Russia’s top leadership is hoping that Slovakia’s presidency of the European Union will play in favor of patching up relations between Russia and the EU. But are such hopes justified?

Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico (right) and President of the European commission Jean-Claude Juncker (left) during an informal meeting in Bratislava, June 30, 2016. Photo: AP.

The Netherlands’ presidency of the European Union ended on June 30, coinciding with perhaps the most controversial fiasco to occur in the history of the European integration project – the Brexit referendum. Now that Slovakia has taken over the helm of the EU, it’s time to consider how its presidency might influence the course of post-Brexit Europe.

Even before the voting in the UK, the center-left government of Slovakia announced four key priorities of its future EU presidency. It hopes to achieve concrete results, head off the fragmentation of the EU and “put citizens at the center of its concerns.”

The first of these priorities is the promotion of investment and the future economic development of the EU. As Slovakia stated, it is necessary “to strengthen the Union’s solidarity in the face of internal and external challenges.” For this purpose, in particular, it is important to strengthen the European fund for strategic investments and activities, and move more quickly towards a common banking union.

Secondly, Bratislava plans to give particular attention to the formation of an Energy Union within the EU and the launch of a single digital market. The third priority is paying more attention to the immigration agenda. This includes provisions such as improving the functioning of the Schengen Area, more effective protecting external borders, and achieving an agreement on a common European asylum system.

The fourth priority, called “Europe, fully integrated into the global environment,” to a greater extent than the other priorities, should be of particular interest to Russian diplomats.

Recommended: "EU after Brexit: Leaders confront the future of a united Europe"

Slovakia’s view of the transatlantic partnership

While the first three priorities are at least tangentially linked to the domestic political goals of the Slovak government of Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia, the foreign policy direction of the Slovak presidency has almost no specific goals. Rather, it clearly demonstrates Bratislava’s loyalty to its international obligations. An important direction of Slovakia’s presidency will be to foster the European Neighborhood Policy.

According to Alexander Duleba, director of the Research Center of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, “Bratislava wants to once again raise the issue of EU expansion, because our government believes that this is a very strong point of EU foreign policy.”

Slovakia is promising to promote relations with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. It is also suggesting liberalization of the visa regime as well as the actual implementation of the EU Association Agreements with those nations.

During its presidency of the EU, Bratislava will also undertake the strengthening of transatlantic ties, which is unlikely to please Russian diplomats. As Grigoriy Sejnikov, head of the Slovak Institute for Social Problems, noted, “Slovakia is part of the integration system created by NATO.” Therefore, the position of the foreign policy program during Slovakia’s presidency of the EU seems quite clear: The Slovak presidency will help strengthen the strategic partnership between the EU and the U.S.

Be that is it may, a few months before Slovakia assumed its new role in the EU, Alexey Ulyukaev, the minister of Economic Development of Russia, said that Moscow is expecting to improve relations with the EU during the period of the Slovak presidency

The backdrop of the “sanctions war”

In fact, both the political and economic relations between Russia and Slovakia are of a complicated nature. If one looks at the issue of the economy, then Russia, before the imposition of sanctions, was one of the top three major foreign trade partners of Slovakia.

According to historian Yulia Tscherbakova, Slovakia "is of great importance to Moscow, in terms of the transit of Russian energy resources directly to the West.” This is true, but then again, Slovakia itself is almost 90 percent dependent on Russian supplies of oil, gas and nuclear fuel.

However, it is precisely this dependence on energy supplies that has made Bratislava one of the most persistent opponents, within the European Union, of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. Slovakia is especially interested in the diversification of the energy market in Europe.

The same can be said about the sanctions. On the one hand, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has repeatedly stated that “sanctions cannot be the content of foreign policy.” He has also said that Slovakia does "not need any sanctions or saber-rattling," but it needs "a peaceful dialogue and concrete results.”

Also read: "Why the EU and Russia won't be able to find common ground"

Many Slovak businessmen, politicians and parliamentarians agree with Fico’s point of view – that sanctions are counterproductive for Russia, as well as for the entire European Union.

At the same time, the current president of Slovakia, center-right politician Andrej Kiska, is a firm supporter of maintaining the sanctions regime against Russia, considering that the Baltic countries and Ukraine are in need of protection by the “collective West” against the aggressive encroachments of Moscow.

In fact, there is no evidence that during the debate on the extension of EU economic sanctions against Russia, Slovakia expressed any views that sharply differ from the position of the majority in the Union.

Nevertheless, considering the fact that good personal relations exist between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Slovak Prime Minister Fico, as well as numerous personal statements he has made recently regarding Russia, it can be concluded that for Moscow, Slovakia’s presidency of the EU will be more comfortable, than was the case with the outgoing Dutch presidency.

So, it remains to be seen whether there will be any breakthroughs in Russia’s relations with the EU, and what will be the real contribution of Slovak diplomacy.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.