Mikuláš Dzurinda: The European Union Needs Something More Than a Mere Face-Lift

An optimist would argue that the best medicine for populism is to let it govern. Unfortunately, a populist governance period can be very costly, and not only in terms of money—says Mikuláš Dzurinda, former PM of Slovakia and Martens Centre President.

KONRAD NIKLEWICZ: What is the direction the EU is currently heading? Will the EU as we know it, a closely-stitched community of 28 (soon 27) member states, survive in the coming years?

MIKULÁŠ DZURINDA: I believe that the internal and external developments of the EU lead to a particular modification of our co-existence. On the one hand, our current pressure towards centralization is excessive and leads to resistance. On the other hand, our developments in the fields of defense, our high migration balance, and global competition creates pressure towards an adequate response to these challenges. This pressure cannot be countered by single countries, not even those of the size of Germany, France, or any regional alliances. The EU will face pressures from the east, notably from Russia, and increasingly from China. From the southern, African states, the predictions of population growth threaten unseen dynamics of population shifts.

The EU needs to react to these internal and external developments: In practice, this could mean abandoning further centralization efforts, particularly in fields related to culture, but also in the areas of taxes and social policies. Simultaneously, we need to increase cooperation in our foreign policy, defense, and security.

The EU needs to react to these internal and external developments: In practice, this could mean abandoning further centralization efforts, particularly in fields related to culture, but also in the areas of taxes and social policies.

“The era of liberal democracy is over,” declared Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, kicking off his fourth term. Almost the same day, European Commission VP Frans Timmermans proclaimed that Poland should remain under the Article 7 procedure. Is Europe, already wounded by the ongoing Brexit, heading towards even bigger breakup?

The European Project is facing a challenge— that is undebatable. Migration and its developments stand at the core of the challenges we face. The only way to withstand these pressures is to communicate more with our citizens. EU leaders need be prepared to take courageous and timely decisions in areas they tried to avoid so far. In the end, the citizens will acknowledge that our 70 years of peaceful existence, although ridden by turbulences and crises, gave us a relatively high level of prosperity and life quality. Europe’s need for courageous, truthful, and reform-oriented politics connected with strong leadership is at its top.

Why does the European project seem to break up? Why are so many people in so many countries turning their backs to the very idea of the Union? How can we explain the great comeback of nationalism and, sometimes, tribalism?

As I said, developments on the global level, especially following the events of 2008, scared our citizens. And the political leaders pushed for a policy which the former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel recently correctly labelled as “overpromising but underdelivering.” As an example of such a policy, Bill Clinton claimed that all American citizens deserve to live in a family house. Mortgages and retail banking boomed, and we all know how that turned out. Overpromising but underdelivering is also a sin committed at the level of the EU. People see politicians wasting time with trivial matters while they, the people, worry about the rapidly changing conditions around them. On the flipside, a study was just recently published, indicating that levels of EU support are reaching record highs, surpassing standards since at least 1983. Poland too, although it faces Article 7 proceedings, shows a record-high EU support. The situation is similar in Slovakia. Whereas trust towards the government fell drastically after the murder of an investigative journalist and his ancée, this effect is not mirrored in their stance towards the EU—on the contrary. Citizens of Slovakia rely on a broader engagement of EU institutions in this case. The European project has a chance, but we cannot allow ourselves to waste it.

Is the European Commission handling the case of Poland well?

Whether the Article 7 was used correctly and what might be its consequence are both matters that need to be clarified by the European Commission. The Commission should clearly and credibly communicate why this provision of the Treaty has been applied and what are the consequences for Polish citizens. Communication needs to be strengthened not only towards Polish citizens but to all EU citizens. Politicians, but also their voters, need to be repeatedly reminded of the fact that the EU is a club of states within which rules apply. These rules are economic as well as political, since the EU is also a value-based entity. It was, and still is at present, freedom that lead the EU to peace and prosperity. Freedom leads to competition, competition and concurrence lead to prosperity. I would think that especially Polish citizens could appreciate the value of freedom.

EU leaders need be prepared to take courageous and timely decisions in areas they tried to avoid so far.

How should we interpret the populist surge in Central Europe? It is not only Poland and Hungary: in the Czech Republic, populists won the elections too. Slovakia, shocked by the murder of an investigative reporter, is going through a political crisis, the outcome is unclear.

