European Elections Special

Specters of the past

For Slovakia, European Union membership seemed like the holy grail. But the country’s ills merely hide behind this shiny new surface.

Let us imagine the EU as one big family celebrating the tenth jubilee of its Eastern expansion. Such anniversaries usually demand reverence, the exchange of pleasantries, and smart speeches. And then, as is usually the case at family gatherings, old sins and grievances get dragged into the light. The Slovakian experience with the EU over the past decade provides plenty of material for both parts of the celebration.

Europe: A platinum credit card

In politics, a catchy metaphor is priceless. The political elites of all future member states were keenly aware of that when trying to build public support for EU membership. They presented the European Union as a platinum credit card, a never-ending Christmas. They claimed that EU funds, along with all of the other benefits of integration, would compensate us for the forty years during which we had found ourselves on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

But after some time, many of us realized that the EU is not a credit card but rather a debit card for which only a select few have the PIN. Sure, EU funds helped repair roads, build schools, and create jobs. But much too often they were only a palliative for the burning problems that governments refused (or did not care) to solve with national public funds – from highways to universities and social exclusion.

After the difficult years of the Mečiar premiership in Slovakia, EU membership was considered proof that we had finally become a modern democracy rather than a “black hole in the center of Europe”, as American Secretary of State Albright had famously called the country in the mid-nineties.

Consequently, when Slovakia was trying to prove its European credentials in the mid-1990s, Europe was very present in the public discourse – but only in a symbolic way. The years before the entry were hectic and the EU was a matter of diplomats and government officials – people that aren’t exactly known for engaging much in open dialogue.

No wonder, then, that Slovak citizens were mostly indifferent about the EU. The official information campaigns after the accession in 2004 served little to spark active citizen participation in European affairs. When Thomas Jefferson talked about the need to refresh the tree of liberty from time to time, he wasn’t referring to millions of Euros spent on information campaigns.

On the UK series “Yes Minister”, Sir Humphrey Appleby once aptly commented: “Citizens have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity in guilt; ignorance has a certain dignity.” Not only was he right, he also hinted at another truth: When you are running to catch a train, you are not stopping to contemplate what direction it is going in and what you will do once it reaches its destination. The public indifference regarding the EU allowed the Slovakian political elites to rest comfortably in an ideologically shallow “pro-Europeanness” (and, in some cases, the equally barren defense of a “unique national culture” or the flat tax against “intruding Europe”).

Thus, optimism slowly gave way to cynicism: The EU started to look like just another stage on which old, nasty politics were being played. Politics remained a game that only the big guys could enjoy while the small guys got to stand by and watch.

Corruption remains corruption, regardless of whether the money is exchanged from hand to hand or through electronic transfers via the Virgin Islands. Oligarchic politics remain non-representative, whether they are conducted by clownish figures in ill-fitting jackets or by smooth, media-trained professionals in smart dress. Nationalism and racism are as destructive as ever, even if they are expressed more subtly on the European stage. Participation is as difficult as ever: Central European ingenuity has changed Lincoln’s famous words to “government of some people, by some people, for some people”.

Yes, European integration has created a framework that can prevent (or at least complicate) the worst excesses of power. But why would one crudely misuse power if it could also be manipulated subtly? Ten years after joining the Union, our past demons are returning and power continues to be monopolized by a select few. It is reminiscent of a sequel to a cheap zombie horror film: The visual effects might be new, the script slightly changed, but the basic plot remains the same.

Thank god for the “crisis”! Its effect on the European debate was far bigger than any official campaign could ever have been. The so-called European topics suddenly became the center of attention – both during debates between friends over a beer and during debates in parliament. For now, the only result has been that European politics offered populists and extremists of various kinds yet another opportunity to achieve their political goals. Mainstream political parties, which claim to be “pro-European”, have yet to find the courage to defend Europe with equal passion.

Shaping Europe

A young generation is growing up that has only ever experienced the EU “in crisis”. From the democratic legitimacy, and the Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties to the economic crisis, Greece, and the euro zone – they can hardly imagine Europe as a symbol of peace and unity, because they’ve only ever seen it in constant trouble. Sure, there isn’t much positive news to derive from the last ten years. But rather than demotivating us, this fact should lead to the contrary: now that we know the EU is no holy grail, we can start shaping it and aligning it with our dreams: to create a better, fairer society. Together and not in conflict with fellow Europeans, separated by barbed wire.

It is our responsibility to do our homework. European integration allows us to create a state that is more liberal and socially fair than it could ever be under the narrow bounds of a semi-peripheral “nation state”. It’s not Brussels, Berlin or Paris that can make this change happen – it is us.

Read more in this debate: Jiri Pehe, Erica Johnson Debeljak.

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