It is tough to win EU funds in Brussels for a country but it is way more stressful to spend it. Even more so to spend it in such a way that the country avoids a call from Brussels to give it back.
Slovakia is a great example. One of the „biggest winners in this money contest“ as put by PM Robert Fico of Social democrat Smer party, Bratislava had earned a promise of some 13 billion euro in cash for projects funded under the EU’s 2014 – 2020 budget.
The 960 billion package – so called financial perspective – was agreed by the bloc’s leaders on 8 February summit in Brussels after 26 hours of talks. „I haven’t slept a wink but it was worth it to stand up for these figures and fight for them, “Mr Fico told journalists at the post-summit briefing.
Back in Bratislava, he followed his praise for Slovakia’s diplomatic success by passionate arguments in favour of a quick revision of national public procurement rules in order to speed up the spending of Slovakia’s EU money from the closing financial period of 2007 – 2013.
Ironically, Slovakia is one of the slowest countries in spending EU funds, despite some 75 percent of public investments reported to be covered by the bloc’s cash.
Still, the move to change the procurement rules so quickly which the Smer party could do easily as the government party with a comfortable parliament majority had caused criticism by both opposition parties and some experts, pointing to previous cases of EU fund mismanagement and corruption allegations.
Indeed, Bratislava MUST spend over 1.5 billion euro just this very year if it does not want to lose it altogether but the question raised by many is whether this sort of stressful rush will lead to meaningful and corruption-free projects.
They should be meaningful not just because they will be co-financed during a very investment unfriendly period of deficit consolidation but mainly because all this money is tax payers’ money, despite some undoubtedly “foreign and therefore more lightheartedly spent and possibly even misspent” taste of it.
And they should be corruption-free not only due to the risks of Brussels taking the money back in case criminal allegations prove true (and Slovakia does have some sad history in this) but mainly because the corrupt manners and operations fuelled by public investment of Brussels origin eventually can and objectively do build up a much more serious obstacle in the country’s progress than lacking highways or other types of regional development projects.
Anyway, the new tendering rules have been in force for days now and we still have not heard of special tenders up for companies to file their bids.
However, we have just heard of a fresh red light from Brussels to Slovakia for using the existing “old” EU funds for concrete transport projects due to false payments.
It is quite a drudgery to spend the EU money. And stay clean. And handle the annoying Brussels bureaucracy (how could I get this far without mentioning it in the article about EU funds?)
Most of all - make a difference with the money.
I was sitting on a night bus after Greece had failed to express its current national attitude to Germany in football terms. In a seat in front of me, a young guy was on the phone, analyzing the EURO 2012. He was betting on and hoping for Germany to make it to the finals, laughing to a surprised reaction on the other end of the line. “You see, not many people cheer for the Germans.” A few hours before, a Slovak commentator kicked off his intro on the widely-watched match: “Forget the eurozone crisis, this is pure football.” Just a TV switch away, however, one could hear about Germany, Greece (plus Spain and, alas, Italy) and us in a very different way, again.
On Friday (22 June), the Slovak parliament gave its green light to the European Stability Mechanism, a permanent bail-out structure due to come into force this summer. The treaty was passed with an overwhelming majority of 118 out of 150 MPs. But in a parliamentary debate ahead of the vote, there was a talk of treason compared to the Munich agreement of 1938 or the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. The liberal Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS) has been criticising the eurozone’s bail-out funds ever since they were put forward and its headline-grabbing rhetoric is no surprise. After all, the party refused to change its view on the matter even when it could prevent the fall of its coalition government last October.
Still, apart from the economic arguments blowing in the air for some time, debaters in the Slovak legislature also touched upon “the Future of Europe Group” of German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle and its first paper circulated to press on Wednesday (20 June). The idea of creating some sort of United States of Europe with strong new institutions was presented by some media as a concrete plan to be followed. So why were we missing in that refection group? And how come, the vice-chairman of the parliamentary committee on constitutional affairs was asking, we had only learned about the initiative on such strategic and sovereignty-related issues from the press?
Despite a dubious impact of the informal reflection group, some Slovak MPs (not SaS members) argued that its sheer existence made them vote against the ESM. They say that it is no longer true that by agreeing to tough bail-out fund membership conditions for Slovakia (the second highest amount per GDP to be cashed in and guaranteed) we will play in the big leagues, as claimed by the Social democrat government. And if it is not for the country’s good place round the EU table, what good is it for anyway?
