UCL European Institute


Slovakia, the EU, and the Slovak Paradox

30 October 2019

Laidlaw Scholar Adam Kollar analyses Slovakia’s relationship with the EU over time and, in light of recent Brexit developments and the 2019 European elections, the likelihood of Slovakia leaving the EU in the near future.


Adam Kollar is an undergraduate Laidlaw scholar under the Laidlaw Research and Leadership Programme, which offers a mix of leadership training and intensive summer research periods. This summer, he looked at Slovakia’s relationship with the EU over time and, in light of recent Brexit developments and the 2019 European elections, the likelihood of Slovakia leaving the EU in the near future. This blog presents what he found in his six-week research project, hosted by the UCL European Institute. 

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Slovakia’s accession to the European Union (EU) on 1 May 2004. Slovakia’s relationship with the EU has been characterised by what scholars call the ‘Slovak paradox’; in none of the first three European elections which took place in Slovakia (in 2004, 2009, and 2014) did the turnout exceed 20%, and yet the support for the EU among Slovak citizens was high throughout. The classic explanation of this phenomenon is that European elections, generally, generate low interest, as they are of second order.

Looking at this more in-depth, the origins of the paradox can be traced to the very accession of Slovakia into the EU. The 2003 referendum in which the Slovak public agreed to join the EU was valid only by the margin of 2% (as 52% of eligible voters turned up to have their say). In fact, Slovak politicians were afraid whether the referendum would actually be successful. This was even despite the fact that approval for joining the EU was extremely widespread: in the referendum itself, 90% of voters indicated their wish for Slovakia to join the EU, while overall 80% of the Slovak population shared this view in 2004. 

That said, Slovak public discourse generally lacked an in-depth debate about the EU during the accession years.  In particular, Eurosceptic positions were lacking. Joining the EU was mostly presented as simply the only logical or conceivable step for the future of Slovakia, taken for granted without really being discussed in any depth. There was a general consensus on this both among the politicians and the public. 

On these grounds, the Slovak paradox might be seen as a manifestation that the Slovak public simply didn’t deem it important to have their say in the European elections. This does hold true at least for the 2004 and 2009 elections. However, this passive, sort of “platonic love” relationship with the EU was disturbed in 2010 and 2011. As the Euro crisis hit, the loans to Greece and the European Financial Stability Facility became major issues in Slovakia. The Slovak government collapsed in October 2011 because it could not reach an agreement on the support for these mechanisms. For the first time in 7 years of EU membership, Slovakia saw an intense debate on how the EU functioned and what it meant to be part of the EU. 

How come, then, that turnout in the 2014 European elections still was lower than ever, at only 13 per cent? Now that Slovakia finally had its debate on what the EU means and represents? Scholars and analysts agree that the 2004 and 2009 European election campaigns in Slovakia lacked serious content and discussion about the functioning of the European Union as well as some key European themes. This improved marginally for the 2014 elections, but the debate only scratched the surface of what was at stake in EU politics, and with regard to Slovakia’s place in this. These questions did not ultimately structure the political contest.

A sea change came with the 2019 European election. This was the first time that truly European views were voiced forcefully. Some campaigners as well as analysts framed this election as pivotal in defining Slovakia’s future and position in the EU. Generally, the 2019 campaign brought along a much livelier discussion of European issues. Neither the future of the EU nor Slovakia’s continued membership seemed guaranteed any longer. In the end, Slovaks decided to go and vote in higher numbers than previously, with a turnout of 22,74% and a strong pro-European coalition winning the elections.

Slovak fears about the future of Slovakia in the EU are connected to Brexit in two ways. Firstly, it was Brexit that sparked this Eurosceptic discourse in Slovakia in that it was now more acceptable to voice Eurosceptic opinions. Secondly, Slovak public and political discussion around the 2019 elections struck an existential note regarding Slovakia’s relationship with the EU that was comparable to what the Brexit referendum meant for the UK. Even though the elections themselves were not a discussion about “Slovexit” per se, many pro-European voices feared that the win of Eurosceptic parties (throughout all of Europe) would eventually lead to the disbandment of the EU itself and/or a weakened position of Slovakia in it.

