“One of the high priorities of the SK V4 Presidency is the Balkan region. We are strong advocates of the EU enlargement process.
By providing political and project-oriented assistance to the region in order to support their Euro-Atlantic integration, we contribute to the strengthening of local civil society and regional cooperation.”
GDL: What has Slovak diplomacy achieved so far since its independence in 1993?
IH: From the beginning, we continued to seek integration into the European Union and NATO. The accession treaty to the EU was signed here in Athens on 16th April 2003, followed by the integration of the Slovak Republic into the European Union in 2004. The successful conclusion of the Slovak European story was later reflected in three crucial events: membership of the Schengen zone at the start of 2008; the adoption of the euro in January 2009; and the Presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2016.
Slovakia has made significant economic reforms since its separation in 1993 and today, Slovakia is widely seen as a success model for other countries. On 1st January 2009, Slovakia was the first, and so far, the only member of V4 countries to join the Eurozone. For the first time, in 2017 the Slovak Foreign Minister, Miroslav Lajčák, was elected President of the 72nd UN General Assembly. In addition, Slovakia will also preside over the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2019. This is another case of the Slovak Republic being awarded the post for the first time.
Finally yet more importantly, Slovakia will be chairing the meetings of the OECD Council at Ministerial Level. Regarding the last two, it will be our premiere.
GDL: What are the current priorities of Slovakia’s regional foreign policy?
IH: The main line for the regional dimension of Slovakia’s foreign policy reflects the principles of good neighbourly relations based on partnership and dialogue. Slovakia plays an active role within the Visegrad Group (V4), focusing in particular on those common themes which the V4 countries can jointly advance within the EU context. In the period of key events in the European area, Slovakia is holding its fifth Presidency (1st July 2018 – 30th June 2019). One of the high priorities of the SK V4 Presidency is the Balkan region. We are strong advocates of the EU enlargement process. By providing political and project-oriented assistance to the region in order to support their Euro-Atlantic integration, we contribute to the strengthening of local civil society and regional cooperation.
Slovakia fosters a targeted and thematically clearly defined cooperation with all members of the EU and NATO. With regards to the current security development, stability of the European neighbourhood is in our strategic interest. Therefore, Slovakia attaches particular importance to developing bilateral cooperation and regular political dialogue with countries in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood – first and foremost with the countries of the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership countries.
“The Slovak V4 Presidency wishes to place emphasis on the strengthening of internal dynamics, competitiveness, security, interconnectivity and cohesion of the Visegrad region within the EU. The motto of the Slovak Presidency ‘Dynamic Visegrad for Europe’ expresses the fulfilment of these ambitions.”
GDL: What is the Slovak approach to the Common Security and Defence Policy of Europe?
IH: A secure environment is one of the main preconditions of a successful and stable foreign policy. The world as we knew it has changed and the security situation in many of its parts, including the immediate EU neighbourhood, has recently significantly deteriorated. Breaching of essential elements and norms of International Law, violating sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries and an increase of hybrid activities have occurred. Close and intensive cooperation within the EU and NATO in the field of common foreign and security policy is a must.
A key instrument for external action remains the implementation of the EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy. By recognising our share in the strengthening of European security and defence – in synergy with NATO activities – Slovakia participates in projects of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Slovakia’s own Indirect Fire Support (EuroArtillery) project has made it onto the list of the first collaborative PESCO projects in the field of security and defence.
The security of the Western Balkan region affecting the security-political environment of our continent is an integral part of Europe’s security. Therefore, we support the implementation of the Global EU Strategy, stating that a credible enlargement policy is a strategic investment to European security and prosperity.
GDL: Slovakia is a landlocked Central European country known for its diverse natural landscape and many castles. How did this geopolitical reality shape the character of the Slovak people?
IH: Slovak society, locked between mountain ranges and the River Danube were, and still are, rather homogenous. Being a landlocked country the Slovak people tend to defend their culture, traditions and customs, they are seen as rather conservative.
On the other hand, positioned in the heart of Central Europe has given us a unique experience of close relations and cooperation with our neighbours and allowed us to form a pragmatic attitude in our political culture and willingness to look for compromises in our policymaking.
GDL: How is Slovakia’s economic forecast for the coming years?
IH: Slovakia is widely seen as a success model for creating an investment- and business-friendly environment and has managed to have one of the highest figures of economic growth in the Eurozone and the EU long-term. Slovakia’s on-going economic expansion is driven mainly by increasing domestic demand, booming local and foreign investment, as well as an upswing in exports.
