As refugees continue to flood into Europe, many in Slovakia, a small Central European nation, have voiced opposition to the European Union’s plans for redistributing asylum seekers. World Policy Journal interviewed Miroslav Lajčák, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic, about the current refugee crisis and its implications for EU cooperation.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What are Slovakia’s current policies regarding refugees, and what is the rationale behind them? How do Slovakia’s policies differ from those of its neighbors?
MIROSLAV LAJČÁK: Slovakia is a responsible EU member and has been saying right from the start of the migrant crisis that this challenge is too big to be tackled individually. We want to be part of all the efforts leading to an EU-wide, complex, and sustainable solution.
Since the start of the crisis we have been advocating a comprehensive approach that would tackle this challenge in all its aspects. We were saying that apart from the immediate humanitarian aspect (which only deals with consequences in a reactive manner), we have to deal resolutely with other aspects, too. These include protection of the EU external border, proper registration of migrants entering EU territory, talking to and cooperating with the transit countries, and most importantly, dealing with the root causes.
Slovakia has traditionally been a transit country for migration. The experience shows that it is not a desired or final destination for migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers. If you look at the statistics, even those who were granted asylum here are not staying. Three out of four have left the country after receiving asylum in Slovakia. Having said this, we still think migration is indeed a problem that affects all of us in the EU.
Only few days ago we received 149 people from northern Iraq who were fleeing from the terror of Da´esh [the Islamic State]. A few months ago we offered our neighbor Austria, which can barely cope with a huge influx of asylum seekers, to take care of hundreds of asylum seekers while they wait for their applications in Austria to be processed. We have allocated €21 million [$22.7 million] extra for a joint EU response to the migrant crisis and have also made significant contributions to respective U.N. funds. We have also tripled our capacities to process refugees for so-called “humanitarian transfer.” We have also sent police reinforcements to help our Hungarian and Slovene partners to guard their stretches of the EU external border. We are not just sitting back and watching.
For us, solidarity and responsibility go hand in hand. On one hand, we fulfill the existing obligations (e.g. respecting the Schengen and Dublin rules on protecting external borders and registering migrants), and on the other hand we try to contribute to the common European solution. That is why we did not take any unilateral actions; we did not erect fences and we did not trade public accusations with anyone.
WPJ: Have the attacks in Paris affected Slovakia’s positions on security issues, such as border controls or the international coalition against the Islamic State?
ML: Yes. We have toughened our domestic anti-terror legislation and increased police checks alongside the borders with Austria and Hungary to monitor any unauthorized entry. Police are inspecting suspicious-looking vehicles that could be harboring refugees, such as vans and trucks. We have sent out dozens of police officers to help our EU partners in protecting the EU external borders. As a direct response to the Paris attacks we have – at the request of France – provided military assistance to the European Union Training Mission in Mali.
Slovakia has been, for some time now, a member of the 65-nation-strong U.S.-led Global Coalition to counter Da´esh. In light of the situation in the region and the recent attacks in Paris, we are committed to continuing to support the coalition and its working groups, and to considering possibilities for further contributions on a continuing basis.
WPJ: The Syrian refugee crisis and the heightened threat of terrorism have brought up questions about certain EU policies in some countries, such as freedom of movement within the Schengen Area. What are the implications of these developments for EU cooperation?
ML: For Slovakia it is crucially important to fully uphold the fundamental principles and freedoms of the EU. Freedom of movement is one of them. When addressing the current migration crisis we should refrain from shortcuts, such as limitations to the Schengen Area, a region without border controls. We stand for respecting the rules. And they are clear. We all have a responsibility to protect the external border of the EU, so every country should do its best to uphold it. And if there is a member state not able to guard the border, then we should go there and help. By the way, this cooperation is gradually happening, although there is still some talk about limitations to or suspension of Schengen, or about the creation of a so-called mini-Schengen. We refuse all this and insist on keeping Schengen as it is and respecting the existing rules. Amid other measures such as better cooperation of security agencies, it is also necessary to find a way to effectively disable smuggling networks that are operating on both sides of the borders – and it doesn’t matter if they are Schengen borders or national ones.
WPJ: The process of developing EU policy is often seen as dominated by the larger countries, such as Germany and France. What do you think of the EU’s decision-making process, particularly from the perspective of a small country like Slovakia?
ML: The beauty of the EU is that it is united in diversity. That unity does not mean uniformity, although there are sometimes interests pushing for the latter. But the EU is an alliance of equal members looking jointly for the most acceptable solution for all. I have always valued the EU project for the members’ joint ability to discuss and to listen to each other, and then finding solutions by consensus – a compromise that everybody can accept or at least live with. It is not about how big you are, but rather how powerful your argument is in order to convince others.
When it comes to the migration crisis, the EU has backtracked on this philosophy a little bit. We have been witnessing attempts to deal with complex problems in an administrative and bureaucratic way – without appropriate discussion and at times with anger and criticism directed at those who raise doubts about this approach and have different views – in this case the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Life has shown that such “solutions” are not really solving anything, nor are they helping the EU as such.
The real problems do not distinguish between small or big countries. They do not stop at national borders. We are facing them jointly and the effects or consequences are being felt by all of us. That is why solidarity and concerted action of the whole EU is needed to deal with them. This means the voices of all must be heard in debates about all the issues we have on the table and all the challenges we face. We believe that the principle of consensus building lies at the core of the EU.
WPJ: What is the significance of Slovakia holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time in 2016? What does your country seek to accomplish during its presidency?
ML: The historic first Slovak presidency of the EU Council is a milestone for Slovak membership in the European Union. In a way, it will be the real completion of our integration into the EU – we will be taking responsibility for managing the work of the block for six months. The presidency is an unprecedented opportunity for Slovakia. It is a chance to prove to our partners and to the EU institutions, as well as to our citizens, that Slovakia is ready to lead and to take the EU forward. We are taking it very seriously, investing a lot of effort in it, and not taking any chances when it comes to thorough preparations.
Slovakia has always been a transparent and predictable partner. At the helm of the EU we will be an honest broker. The presidency is not an opportunity to advance or foster any national interest; it is a role in which the country acts as manager, mediator, and facilitator in the EU processes in which all the member states are involved. We will also be the face and the voice of the EU – both inward and toward our outside partners. We believe in the EU project, and during our presidency we want to show it to the whole world.