Slovak Anxiety and Europeanisation: Ontological (In)security in Slovak Foreign Policy

Image Caption: Former Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico (right) has toed the line between arguments in favor of its place in the European Union and nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric that starkly contrasts with the position taken by other, and much larger, EU member states.


Threat or a great opportunity — that is how globalization has been presented to us.

Today, globalization and responses to processes connected with it are dividing the people and their perspectives on our future. Strong voices of nationalism, anti-liberalism and other simplistic explanations driven by identity are heard all over the world. Given the inter-dependence of all actors, these narratives in the hands of the populist parties are threatening international peace and security. Wanting to make sense of the world that surrounds me, I decided to research the motives and reasons of Slovak foreign policy concerning Europeanisation.

I got interested in Slovak foreign policy because this case showed how identity could be challenged by globalisation and even cause anxiety. This close connection of globalisation with insecurity was apparent in 2015 when the migration crisis emerged (Kern, 2017). Populist parties securitised migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees across Visegrad Group countries. Meaning that migrants became politicized matters of security. Although they did not necessarily pose an existential threat to the objective survival of a state, the political discourse was constructed as if they did (Buzan et al.,1998). Migrants were represented as a threat to our economic and social systems as well as to the culture what contributed to the image of illiberal Central Europe. In this sense, illiberalism is regarded as democratic backsliding and deliberation or restricting of the liberal democratic institutions by – centralization of power, control of the electoral process, state capture, and limiting civil society (Sitter, 2018). In addition, this also shows how former foreign policy agenda became domesticated and anti-immigration rhetoric became a norm with an aim of voter mobilisation (Balfour, 2016). Although populists did not succeed everywhere in winning elections, their strategy of fear and dividing society to “us” and “them” challenged our thinking about ourselves and our identity.

As the trend of identity politics is likely to continue, I find it essential to contribute to better understanding of identity, insecurity and globalisation processes because as Timothy Snyder put it: “People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both” (Snyder, 2017).

1. Introduction

“Europeans today are living at a moment when paralyzing uncertainty captures a society’s imagination.” (Krastev, 2017, p. 5)

Despite the negative position of Slovakia towards the European Union’s migration policy during the migration crisis, in 2016 Slovakia suddenly aligned its foreign policy strategy to the core of the EU. Wanting to make sense of this turn in Slovak foreign policy I posed a question: what drives the discourse of Slovak foreign policy? By contextualizing Slovak history and society to recent political developments, in my thesis, I deconstruct Slovak foreign policy discourse in between 2015 and 2017. For the discourse analysis, I used Jutta Weldes’ intertextuality, which illustrates how cultural meanings are produced and understood (Weldes, 2006). Using ontological (in)security as the main theoretical framework, I argue that Slovak foreign policy discourse encompasses two fears: the fear of the other and the fear of being left behind. This, what I call the double insecurity of Slovak foreign policy, should help us to better understand the relationship between Slovakia’s identity and (in)security in today’s globalized world, which result in states that are more prone to anxieties.

The migration crisis has completely changed the political ambience in Europe. The populists gained momentum and the question of (cultural) identity became of the highest importance. In 2016 after the Brexit referendum, Donald Trump winning elections in the US and the upcoming French election involving Marine Le Pen’s National Front, plagued doubts about the future of the EU (Krastev, 2017). It created the feeling of anxiety. Anxiety meaning that something is changing, but not knowing what is going to change and how it is going to change. However, the interpretation of current crises varies across Europe as it had been heavily influenced by different historical experience. While the Western European countries believed that everything would work out well, Eastern Europeans often felt anxious and neglected (Krastev, 2017). The feeling of anxiety was strongly present in Slovakia and it reflected itself in foreign policy. In 2016, Slovakia had been closely cooperating with the Visegrad Group states on the migration issue. The V4 strongly opposed the controversial compulsory quota system proposed by the EC. The aim of the proposal was to reallocate incoming migrants based on the corrective allocation mechanism to take the pressure off the frontier countries. Thanks to the anti-immigration foreign policy of the regions’ leaders, the narrative of populist Central Europe emerged. It was mainly Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orbán, who often spoke on behalf of the whole group, imagining the Visegrad Group to become an opposing block against the EU (Nič, 2017). Nevertheless, to Slovakia, the Visegrad Group was acting only as an amplifier reinforcing regional positions within the EU where they had already existed (Nič, 2016). Then, after Brexit and as the Slovak presidency of the Council of EU was approaching, discrepancies within the V4 started to appear. And while Hungary and Poland created an illiberal axis, Slovakia together with the Czech Republic took more of a pragmatic attitude towards the EU (Nič, 2016). Gradually abandoning the regional politics and distancing from the anti-EU rhetoric, Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, accented that Slovakia wants to belong to the core of the EU. The term core of the EU and what it means began to crystallize only after the French presidential elections and after the White paper was published by the European Commission. Yet, the sudden shift from regional anti-EU politics to the European politics was rather unexpected.

The paper begins with examination of ontological security as a theoretical framework for looking at relations between insecurity and Slovakia’s foreign policy outcomes. Within this framework, I focus particularly on the role of critical situations and narratives in ontological security seeking. Then, I focused on the globalisation as one of the drivers of insecurity and connected it with Europeanisation. Lastly, I examined criticism towards the ontological security and its implications for this paper.

Following the methodological part, I begin with the empirical analysis. The fear of the other illustrates how and why migrants were securitized by the mainstream political parties during Slovak parliamentary elections and how arguments about national security were used to legitimize the actions in foreign policy. Consequently, highlighting the role of domestic policy in foreign policy shaping, I look at the Visegrad Group as a tool for foreign policy enforcement of Bratislava for fighting some aspects of Europeanisation.

In the last chapter, I focus on the empirical analysis of fear of being left behind. This part puts more light on the firm stance of Slovakia to belong to the core of the EU. For that,
I reconstructed the broader cultural and historical context to demonstrate how the fear of being left behind influenced the Slovak foreign policy, which needs to articulate its identity as a part of a bigger entity. Finally, I looked at the economic and political aspects of Europeanisation in foreign policy discourse in 2016 and onwards.

2. Theoretical Framework: Ontological (In)security

2.1. Ontological (in)security and Anxiety

Ontological security is a relatively new theory in international relations. It has been developed in the past decades by various scholars from sociology and psychoanalysis before it got adopted to international relations. Among scholars that significantly contributed to the development of the theory in international relations belong Brent J. Steele, Catherina Kinnvall and Jennifer Mitzen and other scholars who have found this theory to be “productive lens for thinking about relationship between security and identity, and between identity and important outcomes in world politics” (Kinnvall & Mitzen, 2017). So how does this theory help us to understand this relationship?

When thinking about security in international relations, the concept of survival plays a central role. All major realist scholars accentuate the importance of the physical survival of a state. John Mearsheimer’s offensive realism even highlights the need for states to gain power at the expense of others if they want to survive in the international system (Mearsheimer, 2001). Thus, the realist security dilemma is rather concerned with “security of survival” while ontological security refers to “security of being” (Giddens, 1991). Meaning, actors are not only interested in the physical security of a state but more importantly, in continuation of their “self” representing their own subjectivity that allows and stipulates actions and choices (Steele, 2008; Mitzen, 2006).

Drawing on the work of Giddens (1991), ontological security is defined as “person’s fundamental sense of safety in the world and includes a basic trust of other people. Obtaining such trust becomes necessary in order for a person to maintain a sense of psychological well-being and avoid existential anxiety” (Giddens, 1991). The definition that was also used by Steele (2008) refers to ontological security as a “sense of continuity and order in events” (Giddens, 1991). Here Giddens stressed social actors’ need for “predictability of routine” and biographical continuity, especially during “critical situations” that disrupt the routine as well as the system of trust. Forming his theory, Giddens based his theory on Erik Erikson’s perception of identity (Erikson, 1950 in Giddens, 1991). In his work, identity represented “anxiety-controlling mechanism reinforcing a sense of trust, predictability, and control in reaction to disruptive change by re-establishing a previous identity or formulating a new one” (Kinnvall, 2004). Furthermore, the concept of self-identity, for both Erikson and Giddens, referred to the biographical continuity and the ability to maintain continuous narrative about the self (Kinnvall, 2004). Only actors who have a sense of biographical continuity and completeness recognized via relations with others feel ontologically secure. However, when ontological security becomes endangered due to a rupture in established relations and routines, then this situation may result in anxiety, paralysis or violence (Kinnvall & Mitzen, 2017).

Despite the fact that there is no direct link between insecurity and violence, having a stable self-identity is important for two reasons. Firstly, it enables states to maintain long-term social relations through which the ontological security is established. Secondly, the destabilisation of previously established routines and relations may result in violence or conflict. For these reasons, the aspect of anxiety is essential as it proposes that even relations that may be perceived as durable are always feeble to some extent (Kinnvall & Mitzen, 2017).

2.2.  Ontological (in)security and critical situations

A crisis is a substantial component in ontological security presenting a challenge to state’s identity. Defining crisis, I will not understand crisis as an “objective fact”. Instead, I will be using Jutta Weldes’s conception of understanding crisis as a social construct formed by the state officials for the purposes of production and reproduction of states’ identity. Thereupon, constructed crises forged in respect to specific identities will be manifested as a different crisis, if at all as a crisis, by different actors in spite of the crisis’s apparent similarity for states with various identities (Weldes, 1999). Corresponding self-identity threats happen when an unpredictable event influencing a vast number of individuals takes place and is recognised as a threat to the state’s or group’s identity (Steele, 2008).

