EU Foreign Policy Faces a Slovakia Challenge
Slovakia’s recent parliamentary elections were followed with great interest abroad since they were considered crucial not only for the course of the country’s democracy but also for the cohesion of the European Union and the transatlantic community in a time of multiple international crises. On his first full day in office, Slovakia’s new prime minister, Robert Fico, showed that, as many expected, he was prepared to break with the EU consensus on Ukraine and Russia.
Slovakia’s foreign policy has been through several changes in recent years, and the country is struggling to find a consensus on its international role in its current situation of growing populism, extremism, and anti-Western propaganda. Not only is Slovakia a young independent state still building its political culture and its attitude to its history and statehood, but Fico’s personal evolution over three decades in public life has been marked by controversies and shifts in values. In his three previous terms in power, he brought Slovakia into the EU’s visa-free Schengen area and the eurozone, and he promoted the country’s position in the core of the union. He was also an advocate of broad-based, including military, cooperation with the United States.
After being forced out of office in 2018, after massive public protests following the murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Fico turned into a more radical and populist politician. He developed a rhetoric full of criticism of the United States, Brussels, and George Soros. He labeled Russia’s war in Ukraine as a rivalry between Moscow and Washington, and he spoke out against the West’s sanctions on Russia and military support to Ukraine. Fico has also made harsh remarks about Slovakia’s eastern neighbor, such as: “We know that Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and that its government regime falls very short of democratic standards.”
Fico’s Smer–Social Democracy party came first in the elections but its performance with 22.9 percent of the vote was not as strong as in the past, and his power as prime minister will be challenged by a sizeable parliamentary opposition, the independent media, and civil society. This may lead Fico to moderate his rhetoric and move away from some of his campaign promises.
Smer will now govern in coalition with the social-democratic Hlas party of Fico’s former deputy Peter Pellegrini (which received 14.7% of the vote) and the radical-right Slovak National Party (5.6%). They have a narrow majority with 79 parliamentary seats out of 150. The three parties declared in their public agreement that the foreign policy orientation of Slovakia toward the EU and NATO will continue to be the key priority.
Surrounded by Friends
Fico has appointed as foreign minister his long-term Smer deputy, Juraj Blanár, who is not a professional diplomat like Fico’s earlier choices for the job. (For example, Miroslav Lajčák, currently an EU high official, served as his foreign minister for 12 years.) Fico said that, in the current context, he needs in this position a less conventional person who will bring to the ministry more dynamism and pragmatism, and strengthen Slovakia’s voice in the international arena. The new minister of defense, Róbert Kaliňák, is also a long-term loyal partner of Fico and a former interior minister who had to leave office with him in 2018.
Fico’s new government will need to build trust among Slovakia’s partners and allies. This will not be an easy process. Days before it was appointed, the EU-level Party of European Socialists suspended Smer, and Hlas too, due to “clear divergence” on values and their link-up with the Slovak National Party.
On October 26-27, immediately after President Zuzana Čaputová had appointed his government, Fico attended the European Council meeting in Brussels. Prior to the meeting he met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and confirmed his earlier statement in Bratislava that his government would stop sending military aid to Ukraine. He also noted that it would oppose more EU military aid or EU sanctions against Russia. Instead, he said, Slovakia would support humanitarian and reconstruction activities. Fico also called for guarantees that aid funds to Ukraine would not be embezzled. By contrast, he is in line with the EU position on the conflict in Israel and Gaza.
In Brussels, Fico was warmly welcomed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, his long-term ideological partner. It now looks as if their two countries will be aligned on Ukraine and Russia—not to mention the two leaders’ attitudes toward democracy—and diverge from the rest of the EU members. That said, Fico is not a simple duplicate of Orbán. He does not, for example, seem to be strictly against sanctions on Russia and calls for evaluting their impact on Slovakia and the EU.
All this makes it obvious that EU faces a challenge in dealing with Slovakia with Fico as prime minister. However, the new coalition government’s approach might evolve as his pre-election rhetoric is confronted with political realities at home and abroad.