“The Slovak Presidency will follow three mutually interconnected principles, aimed at achieving tangible results, showing to the European citizens that joint European projects have practical and positive impacts on their lives. We will focus on further overcoming fragmentation among members states, connecting them more closely to the single market and on bringing the EU closer to its citizens, regaining their trust in the European project.”
On July 1st, Slovakia assumed the six-month Presidency of the Council of the European Union at a time when the EU is facing a number of challenges – migration, terrorism, hotbeds of tension in its neighbourhood, repercussions of the Eurozone crisis and a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.
This often produces divisions within the EU and the questioning of joint and successful projects, including the common European currency and the Schengen Area.
Whilst it is not always easy to cooperate and reach compromises, Slovakia is looking to address all pressing challenges in a manner that maintains cohesion in the European Union and reaffirms its fundamental principles and successful projects benefiting everyday life of its citizens. This is vital for the sake of preserving the prosperity and security of all Member States.
Slovakia’s tenure at the helm of the Council will be the EU’s 116th rotating Presidency, the first for Slovakia, marking the culmination of unprecedented preparatory work in terms of organisation, management and content. We talked to H.E. the Ambassador of Slovakia, Peter Michalko, to give us both his country’s and personal views on pressing issues facing the EU and relations between Slovakia and Greece.
GDL: Your Excellency, Slovakia is located in the Eastern part of Central Europe, an area with a considerable number of ethnic and nationally diverse states. How did this geopolitical reality influence the character of the Slovak people?
PM: Indeed, Slovakia is situated in the heart of the European continent. Such a position has given us an extraordinary experience of cohabitation with our neighbours, but also with other European nations as pan-European communication, processes and even conflicts were taking place often through Central Europe. This has contributed to the openness, readiness to look for pragmatic solutions and compromises. It also naturally helped to create a modern and efficient diplomacy.
GDL: Since gaining its independence in 1993, what has Slovak diplomacy achieved so far and what are its current priorities?
PM: The dissolution of the former federation into two successor states has given to Slovakia, together with keeping our excellent relations with our Czech neighbours and friends, the opportunity to act independently in international politics. From the beginning, we continued to seek our integration into the European Union and NATO. In the first years of the previous decade, these goals were achieved, including the signature of the Accession Treaty to the European Union here in Athens on April 16th 2003, together with nine other new Member States. Since then, Slovakia has progressed into the core of European integration, also becoming a member of the Schengen area and Eurozone. There were also significant achievements in other international organisations: UN Security Council membership as a non-permanent member (2006-2007), Chairmanship of the ECOSOC (2012) and several Slovak diplomats had important roles in international organisations like Ján Kubiš as OSCE Secretary General or Judge Peter Tomka as the President of the International Court of Justice.
Today, our immediate priorities are based on our EU and NATO memberships, effective multilateralism and respect to International Law. Slovakia also actively contributes to peace and stability in the world through international crisis management operations or initiatives such as the Security Sector Reform that we initiated at UN level.
Our current primary task is the first Slovak Presidency in the Council of the EU from July 1st to 31st December 2016, following a very successful Presidency by the Netherlands, as a part of the Presidency Trio, which will later be completed by Malta. The Slovak Presidency will follow three mutually interconnected principles, aimed at achieving tangible results, showing to the European citizens that joint European projects have practical and positive impacts on their lives. We will focus on further overcoming fragmentation among members states, connecting them more closely to the single market and on bringing the EU closer to its citizens, regaining their trust in the European project. In this regard, we also feel the need to explain some very complex European policies in a more understandable way to the citizens. This aim is reflected in our Presidency logo – a human face created from diacritical signs of our alphabet.
The Slovak Presidency has defined 4 priorities: 1. Economically strong Europe. 2. Modern single market. 3. Sustainable migration and asylum policy. 4. A globally engaged Europe. In all these fields we want to see concrete and tangible results important for European citizens. In the field of the economy, we want to pursue an increase of investments with better access to financing for small and medium-sized enterprises, using the full potential of the European Fund for Strategic Investments, but also the capital markets union. The strengthening of EMU is connected with promoting structural reforms, responsible approach to public finances and the fight against tax evasion, as well as the modernisation of the current EU VAT system. Important for consumers will be the European deposit insurance scheme that will stabilise the banking sector. In the field of the single market, we will focus on Energy Union and on energy security, mainly of gas supplies, that should also lead to better energy prices for citizens and business. There is a clear scope to see the implementation of the Paris COP21 Agreement and to promote steps aimed at improving results in climate change, in the field of emissions trading and low-carbon economy, as well as measures for circular economy aimed at reducing waste production.