Crisis disrupts established routines causing insecurity, which then leads to anxiety. Subsequently, states then use their biographical narrative and established routines in order to reduce anxiety and produce the feeling of biographical continuity (Mitzen, 2006). As Dmitri Chernobrov (2016) specified in his research, in order to rehabilitate, the ontological security events ought to be interpreted in a manner in which the self-identity of a state is reinforced. Accordingly, unanticipated international events need to be (re)imagined into something predictable and familiar, so the biographical continuity of a state is maintained. Chernobrov identified this to be important especially in relation to identity and boundary security as this process may motivate the political leaders to misinterpret critical events (Chernobrov, 2016).

Nevertheless, during the times of crisis as the situation is developing and new information arrives, we observe how narratives and our comprehension of what drives the critical situation alter. Recalling the definition of critical situation, these critical events are unpredictable; states cannot prepare for them. Therefore, when an actor faces an unpredictable situation, it must clarify what a situation may mean, how did the situation emerge, and what to do in the future in order to prevent this situation from happening again. However, if it is impossible to eliminate the reoccurrence of that situation, then such a situation would no longer be considered as critical because nation-states do not see it as falling within the competence of their agency. This shows how security interests change within the course of events (Steele, 2008).

2.3.  Role of Narratives in Ontological Security-seeking

Narratives are the foundation of self-identity’s sustainability. They are used to legitimise and give meaning to state actions. Via narratives, states are capable of connecting their behaviour with the comprehension of the self (Steele, 2008). Biographical narrative “constructs a reality as perceived by an actor…” so that “… State agents relate their identity to their actions and place the self in the context of a(n)(international) community” (Steele, 2008). Therefore, in consideration of stable public self-identity, biographical narratives are employed in political discourses (Marlow, 2002). Political leaders create narratives that give meaning to events and connect them, so they correspond with one another in a certain way: “narratives bind temporal events together such that meaning can be ascribed to a pattern. The organization of time itself endows meaning to events’’ (Bach, 1999 in Steele, 2008).

Our attention to ontological insecurity highlights the input to the narratives or stories we internally communicate about ourselves as well as the outside world. It makes us question the reasons behind our insecurity and existential anxieties as well as examine emotional responses to those feelings (Kinnvall & Mitzen, 2017). In this way, ontological security comprehension of identity and security distinguishes itself from constructivist or post-structural understanding. Individuals are not connected only via structure, but it is their reason, understanding of ideas, a way of communications and arrangements, heuristics and last but not least, emotional inter-subjectivity. Emotional inter-subjectivity enables individuals to continuously and frequently unconsciously obtain and deliver emotional messages. (Craib, 1989; Craib, 1994; Vogler, 2000 in Kinnvall & Mitzen, 2017). For that reason, the stress is given to the discursive construction of subject positions adopted by a certain social agent with the assistance of “choice and fantasy identification/emotional ‘investments’” (Barker, 1999; Hall, 1992; Kinnvall, 2012; Zarakol, 2010 in Kinnvall & Mitzen, 2017).

2.4.  Globalisation as an Insecurity

Globalisation is a phenomenon mostly described in terms of elimination of trade barriers, communication and cultural exchange that are being felt by ordinary citizens all over the world (Robertson, 1992). As a result, globalisation compresses geography, turning the world into a more unified and singular place (Waters, 2001). Hence, Giddens defined globalisation as “the intensification of worldwide social relations which links distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa” (Giddens, 1991). Due to this increased interconnectivity and interdependence, we have less control over our own surroundings. And as events happening elsewhere in the world become localised, globalisation became for many a source of security and certainty as much as a source of insecurity for the others (Kinnvall, 2004). Thus, globalisation divides people on those who benefit from globalisation and those who have been left behind.

Globalisation’s impact on politics, economics as well as human affairs has enormous social and economic consequences (Manners, 2000 in Kinvall, 2004). Rather undesirable consequences are feelings of alienation, loss of resistance to capitalist development, media overabundance, unemployment, forced immigration, and other transformational forces. Here, Kinnvall (2004) highlights the role of the neoliberal ideology in the globalisation process. The departure from Keynesian economics in 1970s aimed for greater liberalisation of markets. Thus, the adoption of monetarist macroeconomic policies and later structural adjustments programs in 1980s and 1990s, promoted privatisation and increased global competitiveness (Hurrell & Woods, 1999). The goal of these changes was to establish strong civil societies and stability. However, instead of creating a strong civil society, they have provoked social tension over job security among middle and lower-middle class people (Calhoun, 1994; Hoogvelt, 2001; Hurrell, 1999; Kolodner, 1995 in Kinnvall, 2004). Consequently, this situation of anxiety and uncertainty gave space to leaders who challenge the state with nationalist and anti-globalist claims (Kinnvall, 2004).

Moreover, globalisation and spread of democratic values strongly influenced social dislocation in many parts of the world. New democratic norms of equality and egalitarianism disapproved of the former hierarchical structures in many societies and impaired old patterns of behaviour as conventional power relations (Kolodner, 1995 in Kinnvall, 2004). Accordingly, Kinnvall (2004) recognises two aftereffects of these processes: (1) Globalisation altered the way things were done, which created the feeling of uncertainty; as well as (2) it altered the structures and bounds identifying communities, which has a disintegrative effect.

2.5.  Europeanisation as an Insecurity

Having connected globalisation with insecurity, I want to make further clarification in regard to globalisation. For the purposes of my thesis, I will not speak only of globalisation, but also Europeanisation because Europeanisation and globalisation are tightly interwoven. They stand on the values of neo-liberalism, representative democracy and open market economy (Ladi, 2006). Moreover, this step will be effective as in my thesis I will focus on the foreign policy of Slovakia in relation to the EU.  The logic goes that alike the economic crisis in 2009; the recent migration crisis reinitiated a forceful political debate on notions of “EU solidarity” and “EU values” putting political and cultural differences into the spotlight (Moisio, 2012).  Hence, the process of Europeanisation will refer to the social and political processes of European integration.

It is essential to note that European integration is understood differently across different geographical contexts in which “Europe” figures as a “differentially articulated concept, vision and project within self-defining national narratives” (Moisio, 2012). Meaning that European integration is perceived, legitimised, articulated as well as conducted in different ways. Therefore, Europe and European integration should be understood as a “travelling idea” which needs to be adapted to the historical and social context of national circumstances (Fleischmann, 2013). National political cultures comprise of specific concepts, framings of ideas as well as speeches. They shape our imagination and expression of European integration and Europe that in turn influence our experience and expectations (Antonsich, 2008; Manners, 2010; P., et al., 2005 in Moisio, 2012). From this perspective, constructing a certain image of European integration and globalisation plays an essential causal role in shaping policy discourses (Smith & Hay, 2008 in Moisio, 2012). As result of this, the EU and Europe are constantly challenged and open to reformulation in several national contexts. In return, the diversity of these concepts is beneficial to divergent political interests, whether national or international (Moisio, 2012). In this sense Europeanisation can be understood as a political unification project (Olsen, 2002). For instance, after the fall of Soviet Union, EU membership supplied certain identity-political needs in Central and Eastern Europe (Kuus, 2004; Kuus, 2005; Kuus, 2007; Dittmer, 2005 in Moisio, 2012). This goal stimulated the creation of the Visegrad Group in Central Europe shortly after the fall of Communism in 1991. Or as Rupnik noted about the V4: “forged with democratic ideals, aspirations and leadership… It also represented a strong opposition to nationalism… in the region. And thirdly, there was a European dimension—the common goal was to join Europe, to create a new Central Europe while simultaneously integrating it with the broader European project” (Rupnik, 2016). Moreover, in the context of the current Central European discourse, I consider Europeanisation to be a contested concept with two meanings. First, represented by the EU integration containing benefits such as four freedoms – free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour – and constitute a basis for the Single European Market. Second, which considers the Europeanisation to be a threat to state’s sovereignty and identity (Kazharski & Makarychev, 2018).

What is more, the processes of Europeanisation had an impact on political movements, parties, and how they legitimise or reject their European integration. For example, nowadays, we may observe a rise in the radical populist parties that often define themselves as Eurosceptic. As a rule, these parties always attain more attention in the times of crisis. Interestingly, these parties are many times capable of existing only because of the “Europeanised” political processes against which they situate themselves (Triandafyllidou & Wodak R and Krzyźanowski, 2009 in Moisio, 2012). This kind of behaviour was prominent during the economic crisis in 2009 as well as during the migration crisis. They usually put together the European integration with the “migration threat” and present it as a “national issue” (Triandafyllidou & Wodak R and Krzyźanowski, 2009 in Moisio, 2012). An excellent example of this kind of mobilisation was Nigel Farage’s political party UK Independence Party (UKIP) that mobilised people to vote for Brexit.

Overall, national traditions greatly influence our approach to European institutions, narratives and practices. Therefore, an understanding of the interplay among the national, the European and the global is highly essential to the understanding of my research (Moisio, 2012).

