In keeping with previous years, the content discussed and delivered at GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum 2018 was based around key thematic clusters. What follows are summaries of talking points, important comments, photographs and social media commentaries related to panels covering: a European defence union; the future shape and trajectory of the European Union; how the Visegrad Group views its European neighbours and partners; the ongoing Ukraine crisis; and the current situation in the Western Balkans.

En Garde! Towards European Defence Union?

Europe has finally started to gear up for common defence framework. But Defence Union’s future remains in question as even previous NATO commitments have not been met by several European members. En Garde! Towards European Defence Union? – session report.

Main takeaways:

  • Europe finally realised that fate of its security is slowly back into its hands but this remains just a narrative while budgets are stuck with insufficient funding and certainly far below commitment declared in the NATO
  • PESCO could be a game changer but it depends how it is going to be implemented. French approach is about able to deliver security operations while Germany puts emphasis on keeping integrated continental structures
  • There must be an understanding that to increase European security there must be a strong “Go European” policy makers preference towards continental defence industry
  • There are substantial differences in national strategic cultures that for the time being prevent a unified European strategic culture but small steps such as joint operations are becoming more and more promising form of defence cooperation

The panel chaired by Paul Taylor, Contributing Editor, POLITICO Europe involved Claudia Major Senior Associate for International Security at the  German Institute for International and Security Affairs, SWP, Thomas Silberhorn, Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister of Defence, Federal Ministry of Defence of the Federal Republic of Germany, Arnaud Danjean, Vice-Chair, Delegation for relations with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, European Parliament, Ralf Ketzel, Senior Vice President, KMW.

One of the main issues facing the EU today is whether how to integrate further along the lines of Lisbon Treaty but at the same time how to effective deliver working solutions for immediate problems. Many countries across the continent have begun to develop their military capabilities, but there are now numerous voices calling for a coordination of these resources, though this remains a very political issue.

The audience was very engaged and often focussed on the dichotomy between ambitions of keeping the defence system as broad and inclusive as compared to make it effective and operational. Paul Taylor portrayed this ironically saying that everyone agree about new European defence cooperation but French are not sure about the “European” bit and Germans are not sure about the “defence” bit. Some other questions referred to Brexit and stipulated that defence is one of those areas where Britain would actually increasingly cooperate with the EU.

One Size Does Not Fit All: Multispeed & Multishaped Union

This year’s Globsec conference provided one of those rare occasions in Central Europe to listen to a clear pro-EU message delivered by political leaders: H.E. Peter Pellegrini, Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic, H.E. Andrej Babiš, Prime Minister of the Czech Republic and Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President for Energy Union European Commission. The session: One Size Does Not Fit All: Multispeed & Multishaped Union was chaired by Tom Nuttal, Charlemagne Columnist, The Economist.

Main takeaways:

  • The opening speech of Peter Pellegrini made clear that Slovakia has a resolute commitment to pursue deeper EU integration and build up on this country successful economic development as well as to meet the commitments of NATO and EU membership
  • Speakers agreed that the differentiated integration is a fact but it only encourages all parties in EU for utmost efforts to build up their pro-European agenda but even those statements varied in the degree of commitment, specifically when the eurozone membership was highlighted
  • Both prime ministers underlined formidable economic performance of their countries that is the basis of their agenda in the EU
  • Visegrad Group has been praised in respect to coordination on the Multiannual Financial Framework negotiations. To the leaders of the region it is obvious that talks on the EU budget will be linked to EU policies on asylum, migration and Schengen and this will put a lot of tension into the process

In the EU there have been calls for greater unity within the EU, and there are questions as to whether the recent the elections in France, Germany, the V4 and the rest of the continent have suggest that this will be a possibility or not. But to Slovakia and Czechia the main political battlestage will be the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections, EU budget talks and the the new EU Commission.