One large scope is the Digital Single Market and removing obstacles in electronic trade within the single European market, with tangible benefits for citizens and companies and free movement of data. Sustainable migration and asylum policy is a top priority: our main objective is the return to a fully functioning Schengen area, which is considered as one of the key results of European integration. We will see the launching of the European Border and Coast Guard and a debate on the joint European asylum system. With regard to the protection of the external EU/Schengen borders, we support the implementation of the smart borders concept. We also want to improve cooperation among Member States in information exchange and police cooperation in the field of internal security, as well as to strengthen cooperation with third countries, including on elimination of causes of migration. That already leads to the global role of the EU, where the Slovak Presidency will support the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as the EU will focus on the implementation of the global EU strategy for foreign and security policy, and will also promote an effective European Neighbourhood Policy, as well as maintain dynamics of the enlargement policy and accession process, with concrete progress to be achieved by the candidates.
“I am not aware about any opposition of Slovakia to European policies, quite the opposite; one of the aims of our Presidency is to define a European pillar of social rights as a set of basic principles to promote fair and well-functioning labour markets and social protection systems and to promote social cohesion.”
GDL: As Slovakia assumes the EU rotating Council Presidency, what does your Government answer to the ones that have doubts due to Slovakia’s opposition to key European policies from migration to employment rules?
PM: First of all, Slovakia as a Member State of the EU has been an active participant, together with other members, in the formulation of all European policies. During those discussions, there are very often differing views and we have always been able to come up with common policies. There are many common policies in which views of Slovakia are similar or identical with those of Greece and other members, such as the European Cohesion policy, Energy Union, EU enlargement, etc. Being the Presidency of the Council though is not about promoting national positions or interests, and from this angle Slovakia will also approach this important and responsible role. We will act as a fair and honest broker in fulfilling the strategic priorities of the EU. We will focus on the positive agenda with the aim to remove barriers between Member States, to bring real benefits for citizens and the economy and on sustainable solutions that represent both an immediate response to challenges and deliver in the long-term-perspective too.
You mentioned migration policy and I have to say that Slovakia has been resolutely contributing to its formulation and implementation, and one differing opinion, the compulsory nature of quotas, is not going to influence our performance as Presidency. We fully embrace our commitments to voluntary relocations and other fields where the EU must act, such as protection of external borders, return policies and mutual support, solidarity amongst Member States and cooperation with third countries. We have also acted bilaterally in support of Greece with humanitarian assistance for refugee reception centres and by sending our police force to FRONTEX to support Greek authorities. Our medical team, supported by the Slovak Government, works closely with Greek authorities in delivering medical services for refugees in reception centres in northern Greece.
As far as the employment rules are concerned, I am not aware about any opposition of Slovakia to European policies, quite the opposite, one of the aims of our Presidency is to define a European pillar of social rights as a set of basic principles to promote fair and well-functioning labour markets and social protection systems and to promote social cohesion. In general, amongst the tangible results of European policies, including economic policies, we want to also see positive impacts on employment, especially for the youth.
GDL: How can your country separate its own regional interests (Visegrad Group) and that of the EU in general?
PM: By definition, the Presidency of the EU Council is not about promoting national interests. Slovakia, during its Presidency, will play the role of a fair and honest broker, representing the EU Council in communication with the Commission and the European Parliament, taking into account the voice of each Member State. Any other approach would not be effective. There are several regional formats of cooperation in which many Member States of the EU participate, and the Visegrad Group as one of them, has proven and remains to be very effective, but these are two different things. In any case, Slovakia is the last from the Visegrad Group members to take up the EU Council Presidency and many countries, which held previous Presidencies and participated in other regional formats, at the same time held very successful EU Council Presidencies and that is our aim too.
“We are going to find solutions to those questions that we openly and frankly discuss in Europe and this positive basis will be further enhanced. There is mutual interest to communicate more to each other at all levels.”
GDL: The recent negative referendum for the EU in Great Britain gives more uncertainty to the whole European structure. Can Slovakia unite a deeply divided Europe?
PM: Certainly, the EU is facing difficult times, seeing for the first time that a Member State may leave it. However, it is clear that there is an undisputable will of the 27 to continue the common project. As Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic, H.E. Robert Fico, said recently at the European Parliament, we have to remember that the European Union is the most successful effort of integration in Europe and changed the history of our continent from conflicts into cooperation among states and nations who benefit from common stability, security and prosperity. Nevertheless, we have to keep in mind the necessity to deliver on the expectations of European citizens, regaining and strengthening their confidence and support to the European idea. If there is a new approach needed that would bring the EU closer to its citizens, it must be applied. In this regard, the Slovak Presidency is already preparing for the EU leaders summit in Bratislava on September 16th where they will discuss future developments within the Union.
