Korčok: The last 6 years have been the most dramatic in the EU’s history

Ivan Korčok [Georgi Gotev]

The years between 2009 and today will perhaps be seen as the most dynamic period of the EU’s history, Ivan Korčok, Slovakia’s Ambassador to the EU, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Korčok, whose term as Permanent Ambassador of Slovakia to the EU will expire at the end of this month, has been designated as head of the team in charge with the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the EU (July-December 2016).

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

You are leaving Brussels after almost 6 years. Your next responsibilities concern the coming Slovak Presidency in the second half of 2016. What can you tell us about your country’s possible priorities?

We started our preparations drawing on the experience of countries that have also gone through it for the first time. This began 3 years ago, which is the recommended timeframe for these preparations, and so far we have been concentrating on two things: preparing our people, here and at home; and structures. But now we are beginning the phase where we really start thinking about content. For us, the main strategic framework is given by the Council’s strategic agenda and the ten point plan of President Juncker. So we have a strategic framework in place.

The next point for us is the Commission’s draft working programme, which they will publish in September this year, and it will be kicked off by the annual speech on the State of the Union from Juncker. Then we will sit down and pinpoint the areas where we would like to focus during our presidency.

I can already say that important issues will include finance. We are taking over in the second half of the year, so there is a huge responsibility to get a deal on the next year’s budget. The MFF review will be on the table, it’s a mid-term financial review, so that will be a challenge for us. Then there are important issues in this area, like the establishment of the Capital Markets Union, (which is) extremely important for growth in the EU and Slovakia, particularly for SMEs. Then there is the Energy Union, which brings with it a long list of legislative proposals for the Slovak Presidency to deal with. Also the Digital Single Market…

When we are in the chair, everything will be moving at full steam, because it’s the middle of the Commission’s cycle, and it will be an intense period of legislative activity.

There are lots of major events due to happen during your Presidency. I’m thinking of the preparations for the UK referendum, the US elections, the election of the new UN Secretary-General, where perhaps your country will have a stake. Are you reflecting on those big issues?

Of course. All presidencies take place within a broader international environment. And the UK referendum is definitely an important point. But more specifically, we will know by the end of the year what can be done on the EU side, and what the expectations of the UK PM are, (and) what he wants to put on the table for the referendum. A lot will depend on the timing, but we will know more about this by the end of the year.

The US elections are very important, and one key issue is TTIP. The same is true here; we will know more by the end of the year about whether it is possible to wrap up negotiations on TTIP in the short term, but we definitely would like to see it. So yes, the international environment is extremely important.

Two names from Slovakia are often mentioned for the UN election: Miroslav Laj?ák and Ján Kubiš. One of them is expected to become an official candidate. Is this an issue that will impact on the presidency?

No, the Slovak government has expressed its political support for the current Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, but that is a separate issue that I do not want to speculate on.

It’s true that the EU never has a common candidate for such positions.

It’s a reality of how the UN is organised. Slovakia is part of the Eastern European regional group, so it is a different setting.

You have been the Permanent Representative of your country to the EU five and a half years. How have you seen the EU change?

This is my fifth position abroad, (and my second as an ambassador. I came from Germany in 2009. This privilege is incomparable to anything else in my career so far. It is an extraordinary job at extraordinary times. This is a very specific diplomatic position, because nowhere else can a diplomat be so close to the political decision making that directly impacts your own country, the EU, the other member states and beyond. And we have seen that during the crisis.

It has been an extraordinary time, because the years between 2009 and today, assessed from a historical perspective, will perhaps be seen as the most dynamic period of the EU’s history. I don’t remember ever seeing such huge pressure from internal and external circumstances pushing the EU to change.

That was driven largely by the euro crisis. If you look at the major steps taken in economic governance, the fact that we managed to establish a permanent European stability mechanism for example – these kind of things happened very quickly. I dare say that without the euro crisis, these types of changes would have taken many years. So there has been a huge acceleration of internal changes, driven by the crisis.