“Visegrad countries want to be part of Europe, we do want to be taken seriously and contribute effectively in working on issues. Europe needs a reform and we do support it.”
– Andrej Babiš, Prime Minister of the Czech Republic

In his opening speeches Andrej Babis suggested that Europe works towards the Ellis Island model and that the V4 functions well by resisting relocation programs. He pledged that Czechia and regional partners want to be active members and want to be taken seriously. Regretting Brexit he reminded that the UK was a strategic ally for Central Europe. He opposed the Spitzenkandidat and stronger role of EU institutions in Brussels calling for more say for member countries in the EU Council. By contrast to his Slovak neighbour Czechia feels no pressure on joining the eurozone from other member states, he concluded.

In the debate Peter Pellegrini teased his Czech colleague that if the next Spitzenkandidat were to be Slovak or Czech then he would fully support this method. He also pledged that by 2020 Slovakia will achieve balanced budget and it does it homework by delivering on its EU and NATO commitments.

“We have to stay united and fulfill promises we gave to our citizens.”
Peter Pellegrini, Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic

Questions from the floor varied and the one that caught most of attention was delivered by Edward Lucas who turned to the case of journalist murder hindering the pro-European political performance of the Slovakia. The prime ministers called it an unfortunate “accident” and diverted attention by suggesting that other EU countries like Malta had similar cases.

Populism: Is the Tide Over Yet?

Whether the economic question is at the heart of the problem with populism or not, it was the main point for the session Populism: Is the Tide Over Yet? led by Jochen Bittner, Political Editor, Die Zeit. A knowledgeable panel of experts made the debate both informative and controversial. We heard comments and statements from Jakub Wiśniewski Vice President, GLOBSEC; Director, GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Martina Larkin, Head of Europe & Eurasia, Executive Committee, World Economic Forum, Randy Scheunemann, Member of the Board of Directors, International Republican Institute, Sophie Gaston, Deputy Director, Demos.

 Main takeaways:

  • Populism is definitely going to stay as part of the politics for better or for worse
  • People need to be listened to and have solutions delivered. Otherwise populist surge will only increase
  • If we consider EU as a good liberal project that should contain populist surge it needs to change the style. Message should be clearer, shorter and more vulgar – observed Jakub Wiśniewski

The promises made by many populist leaders have not lead to the economic upturn foretold, so the situation for populists might be changing in the near future. That being said, identity politics is still a driving force behind the voting populations and the gap between the haves and have-nots is still growing.

There was an interesting and a diverse range of interpretations of growing amount of data related to populism. Identity politics, economic disparities, technological exclusion and related disinformation were touched upon by panelists and the audience during a very interactive exchange with the audience in the room and through the online forum.

We need to be more agile in governance and involve people more when implementing solutions to governance problems – concluded Martina Larkin.

Visegrad Refining Its Relationship with Europe session

We all want to capable and strong Europe, there is no alternative – this statement by H.E. Martin Stropnický, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic opened the Visegrad Refining Its Relationship with Europe session.

H.E. Ivan Korčok, State Secretary, Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic, H.E. Jacek Czaputowicz, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland and Levente Magyar, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary joined their Czech colleague in demonstrating pro-European attitude.

“None of us is Eurosceptic, we are eurocritics.”
Levente Magyar, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary

You cannot be half pregnant when it comes to European integration and hinted to the eurozone as the – stated Ivan Korcok. He reminded that the damaging East-West divide started just at the moment when the V4 became vocal about relocation program. He explained that many in EU stood in awe because no-one expected Central Europeans to have a different position. However, he stressed that this divide is not a real one.

Somehow surprising line of argument was presented by his Polish counterpart from the conservative government of PiS. Liberal values like four freedoms of the EU are now most fiercely defended by the Visegrad Group countries – stated Jacek Czaputowicz. And he underscored that V4 represents the liberal values and the liberal competitive economy that defies policies advanced by protectionist democracies in case of some other partners in the EU.  By defending the liberal values – he continued – Poland and the V4 contribute to the economic development of Europe regardless if the with the common currency or not.

The format of the Visegrad Group has been also praised by Martin Stropnický who asserted that it is not a smaller union within a bigger union. He presented the main value of the V4 as not based on unity of views or positions but as the opportunity to come together and disagree in a familiar circle of states that share common past.