2.6.  Homesteading

As a result of the predisposition of individuals and groups to insecurities and anxieties in times of crisis, attachment to any “collective identity” to reduce the anxiety and insecurity became essential in maintaining identity. One of the most effective reactions is the combination of religion and nationalism that act as “identity signifier” arising in the times of ontological insecurity as a result of dramatic change and uncertain future. Nationalism and religion work well together because of their particularly persuasive narratives and beliefs conveying simple messages that give us a solid ground when constituting a “true” world with a “meaning”. They can easily provide us with the image of security, stability and meaningfulness (Kinnvall, 2004).

As Kinnvall argues, the comeback of religious nationalism is a reaction to anxiety and discontinuity caused by globalisation that is making us feel “homeless”. On the contrary to that, religious nationalism is perceived as “home”, something we are already familiar with (Kinnvall, 2004). In this sense, the category of “home” possesses the qualities of security and certainty creating a foundation for identity construction (Dupuis & Thorns, 1998 in Kinnvall, 2004). For that reason, “homesteading” is a strategy of ontological security seeking that is “making and shaping a political space for oneself in order to surpass the life of contradictions and anxieties of homelessness” (Kinnvall, 2004). Homesteading calls for “simple definitions of who we are” in order to maintain a sense of continuity in our social and economic environment (Kinnvall, 2004). However, when our sense of security vanishes in response to social and economic changes, new identity – new home has to be established for the purposes of maintenance of ontological security (Kinnvall, 2004). Consequently, this process of identity affirmation always happens in relation to the “other”. This means that the “self” is not a static object but heavily depends on the greater process of identity construction and that the self/other nexus is reactive to new relations (Ogilvie & Ashmore, 1991 in Kinnvall, 2004). Nonetheless, this process of reaffirmation of identity is being misused by political leaders that use the power of emotions in order to advance their political goals. This close connection of Europeanisation with insecurity was also apparent in 2015 in Europe when the migration crisis emerged. Migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees were and still are securitized by populists in many European countries including Slovakia, as threats to our economic and social systems as well as to our culture, for political goals. Kinnvall (2004), also demonstrated this in an example when after 9/11 national governments increased security and closed borders for immigrants in response to their citizen’s fears. Subsequently, this policy and anti-immigration rhetoric became the norm and were used for mass mobilisation of voters (Kinnvall, 2004).

2.7.  Challenges of theory

The challenges of this theory come from its diversity. The scholarship of ontological security varies greatly and has no coherent research agenda. It focuses on the different level of analysis (individual, society, group, state). Furthermore, it focuses on diverse political outcomes (cooperation, conflict, violence; stability or change) and different methods (quantitative, qualitative and discursive). While this at first could seem very problematic, scholars found these disparities to be highly productive, even leading to cross-fertilisation, collaborations and better understanding of our own approaches. Hence, the scholars do not perceive the lack of coherent research agenda of ontological security negatively. On the contrary, the pluralistic agenda of this theory enables us to explore possibilities of this concept’s application in world politics, thus avoiding early conclusions (Kinnvall & Mitzen, 2017). Even though, I have focused on the discursive foreign policy analysis of Slovakia, the paper is not only focused on the structural understanding of identity and insecurity. I also combine the societal comprehension of changes, their way of communication and interpretation. In general, my research relates to the bigger debate about globalisation/Europeanisation and the understanding of (in)security in the world politics.

3. Methodological Approach

This research adopts qualitative foreign policy discourse analysis as the main analytical tool, which helps us to understand discourse practices in Slovakia’s foreign policy in between 2015 and 2017. My object of analysis is discourse practices – speeches, actions as well as material objects – that help us to understand how cultural meanings are produced and understood. To my research, it was not important to collect all data available, but enough data to reveal positive patterns and answers. I have finished gathering new data when the collected information had not generated any new knowledge or substantial information altering research conclusions. Gathering data, I used Jutta Weldes’ (2006) method of intertextuality distinguishing between official (high-data) and semi-official discourse (low-data). Intertextuality emphasizes that text and concepts are never understood in isolation. This method enables us to demonstrate and explain notice-worthy resemblances in the fashion of how world politics are narrated officially in contrast to how the media tells stories. Thus, connected via multifaced interactions, high and low data create intertextual knowledge or so-called “image banks” that we have and influence the way we produce meanings in a certain way, rather than other (Fiske 1987 cited in Weldes, 2006).

The official discourse consists of discursive practices conducted by individuals who directly and officially participate in the exercise of power. Since foreign policy is the main domain of the prime minister, the president and the minister of foreign and international relations as well as diplomats, I consider their speech-acts to be the primary source of my data (Weldes, 2006). Moreover, I analyse policy documents and other policy statements, White Papers, reports from government ministries, departments, and agencies because they exhibit well-prepared representations of narratives offered by the elites. Additionally, I examine academic literature and magazines such as Visegrad Insight, and The Economist, that usually articulate the official neoliberal visions.

Semi-official discourse is important for my research because the intertextuality or the base for the understanding of concepts in the discourse is settled in as the low data. Here, I focus on actors who are not directly involved in the power structures yet are connected with it. Those are non-governmental organisations or think tanks (Weldes, 2006). Moreover, for my secondary sources, I also relied on the interpretations of discourse by other researchers. Finally, I analyse newspapers that are fundamental for the reproduction and contestation of official discourses. My sources are predominantly from EurActive, Politico and Reuters.

Looking mostly at Slovakia’s relations with the EU, I have identified several key events that had an impact on shaping the course of Slovak foreign policy. Collecting data, I have been following timeline starting with the migration crisis in 2015, which acted as a catalyst that incentivised the discursive disagreement between the EU institutions and Western European member states on one hand and Eastern European states on the other (Kazharski, 2017). Accordingly, over the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the EU, Slovakia had to balance its interests on a diplomatic level as former close cooperation with other V4 became contested. Then, in the aftermath of Brexit, when Juncker’s White paper and the results of French elections saw the possibility of a multi-speed Europe put on the agenda, Slovakia took more pragmatic orientation towards the EU causing an internal split within the V4. This shift confirmed the opportunistic foreign policy, which is not driven by the normative agenda. In the end, I highlight actions undertaken which demonstrate the Bratislava’s orientation on the core of the EU, such as Posted workers directive or an agreement on Permanent Structured Cooperation – PESCO.

4. Empirical Analysis

4.1.  Fear of the other

In this chapter, I focus on the migration crisis in 2015 and insecurity it caused across Europe. By looking at securitisation as a discursive action, I explain how the fear of migrants was constructed in Slovakia. This emphasizes the role of populist domestic policy in shaping foreign policy. Consequently, I focus on the East-West divide and the foreign policy of the Visegrad Group as a whole, which shaped the image of Central Europe highlighting how Slovakia used the Visegrad Group as a tool to fight some aspects of Europeanisation in relation to migration policies.

4.1.1. Migration crisis as the source of Anxiety

The refugee crisis caused a whirlwind of emotions, arguments, votes and political identities across Europe (Krastev, 2017). As Ivan Krastev named it: “The refugee crisis turned out to be Europe’s 9/11” (Krastev, 2017). Meaning that the migration crisis was a test of survival for the EU because, while the crisis bolstered national sentiments, it also weakened the likelihood of constitutional patriotism in the EU. In this time people called for the protection of their own political communities in referendums, opting for exclusion rather than inclusion (Krastev, 2017). In this regard, the migration crisis caused a “moral combat” in politics, emptying moral distinctions between us and them – people and the elite (Radnóti, 2017). The response to refugees varied greatly. The initial acts of openness towards war refugees in Austria and Germany is now generally dominated by anxiety, fear of foreigners and Islamic culture (Krastev, 2017).  Many people who call for national sovereignty fear that by letting the refugees in, their national welfare system will suffer and that the refugees will devastate our culture together with our liberal societies. These people are anxious and at the sources of their moral panic are Islamisation, terrorism and generic fear of the unknown (Krastev, 2017). However, even this anxiety connected to refugees and multiculturalism is partially in conflict with our liberal values such as respect for democracy, civil and human rights and internationalism, which we say we want to protect. On one hand, liberalism advocates for mutual respect and multiculturalism, but on the other, it is crucial to note that migrants often share attitudes contrary to these. Nonetheless, the moral problems of whether to help refugees or generalisations that all of them are Islamic terrorists are incompatible with liberal society’s excuses concerning the protection of identity or national culture. Because such visions about society and its future image are not morally acceptable and compatible with the political liberal values guaranteeing freedom of an individual and equality. In such cases when a state accepts people from various backgrounds, it is to strongly stand by its values and liberal principles and to demand them (Cíbik, 2017).

