Slovakia vows to improve union’s public image as it takes over EU presidency

‘It is time for us politicians to ask if we have failed in communicating advantages of the European project,’ says prime minister

Slovakia's foreign minister pledged to show flexibility to Britain in forthcoming negotiations on a new relationship with the European Union but warned there will be no special deal for Britain.

Speaking in Bratislava at the start of Slovakia's six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, Mr Miroslav Lajcak insisted that "we cannot have 28 bilateral agreements with Brussels institutions. That would be the end of the European Union. The balance between rights and responsibility must be there for us all".

Slovakia, which is assuming the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time in its history, takes up the role at a highly fraught time in the EU's history following last week's historic decision by Britain to leave the European Union.

Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico said that one of the key priorities of the Slovakian presidency was to improve the EU's communication strategy in a bid to connect with citizens.


“We would like to focus on better communication of the positive agenda the European Union brings. It is also high time for us politicians to ask if we have failed in communicating the many advantages the European project brings.”

On the issue of the British referendum, he pledged to find a “mutually agreeable settlement and solution” for all sides.

“The British people have reacted…and they have disagreed openly with the European policy. No one has a right to be angry with the British voters.” The possibility of treaty change was not on the agenda, he said.

Mr Fico was speaking following a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels on Wednesday at which EU leaders warned that the EU’s four principles of free movement of capital, good, services and people, could not be sacrificed in any deal with Britain.

Speaking ahead of the arrival of European Commissioners to Bratislava, Mr Fico said the European Union to take account of newer member states when formulating policy.

"The crucial decisions on the future of Europe cannot be decided by one or two member states or of the founding member states of the European Union," he said. "The future of the Union can no longer be defined without those member states who joined the European Union after 2004."

His comments follow criticism from Poland and other eastern European members of the decision to hold a meeting of the foreign ministers of the EU's six founding members in Berlin following the British referendum.

Mr Fico said he hoped that a meeting of EU leaders scheduled for September 16th in Bratislava to discuss the future of the European Union could serve as a model for future meetings to be held on a regular basis outside Brussels.”Brussels tends to have very negative connotations these days,” he said.

His comments were echoed by foreign Mr Lajcak who previously worked for the European Commission’s External Action Service in Brussels. “Citizens don’ t live in the Commission. They live in member states. European policy should be driven by member states, by our democratically-elected heads of government,” he said.

As recriminations began this week over the shock British referendum result, criticisms have emerged from a number of east European countries about the leadership of Jean-Claude Juncker.

While stressing the primacy of EU member states in the EU decision-making process, Mr Lajcak declined to comment on Mr Juncker’s position.

“The last thing we need at this point is to point fingers at each other. We all share responsibility.. and we should all work together to improve the institutions The blame game is not the way forward and not what our citizens expect.”

Mr Juncker was forced to defend his record as European Commission president at an emergency session of the European Parliament on Tuesday, when he told MEPs: ""I'm not tired and I'm not sick as newspapers write in Germany. I am what I am. To my last breath, I will fight for a united Europe."

Slovakia, whose vocal criticism of the EU’s migration policy has led to the country taking the EU to court over the mandatory redistribution of asylum-seekers, said it intends to prioritise the refugee crisis and strengthen the external borders of the EU during its presidency.

The Slovakian prime minister, who has said that only Christian refugees should be considered for asylum, reiterated his country’s opposition to the EU’s mandatory relocation programme, noting that migrants had already decided their preferred destination country before arriving in Europe.

However, he praised the Schengen system of free movement for EU citizens, arguing that Romania and Buglaria should join the free-movement area.

Mr Fico also had words of advice for Scotland as it seeks to ensure its continued membership of the EU in the wake of the British referendum. While he said Slovakia would not interfere in an internal British issue, he "fully respects the right of any nation to make decisions about their future.

“Slovaks and Czechs have a unique experience of peaceful separation and we are willing to share our experience with anyone who is interested,” he said.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent