Bratislava is complicated
2016-12-01 15:37:26 -
In the midst of its first EU presidency, Slovakia wants the union to be a global player - yet refuses to host migrants in need, writes Michael McGowan

I have just returned from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, which holds the current rotating sixth-month presidency of the European Union at a time when so much is happening across Europe and internationally.

Slovakia has benefited from its membership of the EU and the related growth of its economy, and is particularly proud of its car industry, and its record of producing the largest number of cars per person in Europe.

The country is determined to show its commitment to the European project during its EU presidency, especially following the UK referendum vote to leave the EU, of which it has been highly critical.

I arrived in Slovakia via Austria, and within minutes of touching down at Vienna’s international airport I was on my way to the centre of Bratislava by bus, a journey of less than an hour for the bargain price of €5, including a delicious lemon tea on route.

Slovakia has a population of a little over five million and Bratislava, which has been the capital of Slovakia since 1993, is relatively small for an EU capital city. Bratislava is an attractive city with an old town of narrow cobbled streets and, like the whole country, has a mixed and complicated history.

That history includes being occupied by both Soviet and before them Nazi invaders. The Jewish population of the city was almost totally wiped out in the concentration camps during the Second World War. There are today only about 650 Jewish people left in the city.

In 1969, the Prague Spring and the name of Alexander Dubcek were heralded across the world, but reforming efforts were crushed by the invasion of the Soviet Union and countries of the Warsaw Pact. Dubcek, who was a Slovak, was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament for his efforts for human rights. He died in a road accident in 1992.

Very European
Bratislava is relishing the first ever Slovak presidency of the EU, which the country joined on 1 May 2004, and holds the presidency until the end of December before Malta takes over on 1 January 2017.
“We are small country but we are very European,” said Minister for Foreign and European Affairs Miroslav Lajcak, who expressed his disappointment to me over the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

Stressing his belief that “the EU should be a global player”, Minister Lajcak is critical of the EU’s approach to Russia, believing it is important to step up diplomatic relations.

The minister also defended his country’s refusal to receive refugees, saying Slovakia was not prepared to be dictated to by the European Commission and was not prepared to take a quota of migrants.

I found this attitude surprising from a minister with impressive international experience in diplomacy and international affairs. But he is not alone in his refusal to co-operate in the EU on the issue of sharing responsibility of hosting migrants. In fact, the chair of the European Affairs Committee, Lubos Blah, a member of parliament for the left wing Smer-SD party, took the same line when I met him. He was even critical of Germany for receiving large numbers of migrants and in particular of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her welcoming approach.

As an eastern country of the EU, there is no doubt that Slovakia can have an important influence in the region, especially during its EU presidency, besides promoting improved diplomatic relations with Russia and tackling the challenges following Brexit, but its approach to Europe’s migration policy may need a dose of compassion that appears to be lacking.

Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament.
TAGS : Bratislava Immigration Michael McGowan EU Ireland Slovakia
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