Slovak state secretary: I am a strong advocate for a communitarian EU

State secretary at the ministry of foreign and European affairs, Ivan Korčok, on 18 January 2017. [Jakub Kotian/TASR]

A push towards more intergovernmental decision making in the EU has never been a topic of discussion in the Visegrad format, state secretary for European affairs Ivan Korčok told EURACTIV Slovakia.

But he stressed that Visegrad is not always a homogenous group because it “works by forming ad hoc positions on ad hoc issues. If we agree, we are together, if we do not agree, we are not together, without breaking up.”

Korčok, who is leading a project in Slovakia that converges with Macron´s idea of democratic conventions on the EU´s reform, spoke with EURACTIV Slovakia’s Editor-in-Chief Zuzana Gabrižová.

Last week, the ‘National Convention on the EU’ was launched in Slovakia. It is a series of public debates about the European Union across the country. I assume you have concrete expectations and ambitions associated with this project. What are they?

Europe is faced with the question of how it will transform itself. This debate began at the Bratislava summit and went through several phases. I feel an expectation and a certain demand from the public and from political circles, that this debate is also held in Slovakia. Thus it won’t be just a debate for which the prime minister leaves for EU summits. We will try to test how strong this public interest is. We took inspiration from last year, when we visited four Slovak cities and discussed mainly with students. The Convention is a contribution, but it is also an offer. I invite everyone to discuss, this is not a campaign. We mostly want to work with students, but everyone is welcome, whether entrepreneurs, representatives of self-government or critics of the European Union.

You have indicated that you would like to link the Slovak National Convention with what French President Emmanuel Macron has called for. In his speech on the EU at the Sorbonne, he suggested that democratic conventions on the future of the EU should be held in the member states. The French expect these citizens’ debates to generate more concrete input to the debate on EU reform. Is this your ambition?

I do not rule out that some input will indeed be generated, quite the opposite. We want to discuss thematically. In Žilina for example, we will discuss the digital economy. I would say, we can be quite self-confident about our convention. I do not know how it is in other countries, but I feel that Slovakia is one of the first countries to go into something more substantial in this area and we do so because we feel it is the right thing to do. It is an added value that this overlaps with the idea presented by President Macron. I see a certain synergy, but at the same time, I insist that since it is to debate with our citizens, it must reflect our national expectations and the format we choose.

Political leaders, including the president, the prime minister, the president of the National Council and representatives of the political parties took part at the National Convention in Bratislava. Members of the European Parliament were not represented in the panels. Do you plan to involve them in future events?  

Absolutely. I also call on all the members of the European Parliament for the Slovak Republic to go with us to these cities, there will be seven of them in 2018. I have defended the European Parliament several times in a debate at the National Convention. I believe, that the importance of the European Parliament should be much more appreciated in Slovakia. As the situation is today, de facto no legislation can be adopted without the Parliament. It may seem that MEPs are too far away, but they are directly involved in what legislation is being adopted, which concerns us all as well.

Andrej Danko, the president of the National Council, has been fairly critical of the MEPs, saying they should “stop dreaming in Brussels”. He even suggested it would be more appropriate to replace them with national MPs, who would better represent national interests. You stand up for them, but at the same time, you said when it comes to the EU reform, there is a red line for you, which is to avoid further strengthening the power of the European Parliament.

Regarding the competences of the various legislative bodies, in this case, the Council and the European Parliament, I do not feel that we need any fundamental change at this time. Rather, it is about constructive cooperation between the institutions. Institutions do not legislate for themselves but for citizens, so there should be no institutional confrontation but rather a way of communication that will have one single goal – the best legislation.

Do you know what I really care about in this debate? When will we finish the European Monetary Union? When will we reach an agreement on migration that is effective and does not divide us? When will we push forward the internal market? When will we be stronger in foreign policy regarding key conflicts in our area? That’s what I’m interested in.

What are the best institutional conditions for that?

We need really good cooperation between the institutions. I do not think we can continually replace good cooperation with intellectual debate on institutional adjustments. Good legislation means that with every legislative proposal that arrives on the table the institutions must work together in the interests of the citizen and not in the interest of their institution. This is what decides whether people will understand the European Union or whether they will be confronted with the problems of legislation. This is common sense.

