Lundi 22 Avril 2019  

N°124 - Quatrième trimestre 2018

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Slovakia: an Energetic New Tiger in the Central Europe

Joining the European Union and NATO has heightened the status of the young Slovak Republic, reflecting its successful political transition and spectacular economic recovery. H.E. Maria Krasnohorska, the Ambassador of Slovakia to France, outlines the major challenges facing her country as it strives to redress the differences of development levels inside the country and stake out its place in the changing global geopolitical order.

The Diplomatic Letter: Madam Ambassador, Slovakia joined the European Union (EU) on 1 May 2004, capping a negotiation process launched shortly after your country claimed independence in 1993. Sixty years after the Yalta accords, does the enlargement of the EU carry great historical significance? Where do you hope to see the EU headed in the future, in particular as regards the proposed European Constitution? Is Slovakia looking to raise a strong voice in EU bodies?

H.E. Maria Krasnohorska:
2004 has been an extremely important year for both Slovakia and the European Union. We are at a turning point in the history of our continent. The accession of Slovakia and nine other countries to the European Union brought an end to long years of artificial divisions between the peoples of Europe, put in place by the Yalta accords. We are once again moving forward toward our goals of liberty, stability and democracy, following the path laid out by the European Union’s founding fathers. We know the price of the liberty affirmed in the Declaration of Human Rights, because we know what it means to have it taken away. Slovakia’s European positions, and on a broader level its international stances, as well as its stability and security, are all shaped by these basic principles. They are being shorn up by the establishment of favorable conditions that will enable us to ensure the country’s sustainable development and prosperity. Bolstered by these advances, we are ready to give European institutions a fresh boost. We hope to give Europe a dynamic and forward-looking boost, helping to make it even stronger and enabling it to take decisions that serve the common interest of the international community as a whole. The voice we raise in the European Communities will certainly not be that of a second-class country. It will be commensurate with our responsibility, and will bring added value to the EU.
Slovakia is a country with wide potential that is achieving very dynamic growth. We are ready to meet our duties as an EU member state, taking full advantage of our assets and making an effective contribution to the broader development process, both inside and outside the European Union. At the same time, EU membership has afforded us new opportunities to help shape Europe and lay out our common future. This will be the first time our country is able to play such an extensive role.
The Constitutional Treaty is the framework that is needed to make this Union work. The draft proposal is, obviously, far from perfect. It does however set out a framework for reaching a political and legal compromise that will enable us to build a community founded on our shared values: democracy, the rule of law, protection of and respect for the rights of all persons. We hope to build a European Union that embraces the unique cultural identity and experiences of every one of its members, without quashing their national pride. We need a Union that fosters their development and economic growth, and guarantees their security in the face of 21st-century threats. That said, we must not forget that solidarity between member states is of utmost importance. The group is only as solid as its smallest element.
Slovakia also has an opportunity to play a key role in the establishment of the European Union’s New Neighbor Policy. We have long-standing ties with the Balkan countries, as well as a good mutual knowledge with Ukraine. Bolstered by this experience, we would like to help the EU move toward even further expansion, and help strengthen its ties with neighboring countries.
What’s more, in order to boost cooperation between member states, it is absolutely vital to reform EU primary law and to realign inter-institutional ties within the enlarged Union. The Laaken principles – streamlined institutions, greater transparency, a Union that is closer to its citizens – are firmly anchored in the terms of the Constitutional Treaty approved in June 2004 and signed by member state representatives on the following October 29th. It proposes an institutional operation model that strikes a good balance with member states and their national parliaments, granting each country ample room to continue affirming its national interests while bolstering the EU’s interests.

T.D.L.: Slovakia’s accession to the EU was accompanied by an internal political context marked by the victory of an opposition candidate in the April 17th 2004 presidential elections, Ivan Gasparovic, and by the lowest turnout of voters at the European Parliament elections (16,96%) in June 13th among all the new members States. How do you explain the growing disquiet in Slovakia, long seen as one of the most pro-Europe new members? Why do you think so many people in the new Central European member states are afraid of losing their religious identity or experiencing a “brain drain”?

