Today the Netherlands hands over the reins of the EU Council presidency to Slovakia. The challenges at hand could not be more consequential: the EU structures are being undermined by the popular revolt that has moved beyond symbolism and fringes of the society. The next six months will therefore be crucial in setting the tone with which the EU will continue (if at all).
Last week, the British citizens exercised their democratic right and voted, against all expectations, to leave the EU. Similarly, earlier this year voters in the Netherlands delivered a humiliating blow to the country’s Prime Minister by refusing to throw their support for the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine.
The public’s weariness with the EU is palpable. The more the public mistrusts the EU, the more its leaders mistrust the public and the gap between the two widens. It has now reached the breaking point whereby citizens feel they are no longer considered essential for the EU’s legitimacy. Instead, and in a rather condescending way too, citizens are being blamed for the lack of support for the project value of which they do not understand. If only people tried hard enough, surely they would instantly fall head over heels in love with it.
There is no point in denying the obvious: the EU does and always will rest on the support of its people. Pretending otherwise is a sign of weakness and lack of belief in the EU as such, which can only lead to one outcome: the EU’s demise.
It is therefore indispensable that the EU and the UK accept the results of the referendum, seeing to its full implementation not only for the UK’s sake but for that of the EU’s too.
And it will be Slovakia’s Council presidency (scheduled to last from today until the end of the year) that will oversee the beginning of this momentous process that is currently dominated by a great amount of uncertainty.
On the UK’s side, it is yet to be determined by whom and when Article 50 will be triggered, marking the official beginning of the EU-UK negotiations. David Cameron has announced his resignation and will eventually step down as Prime Minister. It will be therefore up to the new Tory leader, the name of whom will only be known no earlier than September, to take the charge.
Another element of uncertainty is to be found on the other side of the English Channel. The EU leaders, oblivious to Brexit as a real threat, have been caught by surprise. Many of us have, to be honest. But as a consequence, no provisions had been put in place to know who will be negotiating on behalf of the EU, what the position of 27 countries will be nor do we have any idea what the future of the EU holds in terms of the necessary structural changes. None of this had been seriously discussed, as far as we know, among Member States before 23 June.
It is in this context of uncertainty that the Slovak presidency is assuming the office. The country’s own policy priorities will be inevitably overshadowed by Brexit and as such, its scope for setting the agenda will become limited. Trying to steer the Council’s work in the next six months, the presidency will be in a difficult situation as Brexit itself will pose a number of unforeseen challenges.
First, the Slovak presidency will have to operate in a political quagmire of institutional (in)fighting. The battle lines have been drawn between the more pragmatic Council on the one hand and more ideological EU Commission and Parliament on the other.
For instance, as the EU legislation is unclear about who exactly should be appointed to lead the Brexit talks on behalf of the 27 states, both the EU Commission and the Council claim to have earned the mandate to lead the negotiations. The MEPs, suspicious of the Council’s leaning towards too much of a soft approach to the UK, have expressed their support for the Commission President Juncker.
Council: Divided we fall
Second, the Council itself is fragmented. Some divisions between the old and new Member States have re-surfaced. The countries are not united in their interpretation of events that had led to Brexit and who, if anyone, should be accountable. Central European countries are pushing for Juncker to step down and to assume a symbolic as well as personal responsibility. The Polish foreign minister has made it clear that the EU-UK negotiations should be led by new politicians untainted by the Brexit episode. Juncker is neither new, nor untainted.
But the divisions between the old and new Member States become even more transparent when focusing on the issue of the future of the EU. Slovakia’s Prime Minister Fico has expressed his disquiet over the exclusive meeting of the six founding member states that took place in Berlin in the wake of the referendum results. He has been reported to have said that the structural changes to the EU can only be decided with all countries at the negotiating table.
What next for the EU?
This leads us to the third challenge: what next for the EU? Currently the EU countries do not see eye to eye on what they perceive the best course of action for what the future of Europe should be. They are mostly split into those arguing for less integration (represented by the Visegrad countries and the Centre-right governments) and the Franco-German proposal of more integration (associated with the more traditional Social Democratic parties).
The plan presented by the French and German foreign ministers last week promises a common European asylum and migration policy, as well as completing the Economic and Monetary Union. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for more federal Europe has already been dampened down, among others, by the Dutch PM Rutte as well as his Central European counterparts.
Slovakia’s role and position
Slovakia is a country deeply invested in all of these challenges. While it will have to tread very carefully not to compromise its position of an honest broker (by virtue of its role as a presiding country), Slovakia will still be entitled to its opinions.
The country’s diplomats are expected to prefer a reasonable and well-intended deal with the UK, trying to steer away from the EU becoming too heavy-handed. Bratislava will also insist on an inclusive debate about the future of the EU, not excluding smaller and/or newer Member States. In this sense, Slovakia will become an ambassador of less privileged members. The country will also be cautious about pressing ahead with further EU integration as Prime Minister Fico is of the opinion that the EU and its certain misguided policies bear some responsibility for Brexit. To overcome the knowledge deficit, the country will want to see an improvement of the way in which Brussels communicates with its citizens.
Presiding over the EU for the first time in its history and being thrown into the whirlwind of intricate inter-institutional turf wars, deeply rooted differences between Member States as well as the desire to shape the EU’s agenda, Slovakia certainly has its work cut out.
Stakes could not be higher and Slovakia will be under pressure to deliver. Every challenge is an opportunity and Bratislava should not be shy about making the most of it, to not only lay solid foundations for the future EU but also, self-centredly to fix its somewhat tarnished reputation from the yesteryear battles over immigration.