. What is the role of Slovakia in the Visegrad Group which members do not want to integrate further? How do you imagine your role here? Once alienated, you now have become the most integrated EU country in the region.
I agree with you. In Slovakia we are not frustrated nor concerned because of those differences within the V4. We respect other countries choices, whether it’s made for ideological or for economic reasons or as the combination of both. That’s the choice of each individual member, and we have chosen our way. Let me say that the Visegrad countries have already profited a lot from Slovakia being part of the eurozone. We meet the other countries more often and in different formats. But Visegrad only benefits from that because Slovakia was never shy to share our views which we exchange within the eurozone. So, our neighbours only profit from that. Additionally, you never know when one country will change its politics or economy. Whenever a V4 country will choose to become a member of the eurozone, then Slovakia is here, ready to share all the experience and practical knowledge we have.
Let’s focus again on the Visegrad Group. Is it united and does it have a strong voice that matches its current bad reputation? It often seems that the only policy position on which all the V4 countries agree is illegal migration.
We think that the problem of illegal migration it’s a real problem. We think that the problem of homegrown terrorists in Europe is a real problem that we all need to deal with. On the other hand, we don’t think that one should build hysteria around these issues.
We think we should approach those two problems calmly and efficiently. We need to, first of all, tackle the sources of migration and sources of terrorism, and work on long-term solutions of how to curb them. What we were critical about, and then we shared the opinion with the rest of the Visegrad countries, was the mechanism of relocation by quotas. Here Slovakia has the same view as the rest of the Visegrad. We simply don’t think that this mechanism will work. We are not against the principle of solidarity, we are against the principle of relocation.
During the Slovak presidency, we offered, I think, a much more flexible solution to show that countries like Slovakia are ready to be in solidarity with the rest. We offered the principle of flexible solidarity. It means that a contribution by the states will be more efficient if you can contribute in the way which is efficient for all and which is feasible for you.
We even think that the mechanism for relocating refugees is simple fantasy. It’s been proven that it doesn’t work, even countries that were critical but accepted some number of relocated migrants or asylum seekers, they were gone very quickly. We have the free movement of people within the EU. It’s very difficult to have a hard relocation. Are you going to keep them on chain or lock them up? So, we are not against the principle of solidarity; we understand we should share the burden, and we absolutely support that notion. We just want to share the burden in the way which will work and not in the way which will be just dreaming that it will work.
Can I ask you what would work in your opinion? Because there is a real problem where two EU countries are heavily burdened, Italy and Greece, and the rest is not so willing to help.
There is no miraculous fix. I know that there is temptation on the side of politicians who think that there are quick fixes, but there are no quick fixes at all. This will require a lot of moving parts; this will require a reworking of Schengen. Schengen will have to curb and limit illegal migration, which will require the efficient sharing and use of data, so we know that there is no risk of double or multiply identities of the asylum seekers.
We need to curb down the abuse of social benefits for migrants and asylum seekers. We need to have more efficient expulsion mechanisms for those who are not eligible for asylum seeking. There is a whole array of measures we need to do but the last thing which would help would be to create hysteria and create xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiments because this will solve nothing; this will only bring tension to society.
The solution to migration is a long-term solution. We need to take external measures which are out of the EU which will stabilise the system, either in terms of security or defence, or to development assistance, etc. But, as I said, we also need internal measures – internal security, an expulsion procedure, and a more unified asylum procedure for every country. There is a whole set of very practical measures, but the last thing we need is populism and cheap fixes associated with such ideology because those fixes don’t really exist. And populism will only unleash the devil – the devil of nationalism and xenophobia. And once it’s unleashed it’s very hard to get him back on chain.
Couldn’t agree more. Let’s step away from this particular issue and come back to the different aspects of groupings in the region. The Visegrad Group, Benelux, the Nordic Council, the Slavkov Triangle and recently the Three Seas Initiative, have I forgot any important grouping in the EU? Slovakia is part of three of the above mentioned, how important do you see these different groupings for Slovakia?
Out of those formats you mentioned, the Visegrad format is the most important. Slavkov is more supplementary and with another set of neighbours with whom we share a lot of our common history.
The Three Seas project: we don’t see this is a grouping at all. For us it’s more like a one-time event; there is just no political context. The Three Seas meeting can have a single purpose, discussing how to improve North-South practical communication in terms of interconnectors, gas oil connection, energy flows and other sub-regional projects on infrastructure, but only in the way we could support. It’s better to work with Europe as a whole. Traditionally, in Europe, most of the interconnectors we made were in the East-West direction, so we do lack a more efficient North-South interconnectors system. But beyond that, there is no political, no security component; there is no political dimension for us.
