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Row between Fico’s Smer and European socialists deepens over pro-Russian stance

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The Slovak social democrat party of Robert Fico appears to be edging towards the margins of the pan-European socialist family as the row over his party’s pro-Russian stance continues to escalate.

In last weekend’s general elections, Fico’s Smer party topped the polls by a seven-point margin over the second party, the liberal Progressive Slovakia, leaving Fico in pole position to become prime minister for the third time.

Fico has repeatedly courted controversy with his close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin despite the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine and the EU’s sanctions against Moscow.

Smer’s election victory poses a major problem for the Party of European Socialists – and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament – of which Smer is a member.

Socialist lawmakers have been vocal, together with other pro-European political groups, in supporting Ukraine against the invasion Russia started in February 2022.

The two SMER MEPs, Monika Benova and Katarina Roth Nevedalova, have tended to vote with the S&D group line on many of the most important files for the centre-left group, such as the Green Deal, rule of law, and Artificial Intelligence.

However, in November 2022, Benova, along with the Bulgarian Socialist delegation, which is also pro-Russia, voted against a Parliament resolution which described Vladimir Putin’s regime as a sponsor of terrorism.

Roth Nevedalova did not vote on the resolution.

Contacted for comment by Euractiv, a PES spokesperson referred to a weekend statement to the Swedish press by party president Stefan Lofven, in which the former Swedish prime minister warned that if Fico’s rhetoric continues and is implemented by his government, he will launch the formal process to exclude Smer from the PES.

Fico has refused to back down in the face of Lofven’s comments.

Smer was suspended from the PES for ten months in 2006 after forming a coalition government with the far-right Slovak National Party. Smer was later threatened with suspension in 2015 over Fico’s anti-migrant rhetoric.

During a press conference on Tuesday (3 October), S&D Vice-President Pedro Marques told journalists that the group in the European Parliament will follow the lead of the PES on the membership question.

“We are concerned about the rhetoric of Robert Fico. We addressed this problem with the PES. If this rhetoric continues and they turn into actions, a sanction process might start and expulsion is a possibility,” Marques told journalists.

For her part, Katarina Barley a vice-president of the European Parliament with the S&D, told Euractiv she was “watching very closely what concrete policies Robert Fico and his party will pursue”.

“Our determined support for Ukraine and our position on Russia are unalterable. Should Fico and SMER contradict the fundamental values of the S&D Group and the SPE, we will react unitedly and decisively. European values and political integrity always come first for us,” she added.

The row is potentially embarrassing for the centre-left group which has sought to position itself as a consistently pro-European force.

European People’s Party (EPP) leader Manfred Weber told the press on Tuesday that the “Socialist party has to clarify their position on this issue” and that Fico “sounds like Orban,” a reference to the nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.Orban’s Fidesz party left the centre-right EPP in March 2021. The decision was eventually taken by the party itself after years of internal discussions and disputes within the EPP about whether to expel Fidesz from its ranks.

“EPP’s parties are standing for the pro-European approach, for the rule of law based approach, to fight against corruption, and for the strong support for Ukraine,” Weber said.

Green group co-leader Philippe Lamberts also chimed in, telling reporters in Strasbourg that “even in the S&D, there are populists and they are reluctant to kick them out”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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