Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron embarked on a two-day visit to Slovakia and the Czech Republic to strengthen bilateral relations with the Visegrad Group’s two most moderate members and reiterate France’s commitment to Central European allies. His visit coincided with the celebration, on October 28, of the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia. Here are the main highlights of the visit.
Quoted by the Irish Times, a source from the Elysée Palace highlighted the overarching purpose of the trip: it is “up to France, or Germany or other countries from the so-called west to show they are present, that they are capable of dialogue, that they are not contemptuous and that they do not neglect these countries”. Ahead of the visit, Europeum’s Martin Michelot argued that “this visit, beyond its historical and symbolic dimensions, will also bring to the fore the issues of the relationship between France and the Visegrad countries and the European feeling among political leaders of these countries”.
First stop: Slovakia
On Friday morning, M. Macron arrived in Bratislava – the second French President to visit the Slovak capital since 1993 – where he was welcomed by his counterpart Andrej Kiska, with whom he discussed a number of bilateral and EU-related issues. During the joint press conference that followed, Macron hailed Slovakia as being in the core of the EU, while Kiska underlined that his country’s EU membership was of “vital interest”.
In the afternoon, M. Macron held talks with Slovakia’s Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini and the two leaders attended the “Shaping the Future of Europe” citizens consultation organized by think-tank Globsec. Similar citizens consultations were held in Prague last May in presence of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and France’s Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau (you can read our report of the event here).
Quoted by TASR news agency, M. Pellegrini claimed that he wants Slovakia “to contribute to cementing the unity, strength and self-defense of the EU”. Both leaders also agreed to step up cooperation on cyber-security and discussed issues relating to deeper integration of the eurozone, of which Slovakia is the only Central European member. During the citizens’ consultation, M. Macron promoted his agenda of bolstering EU unity in front of a largely pro-EU audience and received a centennial Czech and Slovak award as a token of France’s role in the establishment of Czechoslovakia’s statehood a hundred years ago and of M. Macron’s pro-Europe agenda. Globsec president Robert Vass argued that his victory in France’s presidential elections against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen showed that “euro-enthusiasm can be popular with ordinary people”.
While many analysts saw his trip as a “charm offensive” intended to “prise Czechs and Slovaks” from Viktor Orbán, M. Macron strongly criticized both Poland and Hungary and accused their leaders of “lying to their people”. Although the Elysée Palace several times underlined Macron’s wish to visit all other 27 EU states before next years’ European elections, Poland and Hungary remain two of the few countries he hasn’t visited.
Second stop: the Czech Republic
On Friday evening, M. Macron travelled to Prague to meet with Czech President Milos Zeman. He also held talks with Prime Minister Andrej Babis, congratulated Czechs for the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia, celebrated the following day, and again delivered a strong plea in favour of deeper EU integration. M. Macron often repeated he doesn’t believe in the East-West divide and said France stood by the Czech Republic’s side as it did 100 years ago. The inflammatory issue of migration was hardly mentioned during the short press conference both leaders held after their talks.
In the event of the French President’s visit, Andrej Babis wrote an op-ed in French outlet L’Opinion. “For Europe to work, bigger countries must take smaller countries seriously”, he wrote. “Many Czechs have succumbed to France’s charms, and I have to admit I’m one of them”, the French-speaking billionaire added, hoping the visit would be the opportunity to focus on “our common European future”. While France and the Czech Republic agree on a number of issues, including the need for a stronger European defense policy, “naturally there are topics where we disagree”, the Slovak-born business man pointed out, citing the reform of the posted workers directive or measures to fight VAT fraud. “I’m convinced we will also find a reasonable compromise on migration”, he further argued, before highlighting the need to “simplify European institutions and eliminate useless regulations”. “Sometimes, I picture Europe as the village of Asterix and Obelix”, he wrote, in a reference to the popular comic book about a besieged village in occupied Gaul. “But instead of a magic potion, all we have is our ability to understand each other”, the leader of ANO wrote.
M. Babis also gave an interview to Le Monde, where he argued, as he has done in the past, that “Europe had the right to defend its borders and lifestyle”.
Meanwhile, M. Macron gave an interview published in a media of the four Visegrad countries (Sme daily from Slovakia, Hospodářske Noviny from the Czech Republic, HGV from Hungary and Rzeczpospolita from Poland). He argued that “Europe is not a supermarket” where you can choose which values you decide to defend and which to cast aside and singled out Poland and Hungary. “I have a good relationship with Viktor Orbán, whom I respect personally and as a prime minister chosen by the Hungarian people… But a Europe that ignores the diversity of ideas and beliefs, the independence of the judiciary or the press, the reception of refugees who have fled political persecution, is a betrayal of who we are”, the founder of En Marche pointed out.
Macron critics accuse him of creating an East-West divide, exemplified by his confrontation with Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban, and of widening the divisions between nationalists and liberals only to appear as the main recourse against the rise of populism and Euroscepticism ahead of next year’s European Parliament elections. For some, this visit to Slovakia and the Czech Republic was also aimed at dividing the Visegrad Group in a V2+2 by wooing its two most moderate members away from the influence of Orbán’s Hungary and PiS’ Poland.