Yet the discussion, which tinged many European states, including Slovakia, went totally in the opposite direction. Before the refugee crisis in 2015, migration was not an issue in Slovakia. Therefore, it was highly interesting to observe how the migration topic quickly standardised in Slovakia when it was not the destination country nor the transit country. The discourse about refugees interpreting migration as a security threat was normalised by the opposition parties as well as by the highest government officials apart from the President Andrej Kiska. As a result, their perception of migration as a threat dominated not only the political life, but it also entered the legal framework of the country. In December 2016, the National Parliament passed a constitutional anti-terrorist act which enabled the police to hold a person suspected of committing terrorist offenses in custody for 96 hours instead of former 48 hours (Ministerstvo vnútra SR, 2016). The enemy-building strategy against refugees was an essential part of creating anxiety and moral panic. The picture of immigrants and refugees as a potential danger became accepted in everyday life and public institutions such as police, politicians and bureaucrats (Androvičová, 2016). Here, I find it essential to mind the sequence of events which had an impact on the discourse about migrants and subsequent shaping of the foreign policy agenda. The refugee crisis started less than a year before the parliamentary election in March 2016. Hence, it was not only the unexpected migration crisis which stipulated the debate about the migration in Slovakia, but it was also the agenda-setting by politicians, media and political analysts in the pre-election period. Eventually, this topic completely dominated every aspect of the elections campaign. During this period, migrants were discriminated against based on their religion, culture and ethnicity by many state officials who delivered emotional messages to people that Islam and Islamic culture are a danger to our society (Androvičová, 2016). At the celebration of the 71st anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising in August 2015, Robert Fico had a more than thirty-minute-long speech about the negative aspects and impacts of “influx of migrants” on national culture and values (TASR, 2016). He noted that people must not underestimate or ignore this problem. Overall, the prime minister Robert Fico whose socially democratic party SMER-SD had the majority in the parliament before the elections was probably the most active when commenting on migration. Others who very actively contributed to the discourse were Richard Sulík, leader of the liberal opposition party (SaS) and a member of the European Parliament, then Andrej Danko, leader of the Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS) and leader of the extreme far-right party Marián Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) and others. Also, during that time Slovak celebrity businessman with controversial background and now populist politician, bought a political party which he renamed to Boris Kollár-We are Family and ran on the migration issue too. This implies that the anti-immigration discourse dominated the political discourse across the whole political spectrum and there was no real opposition among political parties which would confront the ideas of the ruling party. However, in my analysis, I focus predominantly on the government’s position as they were shaping the official state’s foreign policy.

Having shown the migration discourse caused anxiety in Europe as well as Slovakia, consequently, I present how the securitization of migrants played an important role on the domestic level in ontological-security seeking. In this analysis, I have stressed the usage of “homesteading” strategy by the populist politicians in the context of the parliamentary elections to invoke the collective identity that eventually lead to the enforcement of the anxiety triggered by the migration crisis.

The securitisation of refugees polarised societies into “us” and “them” which is also known as “othering” (Neumann, 1999). In this political discourse, “us” represented the national, cultural, religious and ethnic attributes connected to Slovaks, which were not compatible with the Muslim religion and their cultural heritage. While “the others” – migrants – were labelled as a danger to Slovak citizens because of their other unfamiliar culture and rather violent religion (Androvičová, 2016). Thus, refugees and immigrants were excluded based on their culture, religion and ethnicity in order to surpass the anxiety caused by the migration crisis. Analysing the securitisation of migration, the most important assertion was that Slovaks would not give up any of their comfort or safety. Politicians advocating against migration wanted to keep the status quo and acted as if the migrants were just a problem they have to cope with. People were presented with simple messages carrying definitions of who they are and what Slovakia as our “home” is like – Christian, traditional and nationalistic in order to overcome the anxiety and contradictions. While refugees were portrayed as, “economic migrants” who only want the “social benefits” and did not need help at all because most of them were just “young men” looking for a job. This nationalistic rhetoric was continuously coupled with the religious aspect (Androvičová, 2016). Islam was perceived as a violent religion and any Muslim could be a potential terrorist. Connecting November terrorist attacks in Paris and the 2017 New Year’s attack in Cologne together with migration and Islam, Robert Fico many times repeated that “Muslims are impossible to integrate” (Baribazzi, 2016).  Therefore, later Fico together with Robert Kaliňák, Minister of Interior, claimed that Slovakia is willing to accept only Christian migrants. Defending their statement, they explained that this step would not be discriminatory against religion because only Christian migrants can be “integrated transparently” (Smith-Spark, 2015). Speaking of transparency, Fico also publicly stated, “We are monitoring every single Muslim” (Buchanan, 2015). This statement has attained broader attention to Fico’s anti-migration policy and the V4 in the world. It highlighted the securitised aspect of migration and put him in a position of a police officer or an agent protecting Slovakia from migrants.

Proceeding to the analysis of securitisation and its impact on the foreign policy, I emphasize how Fico’s approach to the EU depended on the audience. When in Brussels, he mostly tried to stay in line with the EU official whereas at the domestic level he was using the anti-EU rhetoric to advance his position. In his statements, he often referred to Slovakia as a “small” nation (Androvičová, 2016). This category had two meanings. First, one was used in terms of resources saying that Slovakia has enough problems of its own and is not able to integrate refugees. The second meaning referred to the strength of Slovakia’s voice in the EU. Fico often blamed the bigger states in the EU for not taking the opinions of smaller states seriously. He expressed that: “The problem of migrants has escalated because the big countries solve it at the expense of the small ones” (Androvičová, 2016). Henceforth, constructing the EU as an external other exposed how the Central European states felt about the migration crisis. It is best described by Ivan Korčok’s personal online blog in which he explains: “Exaggerating a little, it shows experience from the Union: if one state in the Union – or a group of member states like the V4 – expresses its opinion or even disagreement, it is perceived as breaking of the unity of the Union, while if the opinion expresses another other state or a group, it is seen as a demonstration of an attitude or leadership” (Korčok, 2017). Accordingly, this discourse uncovers another element of inclusion and exclusion. On the domestic level, Europeanism was constructed as an external other – “Bad Brussels”– undermining national state sovereignty and misusing the principle of subsidiarity. Whereas on different occasions, when talking about the Schengen area and guarding of external borders in Brussels, the EU was considered as an in-group (Androvičová, 2016). Such double standards show us how on one level Slovakia tried to reason its negative attitude towards the EU on the basis of their comprehension of the self, while on the other hand, abroad Slovakia tried to sustain its self-identity as a pro-EU country.

Nonetheless, the situation concerning the refugee crisis escalated to the conflict with the EC over the contentious EU quota plan reallocating 120 thousand migrants. The quota plan was based on the idea that refugees coming to the frontier states, such as Italy or Greece would be reallocated to other European states. The proposal was controversial due to a potential measure, which would fee a country for €250,000 per migrant if it refuses to take in the asylum-seekers allocated by the quota system. However, the quota system met with strong opposition from Visegrad and some other eastern states opening the East-West divide. “As long as I am prime minister, mandatory quotas will not be implemented on Slovak territory,” (Nielsen & Eszter, 2015) Fico said, arguing that he wants to prevent “the emergence of a compact Muslim community in Slovakia” (Gabrižova, 2016). The founding member states and EU representatives heavily criticized this stance. For instance, Frans Timmermans commented: “There is no à la carte solidarity in the European Union. You cannot pick and choose when to show solidarity or not” (Winneker, 2015). Preceding the actual official voting on the quota system in the European Council, long negotiations were held which tried to reach a unanimous decision. However, the countries never managed to find a common ground. For that reason, the voting took place on the ministerial level based on simple majority voting instead of the Council, which requires unanimous approval. In the end, the EU interior ministers approved the quota plan by a large majority opposing the central and eastern European states (Baribazzi & De La Baume, 2015). Later, Slovakia together with Hungary took the reallocation scheme to the Court of Justice (The Slovak Spectator, 2017). These actions too echoed abroad and greatly contributed to the image of illiberal Central Europe as the Visegrad Group, which was blamed for not being solidary and tagged as “The Big Bad Visegrad” (The Economist, 2016). However, such an image of Slovakia in the world was contrary to how it wanted to present itself what endangered Bratislava’s biographical continuity.

Owing to the conflict over the quota system, the focus shifted to Slovakia’s foreign policy actions. Slovak Minister of Foreign and International Affairs, Miroslav Lajčák[1], in an interview for German media Deutsche Welle, explained why the accusations against Slovakia discriminating against migrants based on religion are not true. In the interview, he expressed that the government’s party, SMER’s, anti-migration strategy was only aimed at the domestic audience to maximise the voter potential during parliamentary elections and how Europeanisation is perceived in Slovakia. Therefore, the transcript of his interview is worth quoting here at some length:

“The fact that we turned to the court is not an unprecedented thing, it is a normal instrument of European politics. Let’s have the court decide. And I see absolutely no contradiction and absolutely no problem in that.”

“Everyone who has ever asked for asylum in Slovakia was granted asylum if that person met the conditions. There was never any discrimination based on religion. (…) You should see these statements in the context of the electoral campaign. People felt I would say, under pressure from the EU institutions that were pushing them into something which was new to them. They were not used to it, so they reacted with fear. And you have to understand the fact that there are countries which have been open to other cultures for centuries, and there are countries for whom this is a new experience. And this cannot be ordered overnight. It has to be a process. You have to explain it to people. They have to get used to it (…). And we have an excellent model in Slovakia where we are hosting migrants who applied for a settlement in Austria, but they stay in Slovakia, we take care of them…1200…this is the reality, and this is what helps our people to get used to them.”

“Our people have not been exposed to Muslims and they are frightened. It’s a new phenomenon for them (…). Hundreds of Muslims mean nothing in Belgium or London, but it does mean something in Slovakia (…) “People are afraid of what they don’t know” (Lajčák, 2016).

