From Factories to Courtrooms: Shifting Gears in European Affairs

In this month's Central and South-West European Press Review with Display Europe we explore, among others, the Czech Republic and Slovakia's automotive decline and Hungary's release of human traffickers.

Published on 22 January 2024 at 18:55

Europe, once the fulcrum of automotive mastery, now finds itself trailing in the slipstream of the United States and an ascendant China, the latter having surged to the forefront as the world's premier car exporter. This paradigm shift threatens to dislodge the European car industry not just globally but within its own borders. The ramifications loom largest for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, whose prodigious per capita car production earned them the moniker of Europe's Detroit, with Slovakia standing on the precipice of greatest risk. There, the automotive sector anchors half of the nation's exports and industrial output. Bratislava's Pravda daily, referencing analysis from Bloomberg and Slovak think-tank Globsec, underscores a sobering prognosis: the ongoing industry transformation could erode up to 85,000 jobs – a staggering 4.5 percent of the labour market. 

Despite local manufacturers' bets on Slovak production to pivot seamlessly to cutting-edge electric vehicles, the stark reduction in complexity – from roughly 200 moving parts in conventional vehicles to a mere 20 in their electric counterparts – signals a seismic shift. The simplification spells obsolescence for the intricate webs of smaller suppliers once integral to the production line, specialising in now-redundant components like exhausts, injectors, and gearboxes. The Pravda commentary crystallises a sentiment resonating among industry sceptics: the race to electrification is accelerating too rapidly for the traditional automotive sector to catch up, leaving a legacy industry—and the livelihoods tethered to it—potentially stranded in the transition. 

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In a contemplative piece for Prague's Lidové noviny, Czech economist Lukáš Kovanda conjures the spectre of Detroit – a city that stands as a grim testament to industrial collapse and economic ruin – to sound an alarm for the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Kovanda  posits that these nations, integral cogs in Europe's automotive engine, might tread a similar path marred by economic devastation and soaring unemployment. Amidst this cautionary narrative, Kovanda identifies a critical shortfall: the Czech and Slovak failure to court investors for battery production—a sector where they trail their Visegrád compatriots, Hungary and Poland, who together boast an impending total of twelve battery facilities. He lays a portion of the blame at the feet of what he perceives as the European Union's overly zealous push for electromobility. This shift, “propelled by the EU's Green Agenda and the Green Deal”, is, in his view, prematurely enforced and inadvertently handicaps the continental carmakers against extra-European rivals, most notably from China. EU manufacturers are bound by stringent environmental standards which their Chinese counterparts navigate with more latitude. In the competitive tableau of the global automotive industry, European component manufacturers are voicing a stark economic truth: the costs they encounter merely procuring materials eclipse the price at which Chinese firms offer the finished product to the market.

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In the race to electric vehicle prominence, also another significant automobile producer – Italy – finds itself trailing, with one of the continent's more languorous adoption rates – a mere 3% of cars sold in the first ten months of the previous year were electric, starkly contrasting with Western Europe's average of 16%. This sluggish uptake is attributed, in part, to a threadbare charging infrastructure beyond the urban sprawl.

Rome-based La Repubblica has shed light on the Italian government's strategy to navigate this electric shortfall: to infuse new life into Italy's venerable car fleet, to democratise vehicle ownership among the ranks of the less privileged, and to kindle the sales of electric cars that bear the coveted "Made in Italy" hallmark.

More picks

Human traffickers walk free in Hungary

András Dezső | HVG | 10 January | HU

In a move that intertwines fiscal prudence with judicial leniency, Hungary has instituted a policy of "reintegration detention”, which quietly ushered more than two thousand foreign traffickers beyond prison walls last year. The policy, aimed at stemming the penal system's financial losses, allows convicts to disappear, provided they promise to leave Hungarian territory within 72 hours.

This cost-saving measure, however, has provoked controversy. Critics decry it for eroding the efforts of law enforcement and wasting judicial resources. It also fosters a disparity, with Hungarian criminals languishing for similar crimes.

The European Union, with Austria's vehement objections leading the charge, has taken issue with the policy. Vienna's diplomatic protest in May highlights the contradiction between Hungary's tough anti-immigration policies and the leniency shown to those who facilitate illegal crossings, a paradox that has not gone unnoticed by its European neighbours.

Slovak government dismantles inconvenient Special prosecutor’s office

Juraj Koník | Denník N | December 22 | SK

In Slovakia's power corridors, Prime minister Robert Fico targets the special prosecutor's office—a bulwark against corruption and organised crime—for abolition. His government’s plans to dissolve this office, despite parliamentary debate, are likely to pass given his coalition's majority.

This move by Mr. Fico, who regards the office as an adversary, has unsettled Brussels. The European Commission has warned against such institutional upheaval, and even Mr. Fico’s populist base appears split over the office’s closure, seeing it as a ploy to dismiss inconvenient cases. As the year turned, swathes of Slovaks protested, signalling a fierce opposition to weakening their judiciary – a sentiment echoing beyond their borders.

The grip of Catalan separatists on Snchez’s Socialist government

Víctor Modelo | El Mundo | January 10 | ES

Spain's socialist premier, Pedro Sánchez, steers a government increasingly dependent on the Catalan separatist party Junts, with their seven pivotal seats in the 350-strong lower house. Junts, for their part, are leveraging their votes for significant regional gains. The concessions wrung by Junts are substantial. They've negotiated exclusive immigration control for Catalonia, a bold step towards greater financial autonomy intended to settle Catalonia's 'historic debt' with the Spanish state. This arrangement elevates Catalonia as the first Spanish region to wrest immigration powers from the National Police, vesting them instead in the local Mossos d'Esquadra, despite concerns over potential sacrifices in operational efficacy.

Moreover, the negotiated amnesty for the Catalan leadership cadre, helmed by Carles Puigdemont and chastened by the judiciary following the ill-fated 2017 secessionist gambit, finds itself buttressed against potential legal onslaughts from European Union institutions.

The agreement also sketches a return strategy for businesses that fled Catalonia post-2017, and ensures state coverage of Catalan public transport costs, addressing claims of systemic underfunding.

In partnership with Display Europe, cofunded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate‑General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

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