Real GDP growth reached 3.4% in 2017 and is projected to rise to 4% GDP in 2018 and 4,5% GDP in 2019. Exports are expected to increase by 8% in 2019 as Slovakia’s export capacities will be boosted by expanded production facilities in the automobile industry (the new factory of Jaguar Land Rover in Nitra will launch its production by the end of 2018).
At the same time, private consumption is set to remain a significant contributor to overall growth, backed by solid real wage growth and further employment gains.
The government deficit and the general government debt are projected to further decrease, as too the unemployment rate.
GDL: Slovakia is often considered at the weakest part in the V4 because of its small size and its less conspicuous involvement in the Visegrad Group Project. What is the direction that V4 will follow under Slovakia’s Presidency?
IH: The objective of the Slovak Presidency is to bring tangible results to the benefit of the citizens of V4 countries in three priority areas: Strong Europe, Secure Environment and Smart Solutions. Slovakia will continue dialogue with the Western Balkans and Eastern Partners aimed at supporting EU enlargement and an open character of integration processes. Our priorities are centred on three basic principles:
1: Promote unity wherever possible – we will strive to achieve a consensus in matters which we can jointly promote in a more constructive way at European level;
2: Offer solutions where it is beneficial – we are interested in a mutual implementation of such projects that have a practical positive impact on citizens in our countries;
3: Respect differences where it is necessary – we will seek consensus, whilst fully respecting national interests.
The Slovak V4 Presidency wishes to place emphasis on the strengthening of internal dynamics, competitiveness, security, interconnectivity and cohesion of the Visegrad region within the EU. The motto of the Slovak Presidency ‘Dynamic Visegrad for Europe’ expresses the fulfilment of these ambitions.
“One of our key priorities is to strengthen a common European perspective and to prevent the creation of dividing lines within the EU. Our voice will continue to be clearly heard in discussions and decisions on key EU policies, whether in relation to its institutional arrangements, the future of individual sectoral policies, migration and security, or the Post-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework.”
GDL: The unilateral approach of challenging issues has mounted unprecedented disputes among EU States. Do you believe that the current positive performance of some Central European countries in several sectors will be maintained and fully functional within a fragmented European family?
IH: One of our key priorities is to strengthen a common European perspective and to prevent the creation of dividing lines within the EU. Our voice will continue to be clearly heard in discussions and decisions on key EU policies, whether in relation to its institutional arrangements, the future of individual sectoral policies, migration and security, or the Post-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework. We are ready to contribute to the maintaining of the EU27 unity, including the course of negotiations on the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU and in relation to negotiations on future agreements between the EU and the UK.
Certainly, the EU is facing many difficult challenges; migration remains one of them, which is also confirmed by the fact that this issue will be the main topic of the summit of the European Council in October 2018. Slovakia is interested in continuing cooperation in the responsible management of the migration crisis, taking into account the real possibilities of individual countries. A functioning protection of external borders is an important pillar of the effective management of migration, the strengthening of the EU internal security and the proper functioning of the Schengen Area, which is crucial for us.
GDL: The recent massive mobilisation in Slovakia, in the midst of corruption accusations, has resulted in the resignation of the former Prime Minister. What was the role of the civil society and related networks during this confrontation?
IH: The media and investigative journalism play a crucial role in bringing allegations of corruption to light. The murder of a journalist not only triggered an unprecedented political earthquake in Slovakia and sent shockwaves through the international community, but it was in particular also perceived as an attack on press freedom and democracy. It has had a serious impact on people’s trust in the system of government due to its strong moral aspect. Public anti-government protests in the capital and other cities across Slovakia calling for deeper change were the biggest since the 1989 Velvet Revolution (that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia).
“During the last 25 years, Greece has been one of the partners that provided Slovakia with instrumental support and assistance in various fields of socio-economic development and in joining both the European Union and NATO 14 years ago…
My aim is to intensify the already good bilateral relations between Slovakia and Greece through official high-level visits from Slovakia to Greece.”
GDL: What is the pace of bilateral relations between Slovakia and Greece, including cooperation as EU partners and NATO allies?
