Viktor Orbán loses an important ally in Europe

Robert Fico, Slovakia’s prime minister and a left-leaning politician not immune to populism, nationalism and euroscepticism, has distanced himself from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s hard-line anti-EU and anti-western rhetoric. Most crucially: Mr. Fico confirmed that for him, cooperation and a close alliance with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany and President Emmanuel Macron’s France is more important than cooperation among the countries of the Visegrad Group, namely the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Mr. Orbán has relied on the Visegrad Group to exert joint pressure on the EU, especially in his anti-migrant stance. Yet now, Mr. Fico concedes that he knows what side his bread is buttered on.

In stark contrast to Mr. Orbán’s concept of a less tightly-knit and less integrated EU, Mr. Fico declared that Slovakia’s future is in a deeply integrated EU “core”. This concept refers to an EU of several “speeds,” including a core encompassing member states that seek deeper integration in a federal arrangement and those, like perhaps Hungary and Poland, who will remain on the periphery, as second tier members.

“The fundamentals of my policy are being close to the (EU) core, close to France, to Germany,” remarked Mr. Fico on Wednesday. Mr. Fico did add that Slovakia would continue to play a role in the Visegrad Group, but implied that cooperation with France and Germany, and with a “core” EU took priority.  The Slovak prime minister, ever the pragmatist, may have jumped on the bandwagon of anti-EU, anti-elitist and populist rhetoric a year ago, at the height of a global populist backlash, but with signs that this may be fading in Europe, he is aligning himself with Germany and France, adding that this simply makes economic sense for a small country of just over 5 million, like Slovakia.

Viktor Orbán (left) with Robert Fico (right). Photo: Szilárd Koszticsák / MTI

Mr. Fico governed Slovakia from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to the present day. He leads a party called Smer–sociálna demokracia (Direction — Social Democracy) and had traditionally espoused a left-wing nationalism, despite presiding over the introduction of the euro–the first country to do so in the region. Mr. Fico has not been terribly finicky when it came to forming coalition governments with xenophobes and the far-right. including the Slovak National Party (SNS), for which it earned itself a suspension from the Party of European Socialists. It’s worth mentioning here that SNS was also rabidly anti-Hungarian and has tried to spark paranoia among the Slovak majority. In one case, SNS published a map claiming to show areas of Slovakia that the Hungarian minority wanted to “occupy.”

Since 2016, Mr. Fico leads a rather colourful coalition, which includes not only the Slovak nationalists of SNS, but also Hungarian politicians from Most-Híd, a party that mainly represents the interests of the Hungarian minority of southern Slovakia.

There is, however, one area where Mr. Fico has not yet broken away from Mr. Orbán, and this is his relationship with Russia. Mr. Fico, who one spoke of “Slavonic solidarity,” has remained almost completely silent on the actions of Vladimir Putin, including the annexation of Crimea.

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