Populism is a current global phenomenon. It is not only limited to the V4 countries, not only to the EU. Its rise was accelerated by the global economy and (mostly) the financial crisis, perceived as a crisis caused by the elites. Unfortunately, the carelessness or exhaustion of traditional political parties have allowed or directly caused the crisis to reach that far. The perception of a meltdown was further strengthened by the unprecedented waves of migration (and its lousy management) in 2015. If we add up the consequences of globalization, massive technological progress, automation, robotization, and the worries of the youth and middle classes—we realize that the groundwork for populism has been laid thoroughly. Instead of perceiving and reacting to these pre-conditions, the political elites across the scene continued to label those who revolted as the “losers.” That was and remains the primary catalyst for populists. Reforms can be painful and lead to a loss of political capital, which many, facing the elections, are not willing or able to give up. It is the return to politics of reform that is the best medicine for populism.

Does the Visegrad Group still exist? Or is it moribund? Should we instead speak about Warsaw-Budapest alliance and the remaining two countries, Slovakia and Czechia, playing solo?

That would not be a good idea. The V4 format comes naturally, and it is logical. Sometimes it works better, other times worse. At some point it is more compact, sometimes it is less coherent, as the national differences are highlighted and interests do not coincide. Let us not forget about the mid-1990s. At that time, one of the chairs of the V4 remained vacated, and it was the Slovak one. My predecessor, Vladimír Mečiar, was excluded from this community for breaking democratic principles and rules. Nonetheless, the V4 survived—and it did well in not making rushed conclusions. I am personally more concerned about the alienation of the V4 from Germany, distancing the V4 from the EU, and about its unwillingness to share its problems. That is a short-sighted, wrong turn. We should come back to our senses before we allow the realities and developments of our surroundings to surpass us.

Overpromising but underdelivering is also a sin committed at the level of the EU. People see politicians wasting time with trivial matters while they, the people, worry about the rapidly changing conditions around them.

In Western countries, the picture is mixed too. The pro-European face of France, embodied by President Emmanuel Macron, has won. But in Italy, populists from 5 Stelle and nationalists from the League (Northern League) scored well in elections, and they currently try to forge a new Italian government.

Yes, the Italian elections did not bring that sigh of relief we felt in France and the Netherlands. An optimist would argue that the Italians have always found a way to cope with their problems, or that the best medicine for populism is to let it govern. The problem lies in the fact that a populist governance period can be very costly, and not only in terms of money. Italy is a large country and the promises of those who won the elections were at best crazy, at worst extremely dangerous. And that not only for Italian citizens but also for the compactness and operability of the EU. So yes, we do have a problem. I believe that European leaders should communicate more—not only with governments but also with the leaders of the opposition. We need to strengthen the voice of the third sector, especially when it comes to NGO’s working on European topics and public opinion.

What is your prognosis for the next European elections? Will the populist tide sweep through the European Parliament too?

I have particular concerns, especially when seeing how the populists and extremists expand their spheres of influence in large countries, in Italy, Spain, but also Germany or France. European Parliament elections take place in individual member states, with the topics predominantly revolving around domestic issues, while the EU level is often underestimated. That might have partially been caused by unrealistic expectations spurred by Brussels, sometimes even pretending it could solve all the outstanding troubles of EU citizens. We need to steadily but patiently explain to the people where EU’s competencies lie, and conversely, where member states must be responsible. In the end, the result of the European elections will depend on the topics offered by political parties. If the national parties, which congregate into European parties, can offer their voters an essential idea of a topic that is manageable only on EU level, one that evokes a positive association and resonates with the voters, they can succeed. Citizens’ safety and security, protection, and the management of migration, social mobility—especially of the middle class and working families— could all be relevant topics. A topic that might resonate on the emotional side is the protection of cultural identity— national as much as European.

Politicians, but also their voters, need to be repeatedly reminded of the fact that the EU is a club of states within which rules apply. These rules are economic as well as political.

Will the next European Multiannual Financial Framework heal the differences? Elements known so far suggest that the Commission wants to cut the Cohesion Policy. Moreover, it plans to freeze the funds for countries which breach the fundamental rules. May that proposal further aggravate the conflict between the north-west and the east of the EU?