Slovakia’s bid to join the European Union was overwhelming supported by the Slovakian people, as confirmed when the issue was put to a vote in a special referendum held on 16-17 May 2003. 92.48% of voters were in favor of Slovakia joining the EU. 52,15% of eligible voters turned out, making it one of the most successful referendums held in the candidate countries.
In fact, Slovak public opinion has always favored EU membership, which has been a top priority for all of Slovakia’s political parties.
Concerning the law turnout of voters to the European elections on June 13th 2004, I would like to underscore the fact that Slovaks are not used to going to the urns that often. The Slovak people relied on their political representatives to handle the matter. It is also true that the deep-reaching reforms launched after the 1998 elections left Slovaks tired out, which helps to explain why they have lost interest somewhat in european questions. The realities of the construction process – with its debates over the different categories of member states and the transition periods imposed for a number of fields – deepened this disenchantment.
For instance, Slovaks don’t understand why – after making so much headway and enacting difficult reforms – Slovak are being denied free access to labour market movement, one of the rights EU membership was supposed to guarantee them. This right is supposed to be extended to new member states after a 7-year transition period, but current estimates show that only 3 to 4% of the citizens of the new Central and Eastern European members states are planning to leave their countries, and most of them are students or young people. Slovak students studiying at foreign universities, considering their knowledge and their diversity, bring benefit to their own country as well as to their host country. I don’t think, at this time, that these stays abroad can be called a “brain drain.” What’s more, most of our young people return to Slovakia, greatly enriched by this new experience.
Finally, in answer to your last question, with all the freedom of expression in our country, we have not noticed any fear over losing our religious identity.

T.D.L.: Slovakia made up considerable ground in a few short years, turning itself into the region’s most dynamic economy. Even so, there is still a development gap between the Bratislava region and eastern Slovakia. What is your government doing to make this two-speed economy a thing of the past? Has it pinpointed priority areas that will be targeted with EU Structural Funds? Now that Slovakia has completed its main privatization projects, does it offer other attractive opportunities and advantages to foreign investors?

Slovakia has become the most dynamic economy in the region. This is a direct result of the modernization reforms carried out by the government after the 1998 and the 2002 elections. Regional disparities and the economic gap between the Bratislava region and eastern Slovakia are part of the heritage of the former regime’s planned economy. They are also rooted in changes made in the country’s economic structure after 1989, in order to set up a market economy. These changes caused high unemployment which is disproportionate all across the country. As laid out in the “National Development Plan,” our top priorities are fostering balanced development between western and eastern Slovakia, decreasing disparities between the standard of living in different regions, and ensuring more harmonious economic and social development for as many Slovak citizens as possible.
We have been working toward these objectives, paying closer attention to the use of preassession funds and to how we want to use our structural and cohesion funds. 1763 million euros in European funds have been set aside for Slovakia for 2004-2006. This includes 1187 million euros in structural funds and 576 million in cohesion funds, in addition to 600 million euros of national cofinancing. Based on our National Development Plan and recommendations from the European Union, our regional development strategy targets four main priorities: making our businesses more competitive, creating new jobs, fostering balanced regional development, and bolstering the agricultural sector and rural development.
Suggestions that structural funds should be limited for EU member countries that have insti-tuted low corporate taxes are groundless. In fact, we believe that a sound, liberal economic policy could help the new member states become economically efficient, while heightening cohesion within the European Union. What’s more, let me add that a company’s decision on where to invest its funds is not determined solely by a given country’s tax code, but by additional factors that I consider even more important, such as the strength of the local economy, the training and skills of its work force, and the overall legislative framework.
What’s more, the only way to achieve the principles laid out in the Lisbon Strategy (economic growth, competitiveness, and employment) is to implement reforms that include deregulation and lowering the corporate tax burden.
Thanks to these reforms, the Slovak government has created one of the best investment climates in all Europe, which explains why Slovakia continues to hold great interest for investors. What are its other advantages? Slovakia has managed to protect its industrial heritage, especially the mechanical and electrical engineering fields and the automobile and forestry industries. With its well qualified labor force (87.6% of Slovakians have university or secondary degrees), low payroll costs, and flat tax rate, Slovakia now ranks among the top European Union and OECD countries. Thanks to its favorable geographic location, outstanding transportation networks, and stable political situation, it offers numerous other advantages as well.

T.D.L.: Looking ahead to Slovakia’s admission into the EU and its eventual incorporation into the euro zone, in 1998 Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda‘s government launched a program of wide structural reforms that have led to cutbacks in social programs. Could you talk about the social cost of these reforms, and their impact on your country’s relatively high unemployment rate? Are there any assistance programs for the Roma minority, which has been particularly hard hit by this process? What is being done to stamp out corruption, a key issue for the Slovak government?