The interview gives us the grasp of what was the goal of SMER-SD’s anti-immigration pre-election campaign, in which the main slogan was “We protect Slovakia” (Cunningham, 2016). It shows the understanding of Slovakia as very conservative, closed or even xenophobic society. SMER-SD, as well as other political parties, took take advantage of this during their campaign. Nonetheless, it was expected that after the elections strong anti-immigration discourse would disappear. However, Fico kept his rhetoric for a bit longer. “It may look strange but sorry… Islam has no place in Slovakia,” (The Slovak Spectator, 2016) Fico opined against the quota on the 25th of May, arguing that multiculturalism would threaten Slovakia’s Cyrilo-Methodian traditions. “I talked about it several times with the Maltese prime minister and he said the problem was not in migrants coming in, but rather in them changing the face of the country” (The Slovak Spectator, 2016). Further, he alleged that it was his obligation to protect Slovakia from negative experiences, which had already been seen in other European states. He was referring to such events as in Cologne, Germany during the New Year’s celebration, when around 80 women reported sexual assaults and muggings by men of “Arab or North African appearance” (BBC News, 2016). Putting himself into the role of protector of Slovak nation and traditional values, he again confirmed the anti-immigration line of Slovak foreign policy, acting contrary to the EU. This line of continued campaign mode suggests that, if not for Brexit, which opened the question of Europe’s future, Fico’s nationalistic and anti-immigrant strategy would continue. Nevertheless, this empirical analysis of the securitisation of migration was essential because it highlighted how the state officials and other political parties constructed the critical situation. The migration crisis was interpreted as a critical situation, which challenged Slovakia’s identity. And as the relationship between Slovakia and the EU was hampered by the anti-immigrant line of Slovak foreign policy, the system of trust between them lowered. These developments caused the feeling of anxiety, especially after Brexit when the discussions about the future of the EU set off. As a result, Slovakia’s biographical continuity was damaged due to the rupture in routine that endangered the Slovak ontological security.

To conclude, during the parliamentary elections in Slovakia 2016, the migration agenda was heavily politicised and used in the campaign by the mainstream political parties, which adopted the rhetoric of far-right parties. The anti-globalist tendency can be seen through the nationalistic narrative, that dominated the whole political spectrum. Populist politicians have “othered” migrants by claiming that their cultural values and lifestyle are incompatible with our Christian heritage and European values. As migrants became defined as a threat, many people felt as if their well-being was endangered – they were trapped in a moral panic. So, it was relatively easy for the populist political parties to make use of this critical situation and used the strategy of “homesteading” to convince people that they knew best how to protect a nation from a potential danger. It created the feeling of uncertainty and anxiety challenging ontological security. The securitisation of migrants on the domestic level consequently shaped Slovakia’s foreign policy and negatively challenged Slovakia’s identity abroad. By presenting the migration crisis as a national security issue, Europeanisation with regards to EU migration policy was constructed as a negative phenomenon threatening Slovakia’s national sovereignty.

4.1.2. Visegrad Group as Pragmatic Instrument and Political Burden

As the discourse around the migration crisis gave “an unsettling new direction to an old alliance”, many started to question the Central European identity (The Economist, 2016). Nationalism, illiberalism and conservativism tinged the dominant political discourse. As Rupnik (2016) noted referring to Kundera’s (1989) “Tragedy of Central Europe”: “what was once referred to as the ‘kidnapped West’ now seems to imitate its former captor”. Over the year 2016, the Visegrad Group worked together in Brussels as a united block on issues concerning migration (Nič, 2016). Their behaviour and actions were perceived negatively and were blamed for not being solidary enough. Some expected that the Visegrad countries could create an opposition block within the EU that arguably had a negative impact on Slovakia’s foreign policy actions concerning migration policies. However, from Slovakia’s position, such assumptions were false and misunderstood their cooperation. The role of the alliance is to “act as an amplifier, an ad hoc coalition, reinforcing regional positions where they exist” (Nič, 2016). Diplomat R. Káčer and State Secretary I. Korčok confirmed this perception in interviews many times. Especially, R. Káčer noted that “I am very much interested in regional cooperation within the Visegrad Four, but Slovakia’s vital interest is the EU” (Káčer, 2017). Here it is important to mention that apart from Visegrad Fund, the block is not formally institutionalised and mainly works through diplomatic structures and that their positions are steered by domestic politics and state leaders. Despite the fact that Visegrad state leaders may have seemed close during the refugee crisis, there has been a radical shift in their relations following Brexit. The divisions have arisen over the divergent ideas of country leaders about the future of the EU and role of the EU institutions. Dividing Central Europe, Slovakia together with Czech government, kept a more pragmatic attitude towards the EU while Hungary formed an illiberal axis with Poland (Nič, 2016). So, we see that the Visegrad Group is not a unified regional cooperation working systematically together and each state minds its own national interests (Marušiak, 2017).

In the aftermath of Brexit which changed the international environment as the EU states started to initiate discussions about the future of Europe, Fico stated that Bratislava should be part of a deeply integrated EU “core” driven by Germany and France (Jancarikova, 2017) Hence, as the situation changed, Bratislava altered its interests. Though, the unfavourable image of Visegrad had an impact on the recognition of Bratislava foreign policy actions. Wanting to re-establish the trust and previous relations with the EU, Slovakia introduced the concept of “flexible solidarity” which should have had been a replacement for the quota system. “Flexible solidarity” was based on the principle that the distribution mechanism of refugees should be voluntary, and that it should be up to countries to decide how they want to contribute in emergency situations. The heads of governments of the V4 countries supported the idea of “flexible solidarity” on migration policy. In September 2016 in Bratislava, they even signed a Joint Statement before the non-formal Bratislava summit organized within the framework of Slovak presidency (Végh, 2017). But this proposal was not affirmed by the Western member states. It was not recognized positively which also contributed to ontological insecurity. Later, in mid-November Slovakia presented a renewed, but less known concept for managing migration flows called “effective solidarity”. It was a plan based on “tailored solidarity contribution mechanism” which would provide a state with more opportunities for how to ease the critical situation. Apart from the reallocation of refugees, it enabled states to give financial contributions to the frontier states; to a fund dedicated to migration or raise funds either to the European Asylum Support Office or to the European Border and Coast Guard. Though, it was noted that the concept of the “effective solidarity” is not much different from the Commission’s proposed reform of the Dublin agreement about asylum-seekers. Nevertheless, both proposals were not acknowledged. Arguably, it was mainly due to the negative perception of Visegrad countries abroad as the proposals were seen only as a PR action to improve the image of Visegrad countries (Végh, 2017). By interpreting the role of the Visegrad group in the migration crisis, I wanted to underline that to Slovakia, the V4 served only as a pragmatic political instrument for enforcing the voice of Slovakia abroad. Yet, as the Slovak interest changed, the V4 became a political burden damaging Bratislava’s image and relations. Moreover, the sequence of events only confirms the pragmatic and opportunistic line of Bratislava’s foreign policy in regard to the Europeanisation.

Gradually, Bratislava started to back away from regional politics more visibly. In spring 2017 Fico clearly proclaimed that he wanted Slovakia to belong to the core of Europe and that the Visegrad “cannot be an alternative to European integration” (SFPA, 2017). The shift towards the EU core in foreign policy made Slovakia a “pro-European island” within the region (Reuters, 2017). However, the detour from the V4 does not mean that Bratislava will give up on the V4 as a power instrument in the future in spite of the bad image of the V4, nor that Bratislava will become critical of the domestic situation in Poland or Hungary (Káčer, 2017). As Fico said, he would never dare to comment on the domestic situation in either of the mentioned states, he is only “glad that Slovakia has become a pro-European island in this region” (Euractiv; Reuters, 2017). This positive image of Slovakia abroad even reinforced its previous identity as a pro-EU country also gaining positive reception of its politics from Brussels even though Bratislava did not get better, just the others (V4) got worse. And Bratislava’s identity as a pro-EU country was finally recognised by other EU states and secured Slovakia ontologically. The inability of Slovakia to re-establish the routine would probably lead to even bigger anxiety or paralysis.

In sum, due to the construction of the refugee crisis as a threat to national security and identity, the biographical continuity of Slovakia was disrupted. The general feeling of anxiety and insecurity over this critical situation connected the Visegrad countries. Although each of them had a different motivation for cooperation, together they opposed the Western member states and EU positions in regard to migration. After Brexit, however, the European “mood” changed and Bratislava wanting to avoid anxiety, reflected on the international situation by abandoning regional cooperation and warming towards the EU. This shift of Slovakia towards the EU was a response to the changing environment in the EU after the Brexit. Thus, Bratislava wanting to secure itself changed its interest. Yet, this turn also reinforced the identity of Slovakia as a pro-EU country. Thanks to this, Slovakia was perceived as “pro-EU island” or the “bridge” in between the EU and illiberal Polish-Hungarian axis (Gabrižova, 2017). Nevertheless, on domestic grounds, the government sells pro-Europeanism in rather social and economic terms while European values remain more or less on the periphery (Gabrižova, 2017).

4.2. Fear of being left behind

In the second part of my argument, I explain that Slovak foreign policy orientation on the core of the EU was driven by the fear of being left behind. In order to grasp the full meaning of this argument, I reconstruct the broader cultural context of Slovakia’s history going as far back as 1848. This emphasizes the political dimension of the argument about how Slovakia, perceiving itself as a small state, needs to articulate its identity as a part of a bigger entity. Subsequently, I proceed to the 20th Century emphasizing Slovakia’s independence and events following the year 1998 when Slovak foreign policy goal was to join the EU and NATO in order to catch up with the West that pinpoints the economic dimension of the argument. Then, following the crucial year 2004 as Slovakia enters the EU and 2008 when the global economic crisis emerges, I analyse how our foreign policy decisions in 2016 and onwards revolve around catching up with the West. In the end, despite seeming consensus on the foreign policy strategy, I point at the inconsistency on the domestic level among the state leaders.