For my summer research project, I had a closer look at the political discourse before the election, as reflected in four Slovak media outlets: the liberal SME and Dennik N, the yellow-press Novy Cas, and the anti-system hoax website Hlavne Spravy. I used them to track the discourses of their editors as well as the politicians they reported on. 

My general finding is that agreement on Slovakia’s membership in the EU and the benefits it brings remains widespread both on the levels of political and public discourse, even if Eurosceptic voices have made an entry. With the exception of two parties, LSNS and Sme Rodina, no other party voiced explicit Eurosceptic opinions, considering party manifestos and statements reported in the media. Sme Rodina did not get enough votes to enter the Parliament (with only 3,23%), while the LSNS ended up third with 12 percent (on national level, they are currently polling around the same numbers). The election results hence suggest that the majority of voters does not support Eurosceptic views. The winning coalition of Progressive Slovakia and Spolu was the most openly pro-European political subject running. 
That said, public opinion has never been as polarized in terms of support for the EU as this year. The voters of PS/Spolu and LSNS represent the most pro-European and Eurosceptic parts of society, respectively; around 83 percent of PS/Spolu voters trust the EU, while only 23 percent of LSNS voters do. PS had even stated in the run-up to the election that, if they did not receive more votes than the LSNS, it would be a huge failure for the party.

As to the media, SME, Dennik N and Novy Cas ran pieces openly supporting Slovakia’s membership in the EU and explaining its benefits. They actively sought to mobilize voters in various calls, setting out why it is important to turn up and have a say in the elections. Sometimes they directly commented on the threat of Eurosceptic voters having a majority in the elections, which would potentially harm the future of Slovakia in the EU by promoting ideas undermining the benefits of Slovakia’s EU membership. Conversely, the Eurosceptic camp represented in and by Hlavne Spravy likewise tried to mobilize voters to go and vote in the European elections – but so that the “liberal threat” could be stopped.

The public and political pre-election discourses reflected in my sources projected the notion that the 2019 European elections were highly crucial for Slovakia, precisely because of the supposed threat of Eurosceptics. In other words, the discussion was framed as a big battle between pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics. This narrative was also adopted by Slovak political leaders, including the Prime Minister as well as the leaving president and president-elect (Slovakia had presidential elections in March 2019, with the president-elect taking office in June).  

What does this tell us about a potential threat of “Slovexit”? The short answer is that, currently, we should not be worried. One difference with the case of Brexit is that, in the UK, “both Labour and Tories have more often than not preached against Europe,” while “telling lies about Europe became official British newspaper policy.” In Slovakia by contrast, Euroscepticism remains on the margins of discourse (although less so than in the past). Moreover, the number, and clout, of parties as well as newspapers which hold or share Eurosceptic views is much smaller than that of those who share pro-European views. For the moment being, this also, as was shown, corresponds with the number of voters both pro-European and Eurosceptic camps represent. Therefore, unless Eurosceptic ideas are adopted by mainstream politicians and media in Slovakia, “Slovexit” should not be a threat. 

Slovakia should still beware. After all, ‘nothing was inevitable about the Brexit vote and the campaign mattered profoundly’. As Özlem Atikcan argues as well, political campaigns are of prime importance in that they can, at least temporarily, reverse public opinion enough to affect election outcomes. Hence, it appears that one of the reasons why Eurosceptic views are still on the margin of society is because the LSNS party is not very successful in making them mainstream. This can be explained as either an indication that the LSNS is not doing enough to achieve that, or it simply is not important enough, as a political party, for that to happen. Either way, the Slovak public should be highly cautious of the possibility of this status quo changing.

This is especially true when considering that a lot of the mainstream pre-election discourse regarding pro-Europeanism related to its economic benefits. As the case of Brexit shows, this might not be enough, for the British government used precisely this cost-benefit argument to remain in the EU. Yet, the public still voted to leave. The Slovak public discourse should then perhaps also focus more on other benefits of the country’s membership of the EU, so that the potential threat of Eurosceptic forces shifting and overturning the public discourse and opinion doesn’t become bigger.

  • Adam Kollar is final year student in the BA in Comparative Literature (with German) at UCL SELCS.