WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may make a trip to the Central European country of Slovakia on Feb. 15 — the last day on the job for A. Wess Mitchell, the State Department’s assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs.
It would be Pompeo’s first trip to the Central European country and would follow a two-day meeting of foreign ministers in Poland that the US will host on Feb. 13 and 14. Pompeo announced the ministerial while on a trip throughout the Middle East earlier this month. Given that the meeting is hosted by the United States and is meant to bring together foreign ministers, Pompeo is expected to attend.
The trip to Slovakia after Poland would be intended to show that the administration appreciates Central Europe as a whole, and not just Poland, according to one person familiar with the matter. That’s significant because, while Slovakia is also in Central Europe, it hasn’t clashed with the European Union over the rule of law to the same extent that Poland and Hungary have. Both Poland and Hungary have been at odds with the EU over judicial reforms, and over budget proposals that would link EU funds to the rule of law. Last year, Pompeo rattled nerves speaking in Brussels when he stressed the importance of respecting state sovereignty, which was taken as a nod to the Polish and Hungarian governments and a swipe at Europe as a whole.
“It is about showing that the US can engage effectively with [Central-Eastern European] governments that are pro-EU and lie in its integration core, and not only with the EU's troublemakers,” said the person familiar discussions of a Pompeo trip.
That would be a message Europe would be particularly keen to hear with Brexit looming and reports that the president mulled leaving NATO.
A second source said that the trip to Slovakia was an option, but that a final decision had not been made.
Central Europe was the focal point of Mitchell’s tenure at the State Department. Mitchell came to the State Department from the Center for European Policy Analysis, a nonprofit, nongovernmental institute focused on Central Europe. He reversed the Obama administration’s policy of non-engagement with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government and focused on shared interests with the region, which he viewed as critical to countering Russia.
A trip to Slovakia could be a sign that the Trump administration intends to play nicely with all of Europe, particularly since the administration changed the focus of the Poland conference, which was to have been devoted to countering Iran, after the rest of Europe declined to attend. The revised conference topic, the Middle East, is thought likely to attract more delegates from more European countries.
It could also be a sign that the administration means to continue trying to work closely with Central Europe based on Mitchell’s principles of shared interests. The first sign came on Tuesday, shortly after news of Mitchell’s resignation broke, when the State Department shared that Pompeo spoke to Orbán to discuss “the importance of strengthening the US–Hungary strategic relationship, including bilateral defense ties.”
According to the State Department’s records of Pompeo’s travels, next month’s will be his first trip to Central Europe as secretary of state. Asked for comment, the State Department declined to confirm or deny the secretary’s travel plans, saying people should wait for an official announcement.