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Slovak Europeans

A strongly pro-European nation, Slovakia is asking for treatment on par with its Western neighbors, and willing to pay its dues. 

by Martin Ehl 30 June 2017

Slovakia has recently been the source of two quite interesting news stories. Although they are unrelated, taken together they say a lot about what Slovaks want to achieve, and what are they willing to do for those ambitions.

 

The first one concerns a general strike at the Slovak branch of Volkswagen, which produces both cheap small cars like Up! and top-end models such as the Audi Q7, Touareg, and Porsche Cayenne. After six days, trade unions and management sealed a deal on pay hikes of 14 percent over the next two years. Given that Volkswagen Slovakia was already the highest-paying private employer in the country, with an average monthly salary of 1,804 euros (a figure that takes into account bonuses, but not the salaries of management), it is a significant achievement and quite close to the original demand of 16 percent.  

 

The strike was unexpectedly tough as the factory ground to a halt for almost a week, and the region’s politicians and foreign investors undoubtedly fear more of the same in Central Europe, a region that produces hundreds of thousands of cars a year. Overall, there is a general lack of workers, and not only those who are highly skilled. Many are increasingly looking for Western-style wages, and are increasingly nervous about not catching up with Western living standards.

 

That brings us to the second important Slovak news story. According to a poll done by the Polis Slovakia agency, 69.3 percent of Slovaks would like their country to be a member of the EU’s inner core, which will most probably be centered around Germany and France after the UK leaves and the EU likely switches to a multispeed approach for its member states.

 

Slovak attitudes toward Europe had seemed unclear until now. During the years of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, after the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, it looked like the country was heading toward a Belarusian type of authoritarian regime. But after Meciar's fall in 1998, Slovakia became a model of pro-Western reforms. Yet after that, the Slovaks have repeatedly elected Fico, who, at one point, did not shy away from moves such as attending a reception at the Cuban embassy. More recently, Slovaks voted an openly anti-European, fascist party into parliament.

 

Richard Sulik – the head of the biggest opposition party, Freedom and Solidarity – also deserves a mention. He has openly flirted with these extremists, meeting them and talking, like them, about leaving the EU (as well as demeaning the most developed members as second-tier powers).

 

But only a small minority – around 15 percent, according to the Polis poll – agree with Sulik’s views. And, while we can dwell on Fico and his party Smer-SD’s affairs and corruption, Slovak politics started behaving differently after the country became a eurozone member in January 2009. Among other things, there is a conspicuously close relationship to Germany (although Slovakia has sued the EU for forcing immigrant quotas on its members).

 

Even as Viktor Orban was preparing his ascent to power during the tough economic times in neighboring Hungary, and then Czech President Vaclav Klaus was espousing a strong brand of Euroscepticism, Slovaks were – 20 years after the fall of communism – the most pro-European nation in Central Europe. According to a Pew poll from 2009, the number of Slovaks who said their second identity – after the Slovak one – was European was high above the numbers of their neighbors.

 

Slovaks are, however, not openly Euro-enthusiastic like the Poles or the Baltic nations. For Poles and Balts, EU membership was, after decades of geopolitical uncertainty and economic decline, really a transformational step ahead. But Slovakia has built – just as well as the Baltic nations did – three things simultaneously: democracy, a nation state, and a market economy. Therefore, European integration probably has a much stronger meaning for Slovaks than for the constantly sulking Czechs.

 

Looking forward, it’s telling that one of the demands of the striking Volkswagen workers ,whom Fico actually supported, was that their wages should be comparable to those of their counterparts employed in the company’s headquarters in the German town of Wolfsburg. That’s another way of showing how you see yourself in a multispeed EU, isn’t it?

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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