One could conclude that it is just a storm in cup to feed the local media. In fact, one MP openly admitted (off the record, naturally) that he was just grabbing the chance “to be heard” and heard he was you can bet. But I think that in sensitive times we are living, those hoping to lead Europe should think twice on how they want to organise their reflection ventures and how they want to word and present their conclusions. Not so much for the sake of all the small (or perhaps rather irrelevant like Slovakia, naughty like the Czech Republic, impossible like the UK… the whole anti-list to be checked by Mr Westerwelle) and offended states and their statesmen but for the sake of their citizens. Because – perhaps not only in Slovakia – there are currently so many other reasons for people to be sceptical over Europe. And over Germany, some economists might add.
Although in football, personal affinities play no role, the expert on the Friday night bus was explaining. “Only Spain and Italy are strong enough to put Germany in danger,” he concluded.
(At least I hope he had not switched to the eurozone crisis by then).
Slovakia is heading towards an early parliamentary election – to be held on 10 March – after its centre-right ruling coalition failed to reach a consensus on the eurozone bail-out funds.
Shortly after the government’s fall last October, it seemed that the EU affairs would finally dominate the pre-election campaign in the country of five million. What had never happened even before the vote of Slovak MEPs was about to come true: Slovaks would passionately discuss the pros and cons of the future EU’s fiscal treaty; they would see billboards with EU flags and quote economists on what is crucial for euro’s recovery.
As realists suspect, none of this has been the case. This time, however, not only for all the obvious reasons – the fiscal treaty is dull and hard to explain, the Slovak flag is more colourful and economic arguments are there just for a bunch of “busy and important” weirdoes.
In fact, there is one other issue that has made poor Slovaks even more furious than saving rich Greek pensioners, as some local politicians would put it. That is, corruption among local politicians. I mean Slovak politicians.
Locally, the new buzzword for corruption has become GORILLA after a secret file published on internet in late December 2011. The document allegedly reports various details of an operation conducted by the Slovak secret agency to record evidence of illegal links and contacts between businessmen and top politicians in 2005-6.
Back then, Slovakia was governed by the centre-right coalition of PM Mikuláš Dzurinda, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs and chairman of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU-DS), up till now the leading centre-right party. But the Gorilla file has alleged that similar corruption practises have been in place for years and carried out by virtually all existing political parties.
After an early round of denials by concrete individuals mentioned– claiming that the monkey file is a piece of badly written fiction, more trustworthy pieces of information emerged and convinced the Slovak public that although a few details might be wrong, the document is a good description of the corrupt political system.
Realising this, Slovaks got really angry and took to the streets in numbers not seen since the collapse of communist regime in 1989. On the positive note, one could appreciate a wake-up impact on the local civic movement, especially among young people previously viewed as passive and apathetic.
However, as we were moving closer to the early elections with new secret files and videos coming out almost on the daily basis, there is a growing feeling of a powerful media game forced upon all of us – financed by new potential “gorillas” that are trying to get elected on the back of the old and disclosed ones.
And so the Slovak citizens (especially those of the centre-right views) are confronted with a serious dilemma, judging whether to vote slightly amateurish freshmen parties to punish the old corrupt ones; or grate their teeth and vote on the basis of political programmes; or ignore the elections altogether thinking politicians are all the same and thereby indirectly support those elected by fellow citizens.
According to most public polls, the ex-PM Robert Fico of the Social Democratic party (SMER-SD) is about to win by a landslide. He is expected to join in coalition with the Christian democrats (KDH) or the Slovak-Hungarian party Most-Hid. The current rightwing leader SDKU-DS may struggle to make it to the parliament with some surveys suggesting their public support has plunged below the 5-percent parliamentary threshold.
Slovaks are quite pessimistic on whether they will see the Gorilla case fully investigated and its key actors punished.
Instead, we could imagine that monkeys will give way to Europe again both in a public debate and political rhetoric: the new (social democratic) government will have to save around 1.5 billion euro in less than two years to meet the new EU fiscal rules.
Indeed, in post-election Slovakia, we will quite likely see anger and protests again. Probably more on the social and economic grounds and perhaps even on a larger scale. And this too will be very European in its most recent sense.
After eight hours of passionate debate, the Slovak parliament voted down the boost of eurozone’s bail-out fund and failed to express confidence to the government of Iveta Radicova.
It was a battle of nerves with several outcomes of both temporary and permanent character.
Temporarily, the EU’s rescue plan has been blocked by a country of five million. As the last member state to vote on the issue, Slovakia broke off the marathon of positive rulings by 16 parliaments in the currency union. A few meters from destination, the Slovak runner has stopped and announced he would not run further. But please, don’t panic. Especially you, Sir of the financial markets. The Slovak runner will be replaced. That’s the rule of the game in the European Union. By the end of this week, the Slovak parliament is expected to vote again. Perhaps a bit later – now that the EU summit has been postponed. The main opposition social-democrat SMER party fulfilled its promise and abstained from the first vote as PM Radicova could not guarantee the approval by her coalition partners and was forced to take up the confidence motion. But, of course as true social democrats they are strictly pro-European; they will wait for their political conditions to be met before they cast their ballot again and help to approve the EU’s bail-out fund.