Since joining the EU and NATO, the countries of the V4 have trailed divergent paths. Still, with the numerous issues facing the region today, the bloc needs to find a coherent message and present it as unified policy to the EU. But do V4 countries have a plan for Europe? The answers from all panelists underlined smaller role for the EU Commission and increased inter-governmental format. At the same time it was acknowledged that V4 is by far more pro-European on the level of popular support than most other parts of the EU.

Questions from the floor ranged from those referring to internal divisions of the grouping. Current disparities raise doubts whether V4 is too divided to function as a unified bloc. Other questions were perhaps too far fetched for regionally focused panelists who did not come up with satisfactory answer to the question on the outcomes of turbulence around the Iran-deal. Matthew Karnitschnig, Chief Europe Correspondent, POLITICO Europe, skillfully handled the debate and Q&A session, that in fact became a coordinated response of the V4 representatives to a well known themes of EUropean discussion.

Ukraine Out of Tune with Europe?

There is hardly any country in Europe that underwent three major revolutions in the last three decades. Each of them brought a promise of state revival but only the last one looks really promising in terms of delivering meaningful reforms. Ukraine is at a very specific moment, right now when oligarchy tries to legislate itself from the existence. Does it mean that Ukraine Out of Tune with Europe?

This seems to have been a country both underperforming and overperforming in terms of previous expectations. On one hand pension reforms, expected to be the greatest challenge, seem to be underway without major progress.

On the other hand it is still entangled with many areas the country is coming up short in several areas, like corruption or privatisation. At the same time budget deficit went down by 5 times and efficiency of managing public resources increases often at a paste unheard of in any other European state, which only shows how badly the country has been administered before.

There has been a considerable backslide in Ukraine regarding the reforms necessary for closer cooperation with Europe. US interest seems to be waning while corruption is still rampant, and there have been questionable political manoeuvres relating to the upcoming election.

The conflict with Russian supplied and operated forces in the east of Ukraine often overshadows the other geopolitical constraint, namely that landgrab of Crimea by Moscow. It was asserted that Minsk agreements are far from implementation and nonetheless Ukraine matters to OSCE because it does deliver while Russia does not.

One of the bold assessment of how the conflict might end was that it will end only when Russia decides that it’s not worth it to continue. And the West needs to make sure it does not fall for any form of middle way, which would satisfy only the Russian side and compromise the agreement and peace in the long run.

What incentives can the EU offer to encourage Ukraine to continue with reforms? Is the EU cowing to the US and will this lead to instability in the country for the coming future? How can OSCE help provide conflict prevention, promote human rights and strengthen democratic institutions? The exchange with the audience reflected a general supportive sentiment shared among GLOBSEC participants and focused on standing together with Ukrainians in their effort for reforms and defence of territorial integrity.

The Western Balkans Chessboard

Main takeaways:

  • EU is the most important player in Western Balkans and nations of Balkans EU accession is the priority
  • NATO and EU accession is seen as a stabilizing factor for the region and full stability will be achieved when the last county joins EU

Summary: Western Balkans are a point of interest for many global players including EU, Russia, USA and Turkey. Still the public opinion and economic ties are by far the strongest with the EU. Enlargement is also viewed as a stabilizing factor for troubled region. Especially since Russia is trying hybrid warfare there as in case of attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016.

Still the negotiations are being carried out and the progress varies greatly by country. There are many issues mostly connected to rule of law but also many chapters that are greatly economically demanding e.g. ecology or fiscal issues. The countries are determined to fulfil these requirements regardless of high pressure from EU on actual adoption of the rules – something that EU negotiators learned during Romania/Bulgaria enlargement. Still adoption of these rules is believed to provide significant boom in economic growth  -even in double digits – that would also be a stabilizing factor.

The audience was interested whether Brexit or current situation in V4 has on the process of enlargement. While representative of EU claimed there was none the representatives of the Balkan countries surmised that the enlargement is now treated with more attention as it became politically important as a prof that EU is still attractive.

“The richest relation right now is the one between the EU and the Western Balkans.”
Christian Danielsson, Director General, DG NEAR, European Commission

There was also a question about the cooperation within region despite the difficult past. The problem is quite hot due to high public emotions but it seems that the points of political conflict are being resolved. Still the wounds need some more time to heal to provide cooperation between certain countries.