After holding onto power in the 2002 legislative elections, the Slovak government began implementing the most difficult yet necessary reforms, overhauling the labor world and the health care sector, and working to resolve social issues in view of Slovakia’s accession to the European Union. All of these reforms, including those carried out in the economic arena (transforming the industrial sector, cutting taxes to 19%, setting VAT at 19%, measures to attract foreign investors) are aimed at balancing state outlays with state revenues, and laying the foundations for a better balanced social welfare system.
Recent social reforms (child benefits, unemployment benefits, and job security allowances) aim to encourage people to go out and look for work, or to take jobs that serve the common good (special allowances for people working in local communities, etc.). The idea is to help galvanize people living in difficult or precarious circumstances.
These reforms have had an even greater impact on the poorest segments of the population, including the Roma. This isn’t a miracle solution to the problems faced by a portion of the Roma minority, which has been neglected for decades. This is one stage in a systematic process that will enable the socially underprivileged Roma to overcome poverty, using the tools it has put forward. In 2003, the government approved a fondamental document that sets out key measures for integrating the Roma communities. It calls for laying out priority actions for improving their situation every year. All of these efforts fall under the responsibility of the Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs, Human Rights, and Minorities, and are coordinated with all the concerned ministries as well as the office of the government delegate for the Roma minority.
The government is striving to heighten the positive impact of this social reform, without changing its fondamental principles. The measures that have been approved focus primarily on temporarily increasing work benefits, fighting usury, helping fund the organizers of employment programs, and subsidizing employers who hire the long-term unemployed. We are also encouraging young adults to obtain further training, implementing new social legislation by working jointly in the field with all concerned institutions, helping to create more merit-based higher education scholarships, helping to distribute well-balanced meals in primary schools, granting easier terms for paying energy bills, reimbursing the cost of traveling to and from work on public transportation, using european funds, etc. The government is aware that, for a variety of reasons, a large portion of the Roma minority is not on an equal footing with other Slovak citizens, especially in terms of their chances of successful integration and participation in our country’s life. In fact, ensuring that all citizens are afforded an equal chance is the government’s primary concern as it implements these measures. It prides itself on coordinating these efforts in a highly professional manner bolstered by a strong political will, as it focuses on the regionalization process and direct participation by the Roma.
To finish answering your question, let me say a few words about corruption. The Slovak government is extremely vigilant what it comes to this problem, and has launched extensive legislative measures to fight it. Many of these measures are already bearing fruit, such as the law creating a special anti-corruption court and special prosecutor, the new criminal code, the “zero tolerance” policy towards corruption in the judicial arena, the mandatory declaration on the origin of property, the law on conflict of interest, etc. An Anti-Corruption Department has been created within the government, and is responsible for implementing these anti-corruption measures. The Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister is in charge of coordinating and running this new department.

T.D.L.: On 13 May 2004, the four heads of government in the Visegrad Group confirmed they planned to continue cooperating within the regional organization after joining the EU. Where is regional cooperation in Central Europe headed in the future? In what areas would you like to see it strengthened?

The Visegrad Group (V4) is a unique body within the new enlarged EU. This group was created by the new member states entirely on their own, to encourage regional cooperation without assistance from the powerful and rich “engine” that is the West. Since the creation of the V4, which came about as recently as 1991, we have managed to meet all of our initial objectives. As the Soviet Union’s was falling apart, we began pushing forward with social, political and economic changes in all four Central European countries. This process culminated with the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joining the European Union.
We are standing at the brink of a new phase in regional cooperation, one less dramatic looking than thirteen years ago. Now that we have successfully resolved our main foreign policy dilemmas, it is time to start our “adult life” as members of the European Union. The influence of external events that induced us to cooperate are, fortunately, a thing of the past. In the meantime, the V4 has become an appealing option for neighboring countries, which have voiced their desire to join us over and again. However, I am not convinced that we will expand this kind of cooperation in the future. To the contrary, I see us working more deeply on the issues examined by the V4, which are the building blocks of our regional identity. This is the way the Nordic and the Benelux countries have been going about it for decades. The only way for us to move forward is to do things gradually. I therefore do not see any way the V4 could have a direct implication in european affairs in the near future. But that does not rule out the possibility that the V4 countries could speak out in a single voice for a well defined common interest, for instance in the debate over the eastern dimension of the EU’s New Neighbor Policy.