For PM Radicova it’s over, however. “At summits in Brussels, I have seen premiers come and go many times and I will go too,” she told MPs in what seemed like her good-bye speech, minutes before the vote. She appealed to them to keep in mind the international image of Slovakia in the challenging times Europe is facing. She maintained that it would not be correct for her to push the country into isolation. So she took the highest risk and was defeated. Whether it will be her permanent or temporary departure from the top Slovak politics is hard to say. But neither Europe nor Sir in the financial markets care, do they?
Pessimists say the image of Slovakia will suffer, permanently. We have set a very negative example. And if our friends in the ECB and European Commission had had a magic ball and seen this coming they would not have accepted us in the elite currency club. We expect solidarity from others but fail to express it ourselves. I must admit that I felt ashamed when listening to some deputies in Bratislava. For many of them, it really was only about us poor Slovaks not willing to pay for higher pensions of richer nations. While experts (even those really eurosceptic in ordinary times) are convincing us that the bolstered bail-out fund is necessary for the whole eurozone and its return to the “ordinary times”.
But then, we did have negative referendums for previous “key European reforms”, right? And we did see countries shutting off their labour markets from workers from new member states, didn’t we? Every now and then, solidarity with plans made in Brussels (or Berlin and Paris) is tested and not always nations or their parliaments pass that test as expected.
Although most of the times they do. In the first or second attempt.
Slovaks feature as one of the most Europe and euro-loving nations in many surveys. When asked about the credibility of the EU and national institutions, they seem ready to sack the national government, parliament and judges, while soundly proclaiming their trust in the European parliament (in the first place) and other Brussels-based bodies. However, when it comes to voting in the very same EU assembly, Slovakia wins the match for the lowest turn-out. It’s the politicians, argue some sociologists, explaining that Slovaks simply prefer the institutions where Slovak politicians are least represented.
Looking at the current political debate on the EU bail-out fund in the country, one must see some logics in such thinking.
In the last elections in 2010, the current major coalition party, centre-right Slovak Christian and Democratic Union (SDKU-DS) campaigned against the Slovak contribution in the first EU loan to Greece (approved by the previous centre-left government) and eventually managed to avoid the country’s commitment after taking the rule. One year on, the very same party represented by the Prime Minister Radicova and Finance Minister Miklos put their signature under the second EU loan to Greece and the permanent nature of the extended EU bail-out fund.
Ten days after the July Brussels summit, Richard Sulik, the speaker of the Slovak parliament and the chairman of the liberal Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS), passionately described the deal as a “bluff on the Slovak taxpayers” in his widely-read blog. SaS listed their arguments in a reader-friendly pamphlet titled “EU-bail-out fund, the journey back to socialism”. Although several economists and experts slammed their rhetoric as a sheer populism, some paid tribute to simple facts supporting SaS’ claims (“There have been 97 breaches of the Maastricht euro criteria during the 10 years of the eurozone’s history but no country has ever been punished”).
One of the loudest critics of Mr Sulik (apart from the finance minister Miklos) is the ex-PM Robert Fico, of the Social democrat SMER party. He evidently views himself as a great European. Under his government Slovakia joined the euro in 2009. One year before, the Slovak parliament managed to ratify the Lisbon Treaty after months of delay due to the opposition of the centre-right parties that form the current ruling coalition (apart from SaS which did not exist back then). The centre-right block risked the ratification of the major EU reform document as a way to protest against a newly adopted Slovak press law.
Back in 2008, Mr Fico shouted around that only him and his party cherished the European ideals and put them above the national politics. Now he says that the vote against the EU’s bail-out fund is “against Slovakia’s future” and that Slovakia simply “must support” it. However, his party will only support it if all ruling coalition parties do so – meaning, only in case his party’s votes will not be necessary to ratify the EU deal.
The vote in the Slovak parliament will be held after 23 October, according to the latest timetable. Due to the bickering in the ruling coalition, it might be linked with the vote of confidence. The Sulik’s camp insist they will not surrender even if their government should fall, while Mr Fico seems happy not to save the EU’s rescue plan for the alluring prize of early elections.
And what about the Slovak public? Judging by comments of people around, the argument against sending off our money without the prospect of getting it back is very easy to understand and sounds very logical. But then, we are speaking of wars and games by Slovak politicians. Who knows if they really know and can be trusted…
Any of them…
Or their proclaimed love for Europe..
PS: Just before this comment was published, PM Radicova came up with a special compromise offer that SaS party could accept and stop blocking the rescue deal in the Slovak parliament, according to media reports. The vote will be most probably held by 17 October after all – before the European summit in Brussels.