EU funds should stimulate, motivate, and lead to further convergence of EU countries. They should not punish. I am against the funds being tied to evaluations of fulfilment or breaking of political criteria. This connection would be technically very complicated, politically explosive, and easily abused. It would fuel populism even further, which is not the best idea. If we have imperfect rules for the punishment of those who do not adhere to them, let‘s improve the practices. But let us not mix the non-mixable.

If we add up the consequences of globalization, massive technological progress, automation, and the worries of the youth and middle classes—we realize that the groundwork for populism has been laid thoroughly.

If not the budget, what could be the medium or long-term cure for European woes? We used to think that the values and a commonly interpreted sense of purpose was the glue holding the Union together. Now, fundamental values are openly contested, the interests are going apart.

We need to ease the pressures of general centralization and the consequent growth of the European bureaucracy. We need to return to a careful application of the principle of subsidiarity. European Institutions should retain competences only where member states cannot assure a more effective regulation. That was expressed in a simple yet exhaustive and courteous manner by the President of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, MEP David McAllister, on a recent conference in Warsaw: “Let’s make big things bigger and small things smaller.” On the European level, let us focus mainly on managing immigration. Let us negotiate on readmission agreements, returning people that are not refugees to their countries of origin. No EU member state can negotiate such readmission agreements (with, for example, African countries) more effectively on their own than if we act in a unified matter. Let us focus on developing the defense union, because a common defense of EU countries will be more effective and efficient than if we do it individually. According to this meter, we need to investigate each policy area, and if we stick to the subsidiarity principle, it will work. Self-evidently, we need to protect our core values, with freedom at the helm. Let us preserve what we call the European way of life.

Will the new attempt to create a German-French engine of the EU succeed? Will France and Germany find common ground for the eurozone reform?

It depends on how France imagines this reform. The French, traditionally, were inclined towards redistribution: a union of transfers. It is a trap, with potentially adverse results. It can only lead to the deepening of internal conflicts and an even more significant resistance towards Brussels. I understand that certain solidarity within the EU is desirable, same as a specific strengthening of the convergence process, but the tools to reach these goals must be transparent. A Transfer Union would be detrimental towards the pressures on reforms, which are vital. The eurozone does not need its finance minister, nor its budget, and especially not common eurobonds. We should instead focus our energy on completing the Banking Union, on implementing the single currency in the remaining EU countries. This will unite us more than the intentions of President Macron ever could.

Is the EU enlargement a thing of the past? Why is the European Union still pretending to be in enlargement negotiations with Turkey?

I was not happy about the decision to invite Turkey to negotiate its EU membership. Together with my Austrian colleague, Mr Schüssel, but also the German CDU, we tried to push the proposal of a “privileged partnership” with Turkey. When it failed, we endorsed the “open-ended process,” which means that, for the first time in the history of EU enlargement, it was possible to tell the candidate country from the onset that its accession process might, but equally might not, end in their accession.

A populist governance period can be very costly, and not only in terms of money. Italy is a large country and the promises of those who won the elections were at best crazy, at worst extremely dangerous.

This process depends mainly on the will and ability of Turkey to meet the accession criteria. We all know how Turkey is faring these days. Nonetheless, the EU has a clean slate in dealing with Turkey. I do not believe it should be us, the EU, who should replace Turkey in doing what they need to do: acknowledging that it cannot or does not want to fulfil (mainly) political accession criteria. We are primarily focused on Ukraine and Western Balkan countries.


Mikuláš Dzurinda

is the President of the Wilfred Martens Centre, the European People’s Party think-tank. He is the former prime minister of Slovakia (1998-2006) and has held various positions in government since first entering politics in 1990. He introduced far-reaching reforms which have enabled Slovakia to begin the process of joining the EU and NATO. After being re-elected in 2002, Dzurinda led Slovakia to become a member of the EU and NATO in 2004, a process which he actively took part in from the beginning. Since Slovakia gained independence in 1993, he has also held the position of Minister of Transportation and more recently that of Minister for Foreign Affairs (from July 2010 to April 2012). Mikuláš Dzurinda is a founding member of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union—Democratic Party (SDKÚ-DS) and was chairman of the party from 2000 to 2012. From 2012 to 2016 he was a member of the Slovak Parliament.

Konrad Niklewicz

Konrad Niklewicz is currently the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies Visiting Research Fellow and managing director of the Civic Institute and a guest lecturer at the University of Warsaw. He previously served as Spokesperson for the Polish Presidency of the Council of the EU and Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Regional Development. Previously he was a journalist and editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza.

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