4.2.1. Slovakia’s “Identity of smallness” and the idea of Pan-Slavism

History and connected historical memory are sources of significant events and stereotypical thinking that are subjective, selective, changeable and influence foreign policy thinking. Therefore, when analysing the impact of Slovak history on foreign policy discourse, it is not important to know how things really were, but how we remember, imagine and explain concrete events (Gniazdowski in Maručiak et al., 2015). Historically, Slovakia lacks the experience of being a small independent state (Reiter, 2006). The modern state was established only in 1993, while apart from that, Slovakia has always been part of some other bigger state formation. This contributed to Slovakia’s self-perception as a small state. Thus, identifying Slovakia as a small state, Szalai (2017) argued that the “identity of smallness” reflects actor’s image of its size and weaknesses in the international arena that in turn influence the foreign policy (Szalai, 2017). He noted, that these states are geographically limited to their location and have the tendency to adjoin themselves to some bigger entity that would guarantee their security. Slovakia’s integration to the Euro-Atlantic structures was also a result of the lack of possibilities concluded from smallness. Though this orientation provided Slovakia with operational space for the application of national needs and broader autonomy for foreign policy decisions. Rejecting the East and its communist past, the foreign policy interest was aimed at balancing between politico-security alliance with the USA and the EU integration process, which later transformed into the EU and NATO membership and “made Slovakia an equal partner among modern democracies” (SIIS 2003; SFPA 2005 in Szalai, 2017). Hence, Slovakia’s self-perception as a small state accentuates the necessity of a sense of wider community which they can hinge on while the integration to the Euro-Atlantic structures demonstrates the importance of these structures to Slovak foreign policy self-identity: “The Slovak Republic has transformed from a country striving to strengthen its identity and prove itself, building administrative capacities and its position in international relations almost from zero – to a country which is firmly anchored in reliable and secure integration structures of the world” (SFPA 2004; SFPA 2008 in Szalai, 2017).

This need for a sense of wider community probably stems from the Slovak revolutionary period in 1848/1849 when Slovak nationalism sparked. Attempting to emancipate from the control of Hungarian empire or later Habsburg monarchy, Slovak identity was formed in opposition to the West represented by the Monarchy and other sub-ordinated nations (Marušiak, 2016). Hence, Slovak revolutionaries and intellectual elites turned over to Russia, as it was the only independent Slavic nation and for Slovaks represented a way to a liberalisation. The concept of “Slavic unity” or so-called Pan-Slavism represented this worldview (Marušiak, 2016). Whether this concept was aimed at the ultimate rejection of the West due to cultural reasons (Bombík, 1993 in Marušiak, 2016), or pragmatic reasons to receive Russia’s support to emancipate Central European nations (Matula in Marušiak, 2016), this worldview influenced Slovak foreign policy orientation to a great extent in how it articulates its identity as a part of bigger entity for security reasons. For instance, when the Slovak republic was established, this legacy challenged a discussion regarding Slovak geopolitical orientation to the West (Marušiak, 2016).

Altogether, this short historical overview has shown us how Slovakia’s short history as a small independent state and the idea of Pan-Slavism influenced Slovakia’s self-identity, which needs to articulate its identity as a part of a bigger entity. Subsequently, I focus on the incentives of Slovakia to adjoin the EU while highlighting how Slovakia fought for its recognition as a democratic and Western country.

4.2.2. Slovak Identity Formation after 1990s

The fundamental democratic and intellectual discussions about the nature of Slovak identity could be established only following the democratization and independence after the fall of communism in the 1990s (Hamberger, 2002 in Szalai, 2017). This process was extremely hard as the nation-state building and democratization many times contradicted themselves and the question of Slovak national identity polarised society on many levels (Szomolányi, 2003). As a result, Slovakia’s identity is not stabilised and fixed, but rather flexible and often contradicting (Szalai, 2017).

After Slovakia gained independence, the leading political parties agreed on foreign policy orientation and priority: “achieving early membership of the decisive institutions and integrating structures of the Western world” represented by the EU and NATO (Duleba, Lukác, Wlachovsky, 1998 in Szalai, 2017).  Accordingly, Slovakia together with other post-communist Central European states started a regional cooperation by establishing the Visegrad Group that “tried to distance their countries from Russia and the geopolitical legacy of Soviet dominance” as well as to settle the differences among the V4 states (Nič, 2016). However, due to the semi-authoritarian government of Vladimír Mečiar’s (1993–1997) which officially complied with the Euro-Atlantic orientation and integration, but unofficially was “building up [the country’s] own political and economic power” by keeping a large state control (Duleba, Lukác, and Wlachovsky 1998 in Szalai, 2017) caused Slovakia to lag behind (Bátora, 2013). Even-though, Slovakia was still a democracy, the democratic institutions were extremely fragile, and Slovakia became known as illiberal democracy (Szomolányi, 2003).

This form of behaviour excluded Slovakia from being part of a group of candidate states aspiring to join EU and NATO. In 1997 at the Madrid Summit, Slovakia was eliminated from the first wave of NATO enlargement due to the failure to fulfil the political criteria. At the summit, the NATO membership invitation was sent out to all other V4 member states, which presented a vital challenge to Slovakia’s government and general population (Bátora, 2013). The act of omission of Slovakia from integration to NATO structures, put Slovakia in a position with a high risk of staying at the political and economic periphery, isolated from the rest of the democratising states and integration process. In words of NATO Secretary General Solana: “The foreign policy orientation of Slovakia has become hard to understand (…) concrete measures towards the accession process” both to the EU and NATO “have disappeared” (Necej 2005 in Bátora, 2013). The exclusion from democratising group earned Slovakia a nickname “black hole of Europe” which was first used by Madeleine Albright in 1997 (Bátora, 2013). This perception was contradictory to how Slovak population and government wanted to see themselves, which reflected itself in breakthrough elections in 1998.

The Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) formed a new government with Mikuláš Dzurinda as the new Prime Minister (1998 – 2006). Consolidating democracy, he introduced extensive political and economic reforms. Dzurinda presented Slovakia as a country that respects human rights, adheres to the rule of law and can be considered as a reliable partner that was supposed to lead Slovakia to the EU and NATO (Inter Press Service, 2007 in Bátora, 2013). At the beginning Slovakia was labelled as a “late comer” what was caused by Mečiar’s policies, but this has changed. Dzurinda’s government received a new label symbolising growth and transformation – “Tatra Tiger” (Pisárová, 2004). Already in December 1999, Slovakia’s efforts were rewarded by receiving an invitation to start the EU negotiations on full-membership and by joining the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the year 2000 (Mesežnikov, 2001 in Marušiak & Poláčiková, 2013). Seeking recognition, Slovakia even opened up its airspace and territory for NATO’s operation in Kosovo, which was a very delicate decision of the Slovak National Council but showed a great willingness to belong the West (Bátora, 2013). Emphasizing the role of EU conditionality in the Slovak consolidation process and how Slovakia fought for its recognition, I have shown how Dzurinda’s government demonstrated the willingness to comply with the EU values and standards (the Europeanisation). The adoption of EU’s acquis communautaire completely transformed the socio-political and economic situation and Slovakia became a promising candidate for 2004 enlargement of the EU. By 2003, international position and perception of Slovakia improved to a great extent. Democracy reached an early stage of consolidation and managed to catch up with the other V4 and other European states. While in 1997 Slovakia’s Freedom House democracy rating was 3.80 alongside Russia, Moldavia and Macedonia, in 2003 Slovakia was on the same level as Hungary receiving – 1.81 which was the third best result following Poland and Slovenia (Szomolányi, 2003).

The empirical analysis of why Slovakia lagged behind in the EU integration process before 2004 was essential for understanding of fear of being left behind. At the beginning of the 1990’s it was democracy and restoration of national statehood that drove us forward. Slovakia’s membership in the EU was a civilisation option (Marušiak, 2017). We wanted to catch up with the West and our membership in the EU symbolised this goal. Therefore, it was that very experience of being at the periphery, behind other post-communist states and fighting for our place in the West that shaped our identity (Marušiak, 2017). Moreover, building on historical and cultural reasons for integration, the EU was perceived also as a tool for modernisation. The economic convergence with the Western standards was perceived as one of the benefits of EU membership and as a payoff for burdensome social costs and difficult transformation to a market economy in 1990s (Marušiak, 2013). Unfortunately, the global economic crisis in 2008/2009 together with other consequent crisis held Slovakia up realising that catching up with the West might last for generations if it continues (Marušiak, 2013).

Summing up, this section demonstrated how Slovakia, rejecting its post-communist past fought for its recognition as a Western democracy while founding its security and identity on the membership in the EU and NATO. Additionally, in the following section, I accentuate how Bratislava approaches the process of Europeanisation and how the perception of Europeanisation from the economic as well as political in domestic policy influences foreign policy.