IH: The diplomatic relations between Greece and Slovakia were established at the same time as Slovakia gained its independence on 1st January 1993. During the last 25 years, Greece has been one of the partners that provided Slovakia with instrumental support and assistance in various fields of socio-economic development and in joining both the European Union and NATO 14 years ago.
It must be reminded that our EU Accession Treaty was signed here in Athens on 16th April 2003. The current relations between the two countries are based on the same European values and perspectives for a common future in the European Union.
Today’s climate is also very supportive for the strengthening of political, economic and cultural bilateral cooperation. My aim is to intensify the already good bilateral relations between Slovakia and Greece through official high-level visits from Slovakia to Greece. Within this context, the Official Visit of the Chairman of the National Council of the Slovak Republic in Greece took place in September.
“Apart from the further development of the bilateral trade exchange, I see a lot of potential in cooperation particularly in the fields of science and innovation, energy and environment, the food industry, agriculture and tourism… there are also good possibilities for enhancing cooperation between Slovak and Greek companies in third markets: Slovakia has a very good position in Central and Eastern Europe, while Greece as the economic and logistic hub of Southeast Europe is a strategic gateway to the Middle East and North Africa.”
GDL: In which economic sectors are Slovakia and Greece compatible and in which areas should both sides be focused upon?
IH: The Slovak and Greek economies are to a large extent compatible and both can benefit from mutual trade and cooperation. Slovakia’s industrial heritage provides a stable base for sectors such as mechanical engineering and the automotive, electronics industry and ICT.
The Slovak automotive sector is among the fastest growing due to the significant investments of Volkswagen, PSA Peugeot Citroen, KIA Motors and more recently Jaguar Land Rover. Therefore the main export articles from Slovakia to Greece are automobiles. They are followed by TV sets, products from iron and steel, telephone sets, office machines, tyres, paper and wood.
On the other hand, Slovakia imports from Greece mainly products from basic metals and metal products, followed by pharmaceutical products, fruit, vegetables, nuts and other products of the chemical industry. Apart from the further development of the bilateral trade exchange, I see a lot of potential in cooperation particularly in the fields of science and innovation, energy and environment, the food industry, agriculture and tourism. Greece (after Bulgaria and Croatia) is the 3rd most popular destination for Slovak tourists and we would also like to bring more Greeks to Slovakia.
Moreover, there are also good possibilities for enhancing cooperation between Slovak and Greek companies in third markets: Slovakia has a very good position in Central and Eastern Europe, while Greece as the economic and logistic hub of Southeast Europe is a strategic gateway to the Middle East and North Africa.
GDL: How could cultural relations enhance understanding and solidarity amongst our peoples? What initiatives should both sides take?
IH: To put relations with foreign countries on a long-term and more stable basis, it is essential to deepen mutual understanding and friendship among its people. People-to-people exchanges are a powerful catalyst in our cooperation and help bring countries closer, despite distance.
Agreement on Cultural and Educational Cooperation between Slovakia and Greece provides the legal foundation and policy framework for cultural and student exchanges. In the years to come I will focus on boosting cooperation between Slovakia and Greece in the field of tourism, science and research. I am pleased to say that the Greek community in Slovakia amounts to 1,000 people, involving quite a high number of Greek students (about 770 Greek students in 2017).
“Living in a foreign country may sound appealing, but being a diplomat is not always a vacation… Representing your homeland is a huge honour, but it is also a tremendous responsibility… It can be especially hard on spouses and children who are moving abroad along with you… Each new post brings dramatic changes for our families.”
GDL: Your Excellency, the life of a diplomat is a varied and highly responsible position, which to those out of the profession may appear to be filled with luxurious wining and dining and jet setting!
How far from the truth is this, and in today’s world, is the role of the diplomat becoming more significant and finally Your Excellency, how do you manage to balance the delicate and exhausting task of work and family in a foreign country in which you serve only a few years before moving to a new post?
IH: Living in a foreign country may sound appealing, but being a diplomat is not always a vacation. Just as any other profession, being a diplomat has its advantages and disadvantages.
Representing your homeland is a huge honour, but it is also a tremendous responsibility. Diplomats do not have office hours and then return home to relax. You have to attend after-hours meetings and events and perform a wide range of both social and professional duties.
The extra hours can be a big drain on your family life and your ability to find any personal time at all. It can be especially hard on spouses and children who are moving abroad along with you. Kids have to adjust to a new school and make new friends. Each new post brings dramatic changes for our families.
Interview by Nicolas Boutsicos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life