There are many liberal-left criticisms of Slovak social democracy in its very strong opposition to EU refugee quotas. But there are several arguments in defence of our position: it is no less solidaristic or humane than that of western social democrats – it’s just more realistic.
Islamophobia? Do not insult us, man!
We object to the Islamophobia and xenophobia accusations. There are thousands of Muslims along with other minorities living in Slovakia, including half a million Hungarians, half a million Romas, and tens of thousands of Asians from China, Vietnam, and so on. To refer to Slovakia as a xenophobic nation is insulting. We should decisively reject any debate that starts by condemning Central Europe as xenophobic as counter-insults condemning the West as imperialistic will follow, ending any rational debate before it’s even started.
There are other misinterpretations of Slovakia’s position. Prime Minister Robert Fico (Smer, social democratic party) has never verbally attacked Muslims; he has only realistically summarized the Slovak situation. There are five points to be made here.
First, Slovak citizens fear unregulated migration (i.e. migration that lacks any border control, increasing safety and health hazards regardless of who is crossing the frontier). The proportions are decisive: approximately 80 per cent of Slovakia’s population rejects refugee quotas; they are frustrated with the lack of border control on the external Schengen borders. This is a rational fear rooted in insecurity and real risks, not an irrational one rooted in hatred and xenophobia.
Multiculturalism as a shock-doctrine?
Second, Slovakia is not a multicultural country and, if it ever aspires to be one in the future, it is essential that a societal discussion occurs first. People have to be made ready as was the case in Western Europe where the process of multiculturalism (including even colonialism and neo-colonialism) has taken decades or even centuries. Shock-therapy solutions could, however, promote the rise of fascism and/or right-wing extremism.
Third, it is completely natural to protect our culture and our values; the French do the same (“laicité“), as do the Germans (viz social-democratic Vice-Chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel). There is nothing inherently conservative about the protection of European culture, as recently even the guru of the Radical Left, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, has confirmed:
We must abandon the notion that it is inherently racist or proto-fascist for host populations to talk of protecting their ‘way of life’. If we don’t, the way will be clear for the forward march of anti-immigration sentiment in Europe whose latest manifestation is in Sweden, where, according to the latest polling the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats have overtaken the Social Democrats as the country’s most popular party.
Forced deportations? Is this what we want?
We should be very frank in this case: Islam has a different view of women and sexual minorities compared to the common European stance. Thus, it is appropriate to talk about protecting our values without degrading Islam in any way. If the secular left criticises the ultra-conservative values of Christianity (with all respect to believers) and this is rightly labelled progressive, why is the same, rational criticism of Islam (with all respect equally) usually labelled xenophobic?
Fourth, the basic Slovak argument is that the refugees themselves do not want to come here and if they were forcibly deported and interned here, it would violate their rights, create social tension and endanger Schengen.
Be realistic, demand the possible
Fifth, the Slovak decision to put the integration of Christians first is often misunderstood. Fico rightly assumed that it is easier in Catholic Slovakia to integrate Christians than Muslims: no cultural wars, no religious prejudices – just realistic assumptions.
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Of course, we would not refuse Muslims if they asked for asylum, but Slovakia favours refugees whom it can best integrate (common sense) and who are the most vulnerable in Syria, i.e. Christians in areas controlled by ISIS (a humanistic argument).
Should we despise the people we represent?!
Our political approach is different from that in Western countries: we know best how to work with our citizens in order to create gradually a climate for more tolerance and liberal values. Anyway, to despise the people and make decisions against their will is undemocratic, disrespectful and unsustainable.
Social democracy in Slovakia is more conservative than its Western counterparts, but this is based on the more conservative values of Central Europe in general, compared say with Sweden, where almost everyone has liberal values, even right-wing voters.
Imposing quotas from abroad is poorly perceived in Slovak society and it may endanger pro-European sentiments, strengthening conservative reactions. Politics must be also about consequences rather than just an empty gesture.
Refugees are not bags of flour
Many normative and value-based arguments need to be stressed here:
First, we cannot relocate refugees based on quotas as if they were bags of flour. We need to respect their human rights and the fact that they want to go to the West. Germany invited them without asking anybody in the EU. It would be unfair to send them to Timisoara if they risked their life on the journey to Munich.
Second, we support the establishment of the so-called hotspots as the fairer solution. It is wrong for us Europeans to indirectly encourage often richer refugees to undertake the dangerous journey to Europe, in which they lose their property and may be exposed to death while the most vulnerable remain in camps in Turkey.
Let´s talk about root causes: No more western bombs
Third, the Left must look for comprehensive solutions and eliminate root causes – that is what the Left has always been about. We should restrict the arms trade, stop the unfair practices of multinational corporations and promote fair trade in Africa as well as support stable regions in the Middle East.
Fourth, the Left cannot abandon ordinary people, it must be able to communicate with them and to listen to their concerns: universal solutions from Brussels can be very dangerous: look at working-class voters in France who have started to vote for the far-right Font National, not the socialists. Wake up, comrades!
Our solidarity is real, not symbolic
There is also empirical evidence supporting Slovakia’s solidarity: we dedicated €20m (a large sum by Slovak standards) to FRONTEX (European Border Protection); we aim to raise our development aid robustly; we actively support all solutions of the Council of EU and the Commission (apart from quotas); we continue to take part in humanitarian transfers etc.
Moreover, we have been proposing the so-called Austrian model, i. e. we want to relieve the Austrian capacities by accepting their asylum applicants. This is where we also need to help Italians and Greeks, as they have overcrowded asylum centres.
Consensus, not the enforcement
We regard the action against the decision of the EU Council at the European Court of Justice as a technical solution. It is nothing unusual. The action should be conceived as the legitimate and standard reaction of a country to a decision it considers to be legally incorrect.
The most important argument for us is procedural: in such huge and far-reaching decisions the principle of consensus and not majority rule has always been applied.
Saving Europe, saving social democracy
Slovakia is a strongly pro-European country and the Smer party is doing everything to ensure it remains so, so it uses all tactical and political instruments at its disposal. It’s our responsibility to guard the future of social democracy and Euro-optimism in Slovakia. Sometimes this naïve and straightforward idealism must give way to reasonable and practical realism, otherwise social democracy cannot be successful in the future – nowhere in Europe.
The first signs of social democratic retreat could be seen in EU countries in previous decades. Are we social democrats going to become the Don Quixotes of the 21st century? Are we going to open the door for fascist reaction? Not in Slovakia. We are going to be responsible. That’s why we reject compulsory quotas, but also accept any reasonable solutions confirming our strong solidarity and humanism.
We want to help Syrians, Africans and other poor people in the world. The best way to do so is not to move all of them to Europe but rather to move the European standards to where they live. This should be the real project of social democrats.
This blogpost only represents the opinion of the author.
Ľuboš Blaha is a Slovak neo-Marxist philosopher, political scientist, journalist and left-wing politician. He is a member of the National Council of the Slovak Republic for the social democratic SMER-SD party and the Chairman of the parliamentary Committee on European Affairs.