Slovak ambassador: We’ll firm up our EU Presidency priorities after Brexit vote

Dušan Krištofík, in Latvia. [Latvina Presidency]

Slovakia’s final agenda for its first EU Council Presidency will be adopted at the last moment, says Dušan Krištofík, the Slovak Ambassador to Poland. The reason is the British referendum on EU membership, which “will have a major impact on the Union” whichever way it goes, he told EURACTIV Poland.

In a wide-ranging interview a month before the Slovak Council Presidency, Krištofík talked about Slovak priorities, his country’s economic success and the relations with Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Slovakia will focus on the external factors impacting migration and move away from compulsory solutions to the crisis, Krištofík said.

Dušan Krištofík was interviewed by EURACTIV Poland’s Karolina Zbytniewska and Krzysztof Kokoszczyński.

On 1 July, Slovakia will take over the Presidency of the EU Council from the Netherlands. How would you characterise your priorities for your coming six months?

It will be our first Presidency of the Council, 12 years after the accession. We are looking forward to it, as we feel it will complete our membership experience – it is not a ‘full’ membership without heading the Council for at least one term. Moreover, we think the Presidency will help us get a better understanding of the decision-making process in the EU as we will be at its centre for the coming six months.

As for priorities themselves, for the time being we are keeping them as areas of interests. The full agenda with specific priorities will be adopted at the last moment, on 30 June. The reason for such a late adoption is, of course, the British referendum on their membership in the EU – no matter which way they will vote, it will have a major impact on the Union and we will adapt our Presidency priorities accordingly.

But even though we are waiting for the British vote, we are not just doing nothing. We are getting ready to take over the issues left by the Dutch – presidencies inherit about 80% of their agenda from their predecessors.

And what exactly will be these four areas of focus?

The first one is economic growth and budgetary matters. During our Presidency we will have a few economic issues to take care of, namely finalising the 2017 EU budget and a mid-term review of the current multi-annual Financial Framework of the EU.

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Then there is the second priority – the Single Market. Here we want to focus on the implementation of the Energy Union, especially that the European Commission is due to present some new measures in the next half year. We also plan to work on deepening the Digital Single Market.

Slovakia seems to be moving forward away from the middle-income trap which we dread in Poland. Do you have any good practices that we could follow?

It is a complicated issue, a combination of many factors has contributed to our current economic results. One of the main ones was certainly a series of reforms initiated in 1998. While they were painful at that time, they have guaranteed that for the past decade we have been the strongest growing economy in the EU: in 2004 our GDP per capita in PPPs was equal to 47% of the EU’s average. Now it is 75%.

The reform has also ensured that conditions for investment improved. Because of that, most of our economic development since has been due to the foreign investment.

We also have a specialised export market. 30% of our total exports are from the automotive industry: in Slovakia we have the highest number of cars assembled per capita in the world. Further 20% of our exports are provided by the electronics industry.

Coming back to the priorities, the other two will not be as focused on the economy as the first two, right?

The third priority is the migration crisis where we will continue the work done by the Dutch Presidency. We will focus on the external factors, the reasons people decide to migrate to the EU, as well as making the EU’s borders more secure.

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While we are on the topic of migration, we also plan to put more focus on legal migration to the EU and to support policies attracting innovative and entrepreneurial individuals to settle here, as we think there is a need for such people.

Speaking of making the borders more secure, what is the Slovakian stance on the EU Border and Coastal Guard, especially on the Commission’s controversial proposal that it should be able to intervene wherever necessary, even without the consent of a country they would deploy to?

Slovakia is opposed to any compulsory solutions, to any decisions taken without a consensus of all EU countries. That’s why we believe that the compulsory distribution mechanism for the refugees will not resolve the refugee crisis.

Slovakia in general is not too keen on accepting refugees. Is it connected with your difficult experiences in integrating Roma minority?

No, it is not. The integration of Roma is not a problem of religion or culture. With them, the main issue is socioeconomic integration.

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It is not the case with the refugees and migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea etc. Their religious and cultural background is different from ours which makes for a difficult integration. We do not feel that we have enough experience to successfully integrate them in our society.

For example, about a year ago we invited 150 Iraqis, just Christians in order to minimise the cultural difference. Yet after less than a year 20 of them decided to go back.

Maybe the issue was with an unfriendly reception?

No, as 130 still decided to stay. But each migrant and every person in the receiving society is different which leads to potential conflicts and other issues.

Coming back to the four areas of priority for the Presidency, what is the final one?

Global engagement. We want to stabilise the European neighbourhood, both in the South and in the East. We will host a ministerial-level meeting with the Eastern Partnership countries in September. We will also work on trade agreements, including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the USA, and the enlargement negotiations.

What is your stance then towards the Western Balkan countries which have been promised membership “when they will be ready”? Some of them are already negotiating their accession and hope to join in the next five years, but some of the current member states are sceptical towards further enlargement.

Slovakia has always been a strong supporter of the Western Balkan countries’ accession to the Western organisations: not only the EU but also NATO. During our presidency we will continue to support these countries on their road to the accession.

And what about Turkey? It is also a candidate country, at least technically, but the current relations are under a lot of pressure. The EU needs Turkish help with the refugee crisis, but Turkey believes the EU to be using ‘double standards’ and to be trying to withdraw from its commitments, especially in terms of visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens.

Turkey is a very important and a very difficult partner in the crisis. The current deal with regards to refugees is working. Slovakia is therefore in favour of visa liberalisation, but only if all the benchmarks as dictated by the European law are fulfilled. Because if we make even one exception, where will we stop?

While we are talking about issues with “difficult” neighbours, Slovakia has for many years had a rather strained relationship with Hungary . However, the new Slovakian government includes the Most–Híd party which represents the Hungarian minority. Can you tell us a little about the potential impact of this on Slovak-Hungarian relations?

Most–Híd is not just a Hungarian party: their name means a ‘bridge’ (both in Slovak and Hungarian) – not only between their party and the others but also within the party itself, as it unites both ethnic Hungarians and Slovaks. For example their chairperson is a Hungarian speaker, while the first vice-chairperson is a Slovak.

They also have been a part of a government coalition a few times in the past, so it is not a breakthrough development. Generally speaking, since 2010 Slovak-Hungarian relations are positive and they develop without any issues. One of the reasons behind this state of the affairs is the good atmosphere at the highest levels of power in the both countries with both sides willing to work together.

Of course, some root problems still exist, but we try to be as empathic as possible. We are working diligently to improve the well-being of all minorities in Slovakia, but it is impossible to satisfy all their wishes at once.

Generally speaking, the Europeans seem to be unsatisfied at the moment. Given the rise of Euroscepticism, what is Slovakia planning for European integration?

Ever since the accession ,we have been doing our best to be at the very heart of integration processes and this has not changed. As I have mentioned, we want to focus on the Single Market and we hope to make some progress in this area.

Let me state this clearly: we do not see nor want any alternative to the European Union. But the fact remains that there is something wrong with it. The rise of the Euroscepticism is a symptom – and it takes place not just in our region but on the whole continent. At the same time it is an issue that requires a deep analysis before it can be solved.

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