T.D.L.: The European enlargement process has made Slovakia’s eastern border the new eastern border of the EU, reestablishing the boundary that separated the former socialist republics and the USSR until 1991. How has EU enlargement affected your country’s relations with Ukraine and Russia? How do you feel about President Vladimir Putin’s call, on 26 May 2004, for an “economic and spiritual rapprochement” between Russia and the EU?

Slovakia’s accession to the EU has changed the nature of its ties with its surrounding world. This is true of its relations with other member states, as well as third-party countries. I think it is still too early for us to gauge the full extent of this change. As to our ties with Ukraine and Russia, it should be underscored that our “socialist past” is seen as a shared factor, from the point of view of the free West. As a great many people still recall, the borders between the Soviet Union and its satellites were indeed an iron curtain, like the border that separated Slovakia and Austria. The free movement of persons helped to bring Western democracies together during the postwar period, but there was no such freedom between the Soviet Union and Eastern European states. We had nothing but the political, military and economic bonds a hegemonic power had imposed on its vassals.
For all these reasons, as Slovaks, we saw the breakup of the USSR and the establishment of an independent Ukraine as positive steps forward. Ukraine is Slovakia’s largest neighbor. Now that we belong to the EU and NATO, we don’t feel threatened by Ukraine’s great weight, viewing it instead as both a challenge and an opportunity. We look at the economic and spiritual rapprochement between Russia and the European Union in the same way. It is an opportunity to foster our shared interests, and to spread the values of liberty and democracy to the Russian Federation.
Over the course of history, Russia has suffered far more from revolution and war than other European states. As we strengthen our ties with this great country, it is vital to keep moving forward steadily but determinedly. We must always follow the same line of action, so that Russians can see that we understand their concerns but also realize that there are limits the European Union will simply not see crossed.

T.D.L.: The decision whether or not to open accession negotiations with Turkey will be taken at the EU summit in Brussels, scheduled for 17 December 2004. Where to you stand on this point? Do you think EU expansion should be kept within certain geographic limits? Where would you set those boundaries?

The question of whether or not to allow Turkey into the EU is as delicate in Slovakia as it is in other member countries. But unlike many of those countries, our citizens have virtually no direct experience with the people of Turkey. Personally, I see this unfamiliarity as the likely cause of a certain amount of concern. This is reflected in our nation’s historical memory, which is a product of myths that date back to the period of the great Ottoman expansion in Central Europe, and have been kept alive in classical literature and popular traditions. Overcoming these historical stereotypes is no easy thing. But the experience we are going through right now can play a key role in helping us do just that. For this reason, I think we should open accession negotiations with Turkey, but without setting an a closing date.
Where should the borders of an enlarged European Union stop? They can spread out as far as we find human beings who identify with the European ideal and are ready to realign their political social, judicial and economic systems to make them compatible with European Union systems and with the values respected by Europeans. We need to step back from the question of where geographical limits should be set. Every single state on the European continent did not rush forward to join the European Union, far from it. And some are still not interested in joining. On the other hand, the accession of Cyprus and Malta confirms that human beings and their convictions are the real deciding factors.

T.D.L.: Along with joining the EU, Slovakia also become a member of the Atlantic Alliance on 29 March 2004. Has the expansion of NATO reshaped the geopolitical climate for Slovakia? What type of cooperation would you like to see between the EU and NATO?

We joined NATO exactly one month before joining the EU, but the two processes were very closely tied. In fact, we steered a roundabout path toward both these organizations. We made our integration bid all the more complicated by domestic political developement in the latter half of the 1990s. To get back on the road to membership, we had to satisfy the political criteria for both organizations, which was identical. After joining these organizations, we were rather surprised by the similarity of the decision-making processes. NATO and the EU examine exactly the same foreign policy and security issues. Before becoming a member, we expected the two organizations to cooperate much more closely and to split up the work in a clearer fashion.
The enlargement of the Alliance, in 2004, had a huge impact on Slovakia’s geopolitical climate. That climate changed radically, it is even fair to say it was totally reshaped. From now on, as a member of NATO and the EU, Slovakia can count on the support of all of its neighbors – with the exception of Ukraine – to protect its vital and essential interests such as its territorial integrity and military security. All our neighbors, except Ukraine, belong to these organizations. As the smallest state in the region, the only way for us to feel safe is to be part of a functioning, supportive and cooperative environment, which these two organizations guarantee. But membership also requires us to fulfill certain duties and to help face geopolitical challenges, often in faraway regions that are equally distant from us on a social and cultural level.
New NATO and EU member states are often asked what they think of cooperation between the two organizations, and which one they prefer. Well, unless these states are schizophrenic, as members of both organizations alongside eighteen other countries, they cannot defend one stance in NATO and another within the EU. Hence, not only is it vital that the two organizations work together closely, it is preferable and only natural.