4.2.3. From the periphery to the core. Or still catching up?

Since the establishment of an independent republic, Slovakia managed to establish itself politically and become a valuable member of international society. Slovakia, fighting for its position in the West underwent many political and socio-economic changes. They completely transformed its society in order to get from the political and economic periphery to the centre represented by the West. The 2004 enlargement of the EU was not celebrated only by Slovaks, but the whole of Europe as the reunification of Europe (Rupnik, 2016). However today, Europe may be more divided than before. Meaning that despite Slovakia joined the EU as well as NATO, the sense of inequality towards the West still persists. Whether it concerns the levelling of the living standards, wages or quality of food, the feeling of being treated as colonies remains (Marušiak, 2017). The “feeling of inequality” and the need to catch up could be categorized into two dimensions – economic and political. The citizens in their everyday lives naturally feel the economic dimension more, while the political dimension represents how seriously the voice of Slovakia is taken abroad. By looking at the economic and political dimension respectively in the following section, I demonstrate how from the Slovakia’s perspective, Europe is divided to the West and the East. Whereas the West represents the more economically developed part and political centre of the Europe, the East, in comparison to the West is lagging behind.

Looking at the economic aspect, EU membership indeed contributed to the growth of Slovakia’s GDP. Until the financial crisis in 2009 emerged, Slovakia was one of the countries, which had a favourable economic perspective to reach the EU’s GDP average (Pridham, 2005 in Marušiak, 2013). Hence, after the economic crisis, Slovakia had to count on staying in the economic periphery for a longer time (Marušiak, 2013). Even today Eurostat data shows that the new EU member states GDP per capita is still below the European average. As reported by the European Bank for reconstruction and development (EBDR), the economic crisis struck much harder in Central Europe than in the Western European states. The data demonstrated that in Central Europe around 38 percent of households had to reduce the expenditure on basic food due to the crisis while in Western societies only 11 percent of households did so (EBDR 11; Prita 2011in Marušiak, 2013). So, while the migration crisis opened the West-East divide, the prior economic crisis was rather about the North versus South division with Central Europe belonging to the North despite the hard-economic downturn. At that time, the Central European states endorsed Germany against the Southern states. This move displayed that the geographical thinking in regard to either Central, Eastern or Western Europe are part of mental geography raging about their artificial or imagined identities (Rupnik, 2017).

Figure 1. GDP (EU 28) per Capita in PPS (Data from February 14, 2018)















Source: (Eurostat, 2018)

Yet, as Bershidsky observed “the Eastern Europeans often feel their countries have turned into Western Europe’s colonies…” (Bershidsky, 2017). They often see themselves as second-grade citizens who are being ripped off by the more developed Western European states (Bershidsky, 2017).  They blame the multinational companies for selling them cheaper and low-quality brand-name food and claim that the EU allocation of structural funds benefits more the Western corporations than poorer countries in Eastern member states (Bershidsky, 2017). For example, in 2017, during one of the repeating work strikes in Slovakia’s Volkswagen plant, Bloomberg depicted Slovakia as a “poster child for East European integration into the European Union” which described how the Eastern Europeans often feel and think about themselves (Bershidsky, 2017). People working for Volkswagen demanded higher salaries, reasoning that they do not understand why they earn so little while people from a neighbouring country (Austria) earn twice as much as they do for the same job. Naturally, populist leader Robert Fico supported workers in the strike with following reaction to the conflict: “Our western friends do not understand when we ask them why a worker in Bratislava, in a firm that has the highest quality, high productivity and manufactures the most luxurious cars, has a salary half or maybe two thirds lower than a worker in the same firm 200 km westwards, in any western country, where the work has lower quality, lower productivity and manufactures lower-quality products” (Bershidsky, 2017). And even though this political angle in not uncommon in Slovakia and other Eastern countries, this strike displayed how disunited the EU may be from the Eastern perspective.

Another case representing the West – East division and reflecting on the “colonial” feeling of Slovakia was the matter of the dual quality of products. It was found out that certain products and food have a different composition or are made out of cheaper ingredients in Eastern Europe in comparison to the Western states like Austria or Germany (Reuters, 2017). Although at that time there was no European consumer law, which would prohibit the changing of food recipes or product ingredients as long as the ingredients are correctly stated, this issue was immediately picked up by Robert Fico, highlighting his domestic populist anti-EU strategy. He stated that the double quality standards of products and food is an international scandal and that he cannot allow Slovak citizens to be treated this way (The Spectator, 2017). Consequently, he organised a V4 Consumer summit on a ministerial level to address the issue that also contributed to the anti-EU sentiment in other Visegrad states. Subsequently, this issue was addressed by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker in 2017’s State of the Union speech. He noted that there should be “no second-class consumers” in the European single market saying: “Slovaks deserve as much fish in their fish sticks as anyone else, and Czechs deserve as much cocoa in their chocolate as anyone else” (Tamma, 2017). Given the problem with the mandatory quota system in regard to migration crisis when the Visegrad states were outvoted, the fact that this issue was taken seriously by the European Commission was politically important for Slovakia and for Robert Fico who earlier in July 2017 said he wanted Slovakia to be part of the EU core. To what both EU leaders, Juncker and Tusk, emphasized either that Slovakia “wants to be part of”, or “will remain within” the core of Europe (Tefer, 2017). Notwithstanding these two cases demonstrated the economic division between the East and the West and its political consequences. By looking at the sentiments of the people and how they perceive Europeanisation, I called attention to how Fico articulates the economic inequality on the domestic level. However, on the foreign policy level, for Slovakia, the lagging behind worked as a driver for further integration, especially in the wake of Brexit.

Moving on to the political dimension of my argument, I want to remark that Slovakia’s institutional integration to OECD, UN, NATO, EU as well as to the Monetary Union since 2008, put Slovakia out of the political periphery that it was in before 2004. Yet it is still not in the centre. Considering the centre as a place where strategic decisions are being taken as well as the area that provides the most significant civilisation stimuli and innovations and has the most advanced level of science and culture, then Slovakia definitely still does not belong to the centre (Marušiak, 2017). When referring to the countries at the centre or core of decision-making process in the EU, it is usually referred to the old member states in charge with France and Germany, which are considered the driver of European integration.

Following the parliamentary elections, which damaged Slovakia’s relations with the EU, the Slovak government has done a lot to fix its image abroad in order to distinguish itself from the Polish-Hungarian illiberal axis. In comparison to them, Slovakia has much more to lose by alienating Brussels than Poland and Hungary (Reuters, 2017). Slovakia is the smallest state within the V4, with a small economy highly dependent on car exports to Germany and other EU states, but most importantly, Slovakia is a member of the Monetary Union (Bershidsky, 2017). Given the bad image of Visegrad Group, Brexit and more frequent discussions about the multi-speed Europe in Brussels and overall feeling of insecurity about the future of Europe, it was a pragmatic step for Slovakia to warm towards the EU. Ergo, Robert Fico officially distanced himself from his previous anti-EU rhetoric, which accompanied the parliamentary elections and announced that Slovakia’s vital interest is to be in the core of the EU. He argued for an active cooperation with France and Germany: “The fundamentals of my policy are being close to the (EU) core, close to France, to Germany” (Jancarikova, 2017). However, the term core used by Robert Fico was seen as problematic by many politicians, scholars or political analysts. It was unclear what it represented as one could argue that Slovakia already belongs to the European core by being a part of Schengen and the EU Monetary Union. Following the migration crisis, rather unexpected shift to the core means two things. Firstly, as the international environment changed, Slovakia with its pro-European orientation distanced itself from the Polish-Hungarian illiberal axis and Visegrad group. Secondly, Slovakia wanting to catch up with the West wanted to be taken as a central political partner. Hence, further I focus on the actions Bratislava executed that were supposed to underline the willingness for cooperation.

As mentioned, in the second half of the year 2016, Slovakia held Presidency of the Council of the EU during which Bratislava started to respond to the changing moods in Europe.  Bratislava abandon the regional rhetoric, and the Franco – German cooperation became the vital interest of the Slovak foreign policy (Gabrižová, 2017). Besides, Slovakia had an ambitious challenge to set the presidency agenda since Britain’s exit from the EU changed thinking of the European leaders. Berlin, France as well as the EU officials again started to talk about the possibility of multi-speed Europe in regard to the future of the EU. However, at that time such visions were hampered by the anticipated elections in France and Germany. Accordingly, Bratislava tried to contribute to the discussion about the future of the EU. In this context, it is noteworthy to mention the Bratislava Declaration or so-called Bratislava Roadmap (European Council, 2016). The Roadmap was presented at non-formal Summit in Bratislava organised during the very first Slovak presidency of the Council of the EU. It mainly addressed issues regarding the perceived lack of control and people’s fears related to migration, terrorism, and economic and social insecurity. The declaration expressed the commitment of the 27 EU member states to unity and principles of the EU and to the fight against simplistic solutions offered by populist and extreme parties. Even though the Declaration tried to find an intersection of common interests on how to continue, it did not bring the wished unity (Gabrižová, 2017).  Arguably, the adoption of the Bratislava roadmap was more important than its contents. Though, it undoubtedly confirmed the Slovak foreign policy orientation towards deeper integration more than it represented Slovakia’s contribution to debates about the future of the EU.

