Interview with Vladimír Bilčík
What will determine the EU Council Presidency of Slovakia that will begin on 1 July 2016?
Vladimír Bilčík: The biggest defining moment for the EU Council Presidency that we can anticipate so far, will be the UK referendum. There might be other issues and we should always be ready for the unexpected; things might happen in migration related issues; things can happen in our neighbourhood; Ukraine is very fragile.
When it comes to external challenges and security issues what happens to Ukraine is of course very crucial, because it is our largest neighbour. We could see further problems with stability in the Middle East and North Africa, which can spill over into the Union at the time when we will be chairing the EU Council.
What may change in the Slovak strategy depending of the result of British vote?
There are basically two scenarios. It is going to be a tight schedule: we have the UK Referendum on 23rd of June; on the 27th and 28th, we will have the European Council meeting in Brussels; and the Slovak government will adopt its priorities for the EU Council Presidency on the 29th of June. Depending on what the UK result is, you will have different dynamics in the European Council and further decisions.
If the UK says yes, we will go with original plan A and policy priorities that we can already identify. One of the greatest ones will be the EU budgetary question. The revision of the current financial framework until 2020 concerns all member states, but especially the ones that tend to receive more money than they put in, so it is an issue for Slovakia, for Visegrad countries.
EU Council Presidency wants to cut a good deal, and create good atmosphere for negotiating a strategic outlook for budgetary issues post-2020. In terms of technicality, and also in terms of internal EU politics, handling this issue will be crucial.
If the Brits say no, and we should be ready that they may say no, then we’ll have very different dynamics inside the EU. Just take negotiating budgetary questions which would of course go alongside negotiating a British exit. You would have to be very careful in terms of numbers. Should the Brits not be in the EU a few years down the road, you would have to account for specific amounts of money, which come from the UK and a number of British people who are in EU institutions.
While these are technicalities, they have important political implications. In that sense, if the UK says no, you are going to have two European Council summits at the end of June. One is going to be: the Brits come in and say: we said no and we sit together for a little while and we acknowledge that, and of course 27 other countries meet together to discuss how to react.
On the day of a Brexit decision, we would begin to negotiate the terms of the exit. You would suddenly have a huge dividing line inside the existing Union. And this would of course be part of the dynamic of the EU Council Presidency.
How important this Presidency may be in terms of the process the whole European Union is undergoing right now?
The playfield is open in terms of what the Presidency’s role would be after the UK referendum but a possible Brexit will not just affect Presidency’s negotiation on EU budget but also on other policy priorities, like the deepening of the eurozone. Effectively, you have two camps in the EU — one camp especially in the Commission says if the Brits say no, it is a chance for the rest of us to push with deeper integration.
Yet, the member states are much more divided. They may say, if the Brits say no, let us try to bring ourselves together and the 27 remain together but this is not the time for deeper integration. Politically, this latter camp probably holds an upper hand. If you don’t know how to handle a Brexit, then other agendas are going to be overtaken by the focus on dealing with the Brits.
Another big external relations issue for the Slovak EU Council Presidency is giving China a market economy status. The EU has set a December deadline to decide. It is a very divisive issue. Even in the UK you have several camps, and the UK has been fairly open to granting China the status. Italy, however, is very tough on this. Increasingly, in the Visegrad countries there are problems in the steel industry that question a new status for China. Issues like this, which are strategically important for the external role of the EU, are probably going be put on a backburner if the UK leaves. We are not going to touch them; we are not going to deal with them.
An interesting issue will be the TTIP negotiations. What do you expect?
Right now the ball is more in the Americans’ hands. And the question is whether or not we will receive a deal by the end of President Obama’s term. The TTIP is much more in the hands of the Commission than the Council Presidency, because that is a trade issue with a specific negotiating mandate for the Commission.
In contrast, granting a market economy status to China is a more an issue, which concerns the EU Council Presidency. Now, there will be agendas that I think Slovak Presidency will be able to handle, regardless of what the Brits say, like the digital single market, certain decisions on energy union, which is a security issue and concerns increasing energy efficiency and decisions with regards to pipelines. Here we have some sensitive issues, like Nordstream 2. But still the defining moment for the EU Council Presidency will be the UK decision.
Coming back to security question for instance, a Brexit would also affect what happens to the EU Global Strategy on Unions’s foreign and security policy. If the Brits say no, I think that the 27 should push it ahead but many member states may not share this view.
This will be the first time we will be addressing the question of possible EU shrinking. We always dealt with enlargement and deepening; we have never managed a [possible] shrinking of the Union. One of the basic reflexes of the Union in that case may be to try to be tougher; certainly with the Brits. There is likely going to be a strong sense of “let us preserve what we have among the 27”.
Let’s turn to the question of Slovakia’s credibility in the EU — after the refugee crisis Bratislava’s position has been criticised by many western partners.
Credibility is going to be very important. Much of the past few years have been defined by the public debate on migration, and the red line taken by the Visegrad countries has been tough, and perceived by some degree across the EU, across the institutions in Brussels. Also, in Germany, where the dynamics of the German-Slovak relationship have changed.
Migration is by now known as the main thing on the agenda of the Council Presidency. It is an agenda to which we kind of come to, without necessarily clear strategies how to deal with it. In the past reflexes have been very different across member states and, ultimately, it has be up to Germany and German decisions to lead on migration.
However, the Visegrad countries have not been alone in their more self-centred reflex: let us try to protect what we had achieved — that is the Schengen especially — and let us try to protect the rules that we had agreed. The issue of migration became politically sensitive in different societies, not just in Slovakia.
Now, it is good that we have just had elections in Slovakia; it is a good thing we have a new government. There are a couple of relevant things in the new governmental manifesto. One is Germany mentioned as a key strategic partner for Slovakia in the EU, apart from the neighbouring countries and the Visegrad group. There is a clear message here that all of us understand — the way we interact with Germany will be defining, not just for the future of Slovakia’s position in the EU, but also for the future of the EU itself.
The second thing is the makeup of the government as a broad coalition. This is a coalition of centre-left parties with centre-right parties, plus you have the Slovak nationalists and Hungarians there, so it is really a very broad set of forces, but I guess what unites the parties is the traditional commitment to EU membership. And to prove this, it will be very important for Slovakia and Slovakia’s credibility to show signals of a more positive attitude vis-à-vis migration in a run-up to the Presidency.
The author is the head of the EU program at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association.
Photo: © Euro-Atlantic Center
This interview appears in print at the forthcoming issue of Visegrad Insight “Allied Solidarity” (out in June 2016) in unauthorised version. Our profuse apologies to the author and readers.