T.D.L.: The leaders of the newest EU member states have reacted to the U.S. intervention in Iraq quite differently than the leaders of the EU’s founding states. What principles should guide the establishment of the EU’s common foreign and security policy? How do you feel about the growing U.S. influence in European security affairs since the Dayton Peace Conference (1995) ?

We did not join the EU with a mind to creating subcategories of member states. A distinction can be made between “old” and “new” member countries in terms of their socio economic development, but not in terms of their political principles. We also hope that the differences between the countries will not grow wider, but will gradually disappear over time. We respect the visionary spirit and driving force of the leaders of the founding states, but we think the time has come to stop setting them apart. Let me also say that the dividing lines between the positions of the various European countries on the U.S. intervention in Iraq are not as neat as your question would have it.
What’s more, I believe that the EU’s foreign policy and security principles have been spelled out very clearly. Defining these principles is not the problem, the problem is how to apply them. You mentioned the 1995 Dayton Peace Conference, which received full backing from the United States to resolve a conflict in Europe. I hope this will be the last example of its kind. I firmly believe that the European Union is much stronger than it was ten years ago.
It has become a more advanced and more operational entity.

T.D.L.: The French public doesn’t seem to be very familiar with your country, despite the strong cultural and historical ties between Paris and Bratislava. What can be done to heighten mutual understanding between our countries? What role do you think France should play in the enlarged EU? France and Slovakia have established energetic trade ties. Does your country hold other good opportunities for French firms? Slovakia has been an Observer at the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF) since 2002. Does the Francophonie play a role in your country’s political culture?

It is true that the French public does not know Slovakia nearly well enough. This is due in part to the long isolation of our section of Europe behind the Iron Curtain. We have nonetheless seized important occasions to get to know each other better, such as the 15th anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution,” which we recently celebrated. The European Union enlargement process has, of course, afforded us the greatest opportunity. The ties between our two countries are founded on a rich shared history. Since the birth of the Slovak Republic, on 1 January 1993, we have been widening those ties across the board. Our political leaders are in regular contact. They are meeting more frequently, both officially and informally, and now speak on a nearly daily basis. Now we need to bring the citizens of our two countries closer, ensuring that each population has wide and varied information about the other. We are pursuing this in the political, diplomatic, economic and cultural arenas, and are also trying to establish basic person-to-person contacts. Our shared experiences include numerous meetings in the form of conferences and round tables. They have been attended by an extremely varied audience from all across France, including people from academic and university circles as well as the civil society and a more specialized professional community. Regional cooperation programs and direct contact between cities are highly effective in boosting mutual understanding between our two peoples. France and Slovakia have particularly dynamic ties in the economic and trade arenas. In fact, France is the second foreign investor in the Slovak Republic. There are currently 160 Franco-Slovak firms working in Slovakia, which is encouraging French investors to step up their investments in the country. We hope to see more investors follow in the footsteps of French car producer PSA Peugeot-Citroen, which is building an assembly plant near the city of Trnava.
We believe that France, as a founding member of the EU, has an irreplaceable role to play in the new enlarged EU. It should be recalled that France was one of the most active advocates for the last and largest expansion of the EU, in May 2004. Thanks to its long experience with ever-changing European cooperation, France should play a key role for integration during the next stage of the European construction process.
Finally, Slovakia has been an Observer at the OIF since 2002. We see this organization as a forum for educational cooperation and for promoting the French language, as well as a space where members can put together joint actions in the scientific, research, and economic areas. We realize that this organization is steadily strengthening its political dimension. Working with the OIF affords Slovakia, an EU and NATO member state and a candidate for the position of non permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2006-07, another opportunity to promote greater cultural diversity and to confront the challenges of globalization alongside its fellow member countries.

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