Sure, but each institution represents a specific angle. In the case of the Council, it is the particular interests of the Member States, the Commission cares about the interests of the EU as a whole and the Parliament represents its voters directly. Everyone has their role in the system and they can be in conflict.

Yes, they have their roles. I do not want to take any competences from the Parliament. I only urge that we in the Council and in the European Parliament look for ways to help one another.

Some of the Slovak MPs of the ruling coalition repeated at the National Convention that the EU should not “force us” into decisions that we are not identified with. Isn’t that questioning the EU’s basic working method which is qualified majority voting? Not to mention that there is an ongoing discussion whether QMV should be extended to other areas, namely foreign policy.

I think that such statements are clearly the result of the situation we have experienced – the legal use of qualified majority voting on mandatory quotas (for the relocation of asylum seekers) while the European Council (heads of state and government member states) said it should have been decided by a consensus. From the legal point of view, it was okay, from a political point of view, it is legitimate to ask whether we should make decisions on such sensitive issues that are legally sustainable, but divide us nevertheless. In my opinion, this is where these views come from – that we should not be outvoted in this very case. We know that the entire internal market works on qualified majority. Therefore it is not a universal message but it has to be viewed in light of what we have experienced in 2015 with quotas.

The V4 has established itself as an actor in European politics in recent years. The group’s attitudes are being closely followed by both the partners in the EU and the international media. The V4 is also perceived as a group of states that favour an intergovernmental approach to policy making when deciding in the EU. Is this perception correct?

I do not think we can speak about such an approach of the V4 as a whole. The question of whether we have more intergovernmentalism or more community method has not been the subject of conversations in the V4. Note that the V4 works by forming ad hoc positions to ad hoc issues. If we agree, we are together, if we do not agree, we are not together without breaking up. Despite all of the problems that exist today in the institutional setting, I know very well from my experience that the best way to promote the interests of the Slovak Republic and small countries in general is the current community model.

The weight of Slovakia corresponds to five million (inhabitants) in the intergovernmental model and the weight of Poland corresponds to 38 million. The community model – or the proper legislative procedure that is used by most decisions – is a better way for the Slovak Republic. It gives us the best chance to push our own things, as if the whole architecture had to break and move somewhere else. This is the case in general, but sometimes it comes to the situations we saw in the quotas. I strongly advocate for the EU to continue to be communitarian.

There was a question asked by the moderator at the Convention: ‘What would the EU be missing if Slovakia were not part of it?’ Many respondents struggled to reply. What is your take on it?

The potential loss of any country is a loss. Every country enters the European Union because it makes sense for the country and it makes sense for the European Union. Together we are stronger.

Rather, the question is about what is the Slovak contribution to the EU, whether long-term or at the moment. Perhaps, we could say that Slovakia is a voice of rationality in its region in the sense that Slovakia communicates the importance of preserving and even the deepening of European integration.

Today, Slovakia is definitely a country that seeks to find solutions in the EU that bring us together and do not divide us. We try to find the solutions, avoiding situations where we would have to have completely different views. Slovakia is aiming for a politics of compromise, parallel to each country trying to promote its interest. Slovakia is also currently contributing to the internal market with its competitive economy by which not only we, but the entire internal market, is benefiting as we are able to produce many things that are really competitive not only in our market but also in the global market.

This interview is taking place right before the EU summit (23 February) where EU leaders discuss the next post-2020 EU budget. Part of this debate is the long-standing question of whether the EU should have more substantial budget resources of its own. Shouldn´t Slovakia strategically support own resources so that the EU budget is as autonomous as possible? It would also reduce the need to explain to taxpayers why they should contribute to the development of other member states.

Yes, absolutely. The government is yet to form its position, but on behalf of the ministry of foreign affairs, I can say at this moment that we are open to a real debate about own resources, including such sensitive issues as the possibility of eliminating all of the rebates. Not only the original British rebate, but all that we have, which also deform the revenue side. Slovakia is absolutely ready to discuss how to make the budget less dependent on a resource based on GNP and another based on VAT.

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