Slovakia did not hesitate to start its national EU convention

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Ivan Korčok speaks at an event under the hashtag #MYSMEEÚ (We-are-the-EU). [IvanKorcok/ Twitter]

We have to value EU membership and avoid behaviour that undermines its success, writes Slovakia’s European affairs chief, Ivan Korčok.

Ivan Korčok is State secretary of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, Slovak Republic.

While several EU member states are talking about their plans to organise public debates on the EU’s future and their countries’ role in it, Slovakia has not hesitated and successfully started its own national convention on the EU, most likely being the first EU member state to organise this type of civil consultations.

Already last year, four EU debates were organised in a number of cities in Slovakia. Inspired by great public interest, these debates continue with major upgrade in 2018.

Is there any political and social consensus in Slovakia on the country‘s place and role in the European integration project? What does it mean in practice to be the EU member state and the EU citizen? What benefits, but also what commitments does the EU membership involve?

Which areas of member states’ cooperation do call for more EU and which for less? Is there any effective recipe to boost people’s confidence in the EU project? What kind of Union do we want to have?

And why do we have to talk about all this? With the hashtag #MYSMEEÚ (We-are-the-EU) the Slovak National Convention on the EU would like to make a valuable contribution to answering  these questions.

On 22 February, more than 500 people gathered in Bratislava Castle to be part of the high- level event on the future of Europe. Country’s top political leadership was present and supported the EU cause.

President, Speaker of the Slovak National Council and Slovak Prime Minister spoke with one voice confirming the country’s pro-European orientation. Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission’s Vice-President, joined the event via teleconference.

I had myself the pleasure to talk about the myths and facts in the EU during an interactive 30-minute Q&A session. The remaining speakers included a well-balanced representation of multiple sectors of the Slovak society: political party representatives, regional and local governments, NGOs, academia, students, and entrepreneurs.

An important message has risen from the event: “There’s no better project than the EU“.

At the same time, Slovakia understands that the very ideals of EU integration must reflect the everyday life.  The reality is that the EU is not perfect but we believe that together with other EU members we are part of a functioning society with shared values and interests.

However, the last decade was not easy for Europe with one crisis chasing the other. The EU which Slovakia applied to, is different from the one we entered, and even more different from the EU we live in today. But still it created a good ground for Slovakia to grow and develop.

We must not forget that the EU has always been an evolving project, constantly under construction. But the Leitmotif behind its creation and existence remains unchanged: to guarantee peace, security and prosperity in Europe.

Therefore, we have to value the EU membership and avoid behavior undermining its success. It is imperative to talk with sufficient clarity about the achieved results, which do have a positive impact on EU citizens.

There are many: benefits brought by the single market with a number of new jobs created, no roaming fees in the EU, no geoblocking. quick, cheap and borderless travelling, Erasmus and other opportunities to freely study in any EU member state – to name just few.

But the lack of information is one of the EU’s long-term problems. EU citizens must get the opportunity to voice their concerns and share their own ideas on how the EU should function.

Discussion on the future design of the EU should not take place behind the closed doors in Brussels, but at public fora where every position is welcome and critical voices are well-debated. Facts – not myths – should dominate the convention‘s debates. Therefore, honest communication is key.

This is why the Slovak Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs launched the national convention on the EU. This is not a new concept in Slovakia. The country already has relevant experience with organizing this kind of events, going back into the time of Slovakia’s pre-accession.

Moreover, we have also shared our know-how with other countries, mainly in the Western Balkans. For example, in November 2017 we implemented this project in Macedonia. Today, our position in the EU is different from the one prior to joining the EU.

We discuss the EU not as an aspiring outsider, but an inspiring insider – a full-fledged member state with a clear stance on the EU and Slovakia’s role in it.

Now, the national convention continues in the Slovak regions. Seven regional events in cooperation with universities are planned until the year’s end. Each public debate consists of two panel discussions. In the first one, students confront their vision of Europe with the vision of Slovakia’s top public servants. Involving the youth in the EU debate is extremely important.

Even more so, given the Slovak paradox: Slovakia is among the EU member states with the highest public support of the EU (70%) and the highest public trust in the EU institutions (42%). However, the citizens’ participation in the EU elections belongs traditionally to the lowest one in the EU (13%).

The second panel is usually thematically adjusted to the region’s or university’s main priorities. For example in Žilina, the discussion was based around smart transportation, digital economy and job creation. In another city, Zvolen, we talked about renewable energy and EU policies positively affecting our environment.

Event’s greater public outreach is usually achieved via live stream. At the same time, active public engagement during the event  is encouraged through apps allowing for interactive polls and audience asking questions online. Complementary side events have been organised on the margins of the public debate.

Out-of-box activities include the EU info-point giving the opportunity to informally ask questions about the EU functions, the EU movie projection or the EU food market.

Frank and open debate about EU membership and why it matters to us is crucial for the future of European project. National Convention makes sense – for Slovakia, as well as for the EU!

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