Almost one year after the Brexit referendum, in March 2017 Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, published a White paper on the Future of Europe called “Reflections and scenarios for the EU27 by 2025” (European Commission, 2017). The paper contained five political scenarios for the EU, which were supposed to steer and frame the debate about the future of the block out of which one represented the possibility of multi-speed Europe. Moreover, at the end of March 2017 during celebrations of 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties, a common Rome declaration was signed by of the leaders of 27-member states and the European institutions. The declaration expressed plans for future integration: “We will act together, at different paces and intensity where necessary, while moving in the same direction, as we have done in the past, in line with the Treaties and keeping the door open to those who want to join later” (European Council; the European Parliament; the European Commission, 2017). The First State Secretary, Ivan Korčok, accentuated the outcome of the declaration at public discussions assuring people about the pro-European stance of Slovak government, which was still hampered after the last parliamentary elections. Additionally, in May 2017 centrist and strongly pro-European Emanuel Macron won the French elections. His victory meant the triumph of the European values and saving of the European project, which could have been destroyed if Marine Le Pen had won the presidential race. The victory certainly signalled to the member states that the EU integration would proceed further. These talks about the future of the EU and incentives about the multi-speed Europe created a political pressure for further integration. Slovakia, not wanting to lag behind, reflected on the change in the political environment and adjusted its foreign policy by shifting towards the core of the EU.

Further, in March at the Evaluation Conference of Foreign and European Policy for 2016, Robert Fico stated that it would it would be a pity if Slovakia had not joined the other countries which want to progress further in integration and do not want to be hindered by others. He argued that the core of the EU should become an unambiguous strategy, not just a formal note. Likewise, the government rhetoric emphasizing that Slovakia is part of the most integrated core of the EU within the Schengen and Eurozone framework came to the forefront (Gabrižova, 2017). Subsequently, Slovak rhetoric about the EU core became more concrete following the already mentioned White paper on Future of Europe published by the EU Commission, Rome declaration and later presidential elections in France. Thereupon, it was discussed by state officials that the EU core is supposed to represent deeper integration in very sensitive social and economic area as well as defence cooperation (Gabrižova, 2017). The reforms were supposed also touch upon the Eurozone, which R. Fico sees as the cornerstone of EU integration. As Rastislav Káčer, Slovak Ambassador to Hungary quoted him in an interview: “We have to complete the Eurozone. We have to finish it. We cannot have a common currency for a long period without having a banking union” (Káčer, 2017). Slovakia’s willingness for a deeper integration was also expressed by the change of attitude towards the problem of the Posted Workers directive, which was dividing Europe again. The directive was dealing with low-paid labour and was strongly supported by newly elected French President. E. Macron who campaigned on the employment rules in the EU. Taking up his office, Macron was putting pressure on the Visegrad countries, which he criticized for their stance against the migration quota. He warned them that “Europe is not a supermarket” and that the European values and democratic principles must be followed (King, 2017).  In order to not be outvoted in the Council, Slovakia started to negotiate on the conditions of the directive. Restoring the Slavkov triangle and eliminating Poland and Hungary from the discussion, Macron met with Robert Fico and his counterparts from Czech Republic and Austria in Salzburg. Together they agreed on the EU Posted Workers directive-regulating salary of workers posted abroad who should earn as much for the work, as workers in the country they are working in. After the meeting in Salzburg, Robert Fico abandoned his rhetoric that the EU wanted to take away our comparative advantage in cheap labour. Instead, he claimed that Slovakia too accepts workers from abroad and he too did not want our workers to be disadvantaged abroad (The Spectator, 2017).

Additionally, Bratislava joined the initiative and actively contributed to Membership of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). PESCO was signed in November 2017 by 23-member states and represents the greatest improvement in European defence industry, which is aimed at creating more coherent European foreign policy. One of the conditions for joining PESCO is to participate in at least one consortium project. Slovakia’s contribution will consist of leading a project called Euro Artillery aimed at indirect fire support.

Concluding, the shift of the orientation of Slovak foreign policy on the core of the EU was driven by the external factors such as Brexit and overall change in the attitudes of the European leaders who opted for the multi-speed Europe. Slovakia, not wanting to lag behind, followed suit and changed its behaviour what is justified by Bratislava’s actions and compromises in the EU employment rules on the Posted Worker’s directive.

4.2.5. Inconsistency in Foreign Policy

Aligning Slovak foreign policy to the core of the EU, it seemed as if consensus was reached across the political scene about the foreign policy strategy. In October 2017 the three highest representatives of Slovakia, President Andrej Kiska, Robert Fico and Andrej Danko who is a Chair of the Slovak National Council signed a common declaration. Eliminating any alternatives to the Western orientation, the declaration expressed a clear pro-European and pro-Atlantic orientation, which presents a basic framework of our security, stability and prosperity (Kiska, et al., 2017). Though, the common statement stands strongly by the European values and orientation, the practical actions of some state representatives do not reflect the official line of foreign policy. A month after the signature of the declaration, two opposing visions of Slovak foreign policy were presented. In Strasburg on the grounds of the European Parliament Andrej Kiska gave a speech in which he confirmed the pro-European stance of Slovakia while emphasizing the need for more proactive and ambitious in its foreign and security policy and not limiting itself to a “money-raising benefactor once the dust has settled” (Kiska, 2017). In addition, Kiska condemned Russia for its behaviour and called for the active fight against disinformation and dissemination of fake news (Kiska, 2017). In contrast to this speech, almost simultaneously Andrej Danko gave a speech in Moscow. To him, it was a historical moment as up until now, no Slovak politician has ever given a speech in State Duma. Calling for closer cooperation between the Russian State Duma and the Slovak National Council, he communicated his believes about Slavic unity and heritage which binds us. “The Russian Federation still remains one of the most important trade partners of Slovakia outside of the European Union” Andrej Danko said (Gális, 2017). This line is in conflict with the EU foreign policy of sanctions against the Russian Federation for breaching international law in Ukraine. From this perspective, the Slovakia’s “Ostpolitik” approach is confusing. Such inconsistencies might also be caused by the growing insecurity in international relations with Brexit, Putin and unpredictable Donald Trump. Nevertheless, alike actions sabotage the official foreign policy of Slovakia towards the West as well as complicate the communication of foreign policy strategy to its citizens.

In sum, despite the efforts of the government representatives to enforce a pro-European orientation at the official level, their actions do not align with the official strategy. By pointing at this inconsistency in the foreign policy, I wanted to draw attention to how this behaviour undermines our foreign policy and weakens our standing in regard to the EU. And in these times of insecurity, it is more important than ever to affirm foreign policy orientation and predictable actions.

5. Conclusion

5.1. Double Insecurity of Slovak Foreign policy

Contextualising Slovak history and society to recent political developments, I have tried to look at the relations between identity, (in)security and Europeanisation as a part of globalisation. My thesis was aimed at the deconstruction of the foreign policy discourse in between the years 2015 and 2017. I have argued that during this time period Slovak foreign policy discourse was driven by a double insecurity: the fear of the other and the fear of being left behind. In both of these fears, Europeanisation played an important role either as an external or internal factor in shaping the discourse. In regard to the fear of the other, the domestic foreign policy was the most influential. The identity anxiety was strongly represented by the externalisation of the EU, growing nationalism and securitization of migrants, which dominated the whole political spectrum. Populist political parties and government leaders used the “homesteading” strategy and provided people with simple definitions of who they are. As a result, individuals became attached to any “collective identity” reducing anxiety and insecurity in times of crisis in order to maintain their identity. Moreover, fighting insecurity during 2016, the Slovak government intensively cooperated with the Visegrad Group in opposing the quota system. Unfortunately, the actions of V4 during the refugee crisis contributed to the negative perception of the Visegrad group abroad.

Nevertheless, as the international ambience was changing due to the political developments in Europe, such as Brexit, French elections and the discussions about the multi-speed Europe, the fear of being left behind started to drive the foreign policy discourse in Slovakia. Explaining how the fear of being left behind shaped the political discourse, I reconstructed the Slovak historical experience what emphasized the need of Slovakia to articulate its identity as a part of a bigger entity for security reasons. Consequently, I focused on the formative years after the 1990s when Slovakia fought for its recognition among the Western states as an equal and valuable partner. This historical background provided my research with the necessary information for the understanding of the government position to get into the core of the EU was driven by the fear of being left behind. In this context, I emphasized the economic as well as political dimension of the argument. In economic terms, I have shown how Eastern Europeans perceive themselves as colonies neglected by the West. Then in the political dimension, I highlighted how in order to gain security, Bratislava had to once again build stable relations and routines with the Western partners, by more actively contributing to the discussion about the future of the EU. Though, it was not that difficult because the illiberal axis of Poland and Hungary immediately made Bratislava look like a “pro-European island” that reinforced Slovakia’s identity as a pro-EU country and advanced the position of Slovakia within the region. So, while throughout the migration crisis in 2015 the European migration policy was the main cause of Slovak identity insecurity; the EU and the Europeanisations continue to be the core of security in Slovak foreign policy. Even though the shift to the core of the EU was at the domestic level often sold as the second entrance to the EU, in this context, it is essential to note that it is not enough to focus on the economic aspect and just formally comply with the EU rules (Gabrižova, 2017). One has to embody the core European values as well as principles across all the government actions.

About the Author

Kamila Potočárová is from Senec, Slovakia and a recent graduate of European studies at Comenius University in Bratislava. Kamila is currently studying towards her master’s degree in international relations at the Central European University in Budapest. She specializes in security and hopes to pursue a career within an international governmental organization.


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