Brexit `Slap' Helps Turn Anti-EU Tide, Slovak Leader Says

(Bloomberg) -- The populist forces tearing at Europe’s seams are abating, Slovak President Andrej Kiska said in an interview.

France will be the next country to reject anti-European Union polices when voters go to the polls on May 7, Kiska, whose role is largely ceremonial, said at his palace in the Slovak capital, Bratislava. He spoke as EU leaders head to a weekend summit in Brussels to discuss Britain’s departure from the bloc.

“I’m convinced that France will end well,” said Kiska, a 54-year-old former entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist. “Brexit has somehow helped. It was a slap in the face to many people who woke up and realized ‘oops, this may happen to us.”’

Brexit `Slap' Helps Turn Anti-EU Tide, Slovak Leader Says

Slovak President Andrej Kiska poses for photo after an interview in Bratislava, Slovakia on Thursday, April 27, 2017.

Photographer: Lisi Niesner/Bloomberg

Kiska blamed discontent among European voters on politicians who “care more about holding on to power” than solving problems. But he added that fears of immigration and terrorism overlooked the advantages of being part of the 500 million-citizen trading club -- the world’s largest. Those who want to break it up don’t “realize what they are voting for,” he said.

‘Amazing Project’

“Anybody who can think normally realizes that the EU is an amazing project,” he said. “Everybody knows that being together brings enormous benefits.”

Slovakia, a country of 5.4 million that split from the Czechs in 1993, is a case in point. It’s economy has nearly doubled since it joined the EU in 2004 and it’s now a member of the euro zone.

That’s a dramatic change from the 1990s, when authoritarian former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar led the country into international isolation. Now the country hosts factories owned by Volkswagen AG, PSA Group, Kia Motors Corp. and Jaguar Land Rover Plc, making it the top per capita car producer in the world.

The economic progress and euro membership have also helped reduce government borrowing costs. The yield on the 10-year government bond is now 1.03 percent, down from more than 5 percent when the country joined the EU and compared with 3.44 percent on the sovereign note with the same maturity in neighboring Poland.

While Slovak living standards have surpassed those in older EU members Greece and Portugal, their rise hasn’t prevented the emergence of extremist and anti-establishment parties from gaining ground, including the People’s Party, whose leaders praise the country’s World War II fascist regime.

Brexit `Slap' Helps Turn Anti-EU Tide, Slovak Leader Says

The party, which won 8 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections last year, launched a petition for Slovakia to leave the EU within days of the June Brexit vote. It was joined in parliament by a handful of other anti-establishment parties that cost Prime Minister Robert Fico his majority and forced him into a coalition with rivals from across the political spectrum. His government has since faced protests from Slovaks who say he’s not doing enough to root out corruption.

Another challenge that remains is Russia, which has targeted Slovakia with as many as 40 news websites aimed at fostering doubts about the EU’s viability and undermining the political establishment, according to Kiska.

“For Russia, a united Europe is a problem,” Kiska said. “That’s why it’s trying to break us up. They will do anything to achieve that. It’s a combination of diplomacy, economy, information. It’s a sophisticated mix.”

Russia has denied charges from the U.S. and European governments that it is trying to interfere in elections. 

Kiska has clashed with Fico, the premier, who’s sided with Viktor Orban, the prime minister of neighboring Hungary, and other leaders in calling sanctions on Russia useless.

“What other signal should the modern world give to show we don’t accept the violation of international law?” Kiska said. “What could replace them?”