The last thing I would like to see is anybody interpreting this initiative as Central and Eastern Europe uniting against the West. This would be a complete tragedy and misconception, a completely distorted, false perception. We don’t look at it like that, at all.
We will never accept a situation where we are positioned against the EU. We are part of the EU and Visegrad. The membership of Visegrad, for us, was only a vehicle for better integration in the EU, nothing else. And this will remain for us so. Prime Minister Fico, in one of his interviews, said: “Should I be forced to choose between V4 or EU I choose EU.”
But we are lucky, we are not in front of any dastardly choice like this. For the Slovak perception, Visegrad is and will remain, as far as I can see, an instrument for a better cooperation within the EU, and it is part of our contribution to make the EU stronger. There is no other inspiration for us in this nor in any other grouping which you mentioned. There will be no policies which Slovakia will support which would help to create any new dividing lines within the EU. We don’t want this, and we will not support it.
Well that is good to hear, and it is reassuring. Nevertheless, a general sense of suspicion towards the EU is taking hold in Central Europe. During Globsec, there was much discussion revolved around fake news and the disinformation campaigns in the region directed at undermining Western alliances.
It’s not only in Central Europe. This is all part of the hybrid war which does contain propaganda. We call it in Globsec Defending Democracy in the Digital Domain were propaganda is only a part of the cake. So, we see that there is Russian-driven propaganda. It’s clear who is behind it, here in Central Europe, but not only in Central Europe. We saw it in Brexit, the referendum in the Netherlands on Ukraine, and we saw the less successful attempts during the French elections. It was also readily noticeable in the campaign in the United States. So, nobody is immune. I think the target is to bring about an imbalance. The whole system is set by the EU and NATO, the whole web of liberal democracies working together on a united project.
The aim of this disinformation campaign is to loosen up European integration and to create a lack of trust into the system of which it is all based. These, or similar, tactics have been used before, not only for political purposes but also for commercial campaigns. I think the technique is called ‘merchandise of doubt’. We’ve just seen these doubts in people, ‘God knows what is truth’, ‘all is equal’, ‘either the domination by Russians or the Americans, it’s all equal, and Brussels it’s just another… Warsaw treaty’ which it is not. We simply should admit it’s not, but the aim is to merchandise doubt and to soften up the union, to weaken people’s dedication to the values which are beyond NATO and the EU.
The last question then. It seems like the political leadership is one of the essential points on how to counteract this, and also how to drive through the country in a difficult moment for the European Union or the West in general. I see in the pictures that we’ve got here two outstanding leaders: George W. Bush and Vaclav Havel. Who do you see as the statesman of today?
This is a very hard question because the world is evolving in a way where the leadership we used to see in the past, like Mitterrand, Kohl, De Gaulle or Adenauer or even Reagan and Thatcher, that type of leadership is harder and harder to find. This is not that we have less courageous and more stupid people, that’s not true. But the world is changing and the way we interpret news, the impact of social media, is just changing the world. And it’s making leadership much harder than it was before, that’s the first thing. The second is that it is encouraging short term views which is a temptation for populism and manipulation.
Previously, we were in a different era where there was much more responsibility in politics, where people had a more noble attitude towards politics, when they isolated certain types of politicians who were perceived simply as not acceptable. And these types of politicians who were too populist or too extreme, they were put into quarantine, in isolation by the rest of the political spectrum. That’s not happening anymore.
We see more temptation and false assumptions. We see the growth of political extremism, and our reaction is that mainstream parties will take some part of that extremism saying: “but this will help to weaken the extremism” which is complete lunacy. It’s just helping extremism and once extremism takes over, they’ll be more credible on the message.
I think what we need is to bring personal responsibility into every communication. We need to have more clarity in where our news is coming from. Who is making these claims? Who is behind the news, whether this is true or whether this is fake? We are confronted with the warfare of fake news, which is a warfare. We should name it, label it as the hostile activity and contract against it. We should not let the democracy be killed by its own weapons because it can lead to illiberal and intolerant systems.
We should not let democracy be killed by those who say ‘we just have different views’. These are not different views, these are extreme views. ‘We just have different policy’ but this is not different policy, this is a prologue for an authoritarian, non-democratic system.
We should not tolerate this, and if we don’t, then true leadership will emerge. We need to bring personal responsibility back into politics, and we should not tolerate things which go against the substance of democracy in our European world. We have to stop it.
Interviewed by: Wojciech Przybylski
Transcribed by: Gabriela Rogowska