GDL: How are relations between Slovakia and Greece and what is the current level of bilateral economic relations?
PM: Bilateral relations between Slovakia and Greece are traditionally very good and based on historical contacts and cooperation. As a matter of fact, a part of Slovak identity is connected to Greece through Saints Cyril and Methodius who brought the Glagolitic alphabet to the Slavs, of then Great Moravia, today´s Slovakia, together with the translation of the Bible into the Slavic language and the first written civil code based on the Byzantine legal system and custom law of the Slavs.
Building on this historical tradition, our relations became stronger in the 19th Century when Slovaks took a huge inspiration from the liberation struggle of the Greeks, as well as from the 1,000th Anniversary of Cyril and Methodius´s mission in 1863. Then in the 20th Century, and during WWII, both nations developed a strong anti-fascist tradition, and there were also Greeks fighting in the Slovak National Uprising against Nazism in 1944.
After decades of the Cold War, we are finally today joint members of the same European family, having the opportunity to develop our relations within the same framework of EU policies, with the common single market, common currency and common Schengen area. Slovaks will always remember that our EU Accession Treaty was signed here in Athens in April 2003. Today’s ties are very supportive to the strengthening of political, economic and cultural bilateral cooperation. In trade exchange, despite the crisis when we initially saw a fall in volume, over the last several years we have been witnessing growth in impressive relative numbers. In 2015 our trade exchange reached 265 million €, Greek exports to Slovakia grew by 31.4% achieving 96 million €. Slovak exports to Greece dropped by 11% to 169 million €, after their previous increase in 2014 by 27%. It has been proven that the Slovak market, with an economy growing yearly by around 3% of GDP and the strengthening of its consumer capacity, can represent a promising direction for Greek exports while production from our industries, with outstanding quality and competitive prices, can find their customers in Greece. This is complemented by increasing numbers in tourism: Greece is among the most popular destinations of Slovaks for their summer vacations, and our active trade balance is compensated by payments for our tourists, who come every year to Greece in higher numbers.
GDL: You are familiar with Greece, speaking Greek fluently. What initiatives should be taken to bring the Slovak and Greek people closer, taking into consideration last year’s misconceptions amongst each other?
PM: I am sure that we should not take the different views on a few concrete issues as characteristics of relations or perceptions among any nations. In my experience, with more than 25 years of contact with Greece and the Greek people, there is a lot of openness, sincerity and friendship, real European friendship and solidarity when it comes to relations between our people. Our relationship is built on those positive aspects, on historical ties, on similarity of character and current joint European framework to which we both belong with many similar or identical interests. We are going to find solutions to those questions that we openly and frankly discuss in Europe and this positive basis will be further enhanced. There is mutual interest to communicate more to each other at all levels and this is confirmed by three visits at the level of Foreign Ministers since last April: first visit of the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Slovakia, Miroslav Lajčák, after his reappointment following our March Parliamentary elections, and then he came again for two days together with the Foreign and European Ministers of the Netherlands (EU Council Presidency), France, Italy, Portugal and Malta, showing clear solidarity and priority attention to the migration issue and to the support necessary for Greece. We also very much appreciate the very successful visit of the Greek Foreign Minister, Nikos Kotzias, to Bratislava last May.
During the Slovak Presidency, we will have 14 informal ministerial meetings and 5 ministerial conferences in Bratislava and that will give the opportunity for members of the Government of the Hellenic Republic to visit Slovakia and also for informal dialogue with their Slovak counterparts that will bring about a strengthening of bilateral cooperation in many sectors in the future. I can also confirm a lot of sincerity and openness at the level of people-to-people contacts; we have around 1,000 Greek students in Slovakia, studying especially medicine. Mutual friendship and respect is helped by the Cyrillo-Methodean tradition, written into the preamble of the Constitution of Slovakia, through which every Slovak knows about Thessaloniki, or by the fact that each Slovak family has at least one book by the famous Slovak writer and Ambassador of Hellenism, Vojtech Zamarovský, on Ancient Greece.
As the Slovak Embassy to the Hellenic Republic, we are also working for enhancing mutual communication and knowledge amongst our peoples, through organising cultural events, supporting cooperation between universities, regions, cities and chambers of commerce and industry. We are very grateful to our Greek partners at all levels for their support and to our Greek friends who enthusiastically contribute to our activities.
Interview by Nicolas Boutsicos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life