The Slovak Referendum – a test of Optimism

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On the 16th and 17th of May, Slovak voters will express their will to join the European Union. The referendum represents the last step of the accession process and thus can serve as a welcomed occasion for recapping past events related to the process. Here, I would like to interlink events on Slovak political sphere with the enlargement process. In other words, I would like to interpret attitudes of Slovak citizenry towards EU and accession in the light of domestic politics. This should support the claim that one could label the Slovak referendum as a ‘test of optimism’. I do not want to argue that Slovak voters know about EU less than their neighbors in surrounding countries but that the Slovak political constellation of the last 8 – 10 years has made Slovak voters perceive EU in slightly different terms . Contrary to Poland and the Czech republic, a nation-wide discussion on the European Union has never occurred at Slovakia. I do not want to seek for explanation at the level of citizens: surveys show considerable rate of support for EU, a rate that is generally higher than in e.g. Hungary or the Czech Republic. However, the rather stable numbers are not based on knowledge of the international structures, which are to a high extent perceived in the same manner as few years ago.

I argue that the high support is primarily influenced by the manner, in which the problematique of EU is offered to the voters.

In 1998 parliamentary elections Slovak voters decided for a change of the Meciar’s regime. Governments of Vladimir Meciar obviously lead the country to isolation. Still, it was Meciar’s party, which won the elections but was not able to create a governing coalition or gain support for a minority government. The ‘anti-Meciar’ government – formed by parties, which would not cooperate under other circumstances– was weakened by inner conflicts and had a low effectiveness in pursuing reforms. (The 2002 parliamentary elections ended up in a similar fashion and had more or less the same effects.) One of the few domains, where the government excelled was the international politics: Slovakia became a respected partner in the international dialogue, a member of OECD and a prospective member of both EU and NATO.

Governing parties and especially Prime Minister Dzurinda’s party stressed therefor successes in the domain of foreign politics and began to proclaim themselves to be the only guarantors of internationally accepted Slovakia. This might have been true as Meciar seeks vainly for respected international support. Nevertheless, the vision that governing political parties have been offering to voters for last 5 years is succinctly the following: ‘governing parties refer to the accession, parties in opposition to isolationism and provincialism’. However, not a single governing party has tried to thoroughly explain what the ‘accession’ means.

There is still another reason – closely related to presence of the Meciar’s movement – for which EU has not become a topic in public discussion. Under the permanent threat of by-elections and Meciar’s return in power, the governing partie s were reluctant to get involved in any ‘unnecessary ideological controversies.’ Debates on the heritage from the 1993 – 1998 period, considerably weak economical position and reforms-to-be-started simply had priority over the EU. Strangely enough, the EU as a topic has not gained on importance even after five years… (The Slovak government parties unconvincingly announced their pla n of setting up a pro-European campaign one month before the referendum. This happened, however only after von Linden criticized Slovakia for not doing enough.)

Slovak voters are about to decide upon the accession to EU; they are about to tick their ‘yes’ without really knowing what they agree with. Mostly because of political constellation in Slovakia, the EU has never been a topic of a nation-wide discussion there. The debate has not got through the ‘yes-or-no’ dichotomized speech. The high support of EU in Slovakia will decrease sooner or later.

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