I would also say that there is still much unfinished business and any challenges ahead, particularly in terms of economic governance. I can quote former Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who was absolutely right to say that this crisis was painful and costly, but it was too short. Too short, because we were prepared to act when we were under pressure, and especially from 2010 to 2012 with huge pressure from the markets {But) we delivered. But we need to deliver in other areas, in order to stabilise the EMU and strengthen its foundation. That is good economic governance.

The EU has also changed since the Lisbon Treaty. The rise of the power of the European Parliament is a major change, and it has now become a very important factor in the legislative process. In those years, and this is why I am insisting that it is perhaps the most dynamic period in the EU’s history, really dramatic things have been happening in the Eastern and Southern neighbourhoods. It has been an extraordinary six years.

Your country was highly affected by the situation in Ukraine and the sanctions too. Don’t you think that due to the Greek crisis, the EU doesn’t have enough time to pay attention to Ukraine?

There is no doubt that we are under pressure. But looking back at both of these crises, I wouldn’t say that Europe was unable to act. The entire energy of the Union was quite successfully used to save Europe and stabilise the eurozone. There is a problem with Greece, but there is no longer the systemic crisis that we saw from 2010-2012. When the crisis erupted in Ukraine, our whole energy was focused on it. We managed to act. Our response with the sanctions is clearly linked to what is going on the ground. There might be the impression that we are less involved, but the situation on the ground today -and the problem is still a long way from being solved – is not as it was when we adopted the sanctions. So now it has to be delivered on the ground, and I am sure that we will continue paying attention to this. Ukraine is too important for Europe, and this is extremely important for Slovakia, because it is our neighbour.

We are coming out of a very dramatic summit. Some votes will be held in national parliaments. I would like to know what will happen in Slovakia in this respect, and also how the people of Slovakia view the Greek problem.

With the agreement at Euro Summit level, and if all conditions are met by Greece the negotiations can start on the third programme,  and the Slovak government does not need to go to parliament to get approval to start the negotiations. It accepts the conclusion of the Euro Summit. Neither does it need approval for the 3rd programme as such.

Very often Slovakia has had a very clear and critical position. Both the Prime Minister and the finance minister have criticised Greece, and have clearly said what conditions have to be met. But Slovakia joined the euro in 2009 and I know exactly what our narrative back home was, prior to our accession, and how we had to meet all the requirements that allowed Slovakia to become a member of the eurozone. Our narrative was this: the euro will bring stability to Slovakia. In order to become a eurozone member, systemic and structural reforms in Slovakia had to be made. It brings stability. You are becoming a member of a prestigious club that is respected worldwide. Everyone pays their own bills, it is not a transfer union. It is a clear economic advantage.

But a year later, both the politicians and the broader public, who trusted this narrative of stability and believed it would bring benefits with no extra cost, were confronted with the crisis situation. Where is the stability? The whole project is at stake. People begin to see that there are huge additional costs. You can imagine that this is very difficult to communicate back home in a credible way.

And the government of Prime Minister Iveta Radi?ová fell in 2012…

Slovakia became the only non-programme country to have early elections following the no confidence vote in parliament on a piece of legislation that was meant to save the euro, the EFSF. So I think it is important to recall our domestic dimension of this. The narrative was that it would bring stability, there were rules, everybody was supposed to pay their own bills, it was prestigious, and then all of a sudden the people were confronted with a very different situation. And then we were expected to provide solidarity with a country where pensions are much higher.

In 2011, Herman Van Rompuy visited Slovakia, and he was walking in the town centre with the former prime minister, and this was the first time he was confronted with the situation on the streets. A bar tender approached him and he asked, “How can I explain to my mother, who has a pension of €400, that we should help Greece, where pensions are on a completely different level?” [According to Eurostat the average pension in Greece is €833]. So this was a very sensitive environment.

But at the end of the day, Slovakia has participated in all the important decisions – establishing the EFSF, the current ESM – and therefore it is important not to forget that Slovakia was one of the countries asking for a very strict application of our fiscal rules, reforming the growth and stability pact. Slovakia was critical, but it remained credible because we did our homework. We have consolidated our budget. We ended our excessive deficit procedure last year, so our position is that we not only ask for stricter rules, but we respect those rules.

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