Written by Ema Odra Raščan

Part of the series ‘State of (Liberal) Democracy in Post/Communist Europe’

For the first time since its conception in 2006, the Bled Strategic Forum 2020 was a one-day hybrid event, due to COVID-19 measures, using digital technology in its’ favour, but leaving just enough room for networking of officials. And not just any officials. Although the speakers are always high-ranked international experts, this year’s participants at the Leader’s Panel were a controversial group.

On 31st August, the Leader’s Panel themed Europe after Brexit and COVID-19 gave the floor to nine leaders: Mr Aleksandar Vučić, President of the Republic of Serbia; Mr Andrej Babiš, Prime Minister (PM) of the Czech Republic; Mr Boyko Borissov, PM of the Republic of Bulgaria; Mr Giuseppe Conte, President of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic; Ms Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director, International Monetary Fund (IMF); Mr Janez Janša, PM of the Republic of Slovenia; Mr Mateusz Morawiecki, PM of the Republic of Poland; Mr Viktor Orbán, PM of Hungary; and Mr Andrej Plenković, PM of the Republic of Croatia.

When seeing the list of speakers, one can’t help but wonder, what the combination of the listed participants means. Firstly, the leaders hold various positions – some are presidents, some prime ministers and one is a managing director of an organisation. Secondly, what is the common denominator of the invited country leaders? Just looking at the represented countries, it is clear, that they are not all member states of the EU, as Serbia is currently a candidate country. But the rest, which are EU member states, do not hold the same positions; all but Italy are Cohesion Countries and comprise what is understood under the term Central and Eastern Europe. 

Dr Nik Gowing, the moderator of the evening, opened up the discussion in the room, questioning the remainder of EU as a strong, democratic, transparent and integrated Union of 27 Nation States, committed to the same goals concerning the economic and medical ravages of COVID-19, as it is shredding the unity and solidarity that every member nation is formally committed to. The panel participants, known for their quick and controversial answers, didn’t hold back as the debate progressed.

Especially interesting in the points they made, was that despite being mostly from nationalistic political parties, they still strongly believe in a union of European states and even called the association a club. President Vučić was even determined to point out that “it’s always better to belong to a club then not to belong to a club”. 

From the panellists it was obvious that Serbia has a strong support system of buddies, who want to ensure Serbia’s position in the club. In his first note, PM Babiš passionately argued that Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Serbia should immediately be taken to Schengen. PM Janša also agreed that a middle-term issue, which the EU was facing, was that on the question of Schengen. “Schengen” was a word, which came up in the discussion about as often as solidarity. It helped answer the question of the common denominator among the eight country representatives. They brought forth the region of the Western Balkans, Schengen and much-needed action in many points. They have each other’s back and won’t stop until they’re all part of the same groups, or as they called them, clubs. 

On the other hand, another union, which the leaders discussed was the (future) European Union. PM Orban pointed out that Europe is currently in trouble, because “we haven’t identified the position [of Europe] in the global economy”. The Hungarian PM understands that Europeans are no longer game changers, like China and the US, whereby modern economy is created in scientific centres through armies. Lack of a European army means lack of scientific centres, which are the forefront of technological advancement. PM Babiš picked up on this point, questioning the relevance of NATO membership. Since certain jurisdictions have after the spread of COVID-19, moved from the national to the European level, the question not only of medical and health cooperation, but an even further military unity is not out of place. Another common denominator of the eight, therefore, is a call for more Europe. Yet, the European values, which they envision are questionable. 

Many of the men on the podium in late August are leading countries in such a way, that the state of the rule of law (RoL) is worrisome. The panellists defended accusations over the failure of democracy and RoL. PM Morawiecki completely rejected the hint that there are some deficiencies in Central Europe while Mr Babiš made it clear, that Mr Gowing’s “questions [on the topic] come from fake news from Guardian and Spiegel”. PM Janša was determined that “since ancient Greek times, the only public, which mattered were the voters, not NGOs, or whatever”, and lastly, PM Orban stated that the “Hungarian system is a European system; a constitutional parliamentary democracy”. 

Despite the fact, that there was not much talk on Brexit, the outlook of the eight European leader’s is an evident pathway, which these men will lead their countries. However, by being so stuck on RoL, we are missing the rest of the leader’s outlooks, which may be just as troubling and which are already leaving a big impact on the measures taken during the COVID-19 crisis, let alone the ones, which will be in place post-COVID-19.