The Slovak EU presidency has pushed through an avalanche of decisions in recent days, proving that the EU can still move forward despite the various crises it faces.
In less than a week the Council, under Slovak stewardship, confirmed the agreement on visa liberalisation with Georgia, unanimously adopted the Fishing Opportunity Regulations, endorsed a deal with the European Parliament on a draft regulation on mercury, reached agreement with the Parliament on the coordinated use of a key frequency band opening the way to 5G, and reached several other decisions.
EURACTIV on 20 December asked Elena Visnar Malinovska, spokesperson for Coreper 1, and Renata Goldirova, spokesperson for Coreper 2, to provide an insight behind the scenes of what appears to be a successful presidency.
Last June, before the presidency started, expectations were not high. Slovakia was even suspected of possibly hijacking the EU Presidency to promote its own national agenda, or even confront Western countries on issues such as migration.
A big highlight was the 16 September Bratislava summit, aimed at charting the post-Brexit future of the 27-state EU.
“The Bratislava Summit has become a strong guiding principle for our Presidency”, Goldirova said. The summit produced the Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap, listing concrete tasks, which were taken very seriously, she added.
“Our Ambassador Peter Javorčík really kept an eye on that”, she said with reference to the Slovak EU ambassador, who managed to remain accessible to the Brussels press in spite of his tight agenda.
Asked about the other highlights of Coreper 2, Goldirova said one file she would definitely remember was the modernisation of the trade defence instruments, which had been stuck in the Council for some three years.
“We organised five meetings of Ambassadors within a period of two weeks, tabling seven compromises. It speaks for itself,” Goldirova said.
The presidency’s input
Asked how to distinguish the input of the presidency from the efforts of other players such as the European Commission, Visnar Malinovska said it was “all collective” exercise.
But she added that the Presidency also had the power “to move the whole train in the direction it wants”.
“This was a very dynamic presidency, very result-oriented; we always went as far as we could. There were moments when negotiations with the European Parliament were near collapse, but we never lost hope,” she said.
Slovak diplomats invested a lot in preparatory work, Goldirova remarked. From the very beginning of the year, their experts had been mapping every single file potentially reaching their term. A visit of the entire Slovak government to Brussels one month before the presidency started helped secure political engagement at the highest level, she said.
Indeed, Slovakia emerged from elections in March with a heavy political background and the agreement to stop internal political in-fighting during the presidency was kept.
Visnar Malinovska gave the recent deal with the European Parliament on a draft regulation on mercury as an example. The new rules aim to enhance the protection against pollution from this highly toxic substance.
After “marathon” talks with Parliament seemingly collapsed, all hope of achieving a result during the Slovak presidency seemed lost, she said. “But there was such good chemistry and a good dynamic coming from the presidency, together with the Commission, convincing the Parliament to stay and to continue the negotiations, that at the end we were able to make a deal,” Visnar Malinovska said.
“The presidency was result-oriented, it went for concrete things, it was not scared of failures and the harvest at the end of the year shows it was a good strategy.”
The Slovak permanent representation in Brussels increased its manpower from 70 people to 217. Many young people joined the team, as well as experienced officials working from the EU institutions.
“We got the crème de la crème in every unit, and the average age was close to 30,” said Visnar Malinovska, adding that this had proved to be a “good mixture”.
Asked who was in the driver’s seat, the ministers in Bratislava or the diplomats in Brussels, Visnar Malinovska said there had been a good balance between the two.
The Slovak ministers were extremely “approachable, direct, cool”, they “read their briefs” and “it was a good atmosphere” working with them, said Visnar Malinovska. Having been a Commission official for several years now, she said it was a new experience for her to work with her country’s ministers, whom she described as not being people from “ivory towers”.
“Ministers got exposure, saw it was complicated, but not more than national politics,” she added.
Goldirova confirmed that the ministers were truly “involved”. She specifically mentioned the finance minister Peter Kazimir, who in her words had shown strong interest in all dossiers and encouraged teamwork throughout the presidency.
“To be precise, we had thorough, 2-3-hour long briefings prior to every Ecofin Council where every expert had a chance to interact with the minister. I found it very motivating for the entire team,” Goldirova said.
Applause in the room
On a personal note, Visnar Malinovska said she had been deeply moved when the work of the Slovak diplomats triggered applause.
“When you see people applauding you in the room, because they have been part of the compromise or deal, this is the most rewarding moment for the presidency,” the spokeswoman said.
Asked on which occasions she heard applause, the first example she gave was in Coreper, where the Ambassadors sit, over formal touches on the intergovernmental agreement on ex-ante transparency regarding energy with third countries. The Slovaks were also applauded for the mercury deal, the agreement to strengthen shareholders’ rights in EU companies, which was an initiative in reaction to the economic crisis, and the final trialogue on spectrum, which opens the way to 5G.
She called the negotiations over spectrum “electrifying”.
“These are indeed touching moments, it’s about personal chemistry, but also strong, strong will to arrive at a compromise,” Visnar Malinovska said.
Asked about the negative background in the EU in general, she admitted that there was now less common ground between member states compared to ten years ago, especially in the social field.
But she said that even in the social field Slovakia had tabled compromises to make progress.
Better understanding the EU
Asked if Slovaks understood better what the EU is doing thanks to their country’s stint at the helm of the EU, Visnar Malinovska said that her country had indeed taken this chance to communicate and open up. She explained that media monitoring, done at daily basis, was showing clearly that European themes had penetrated the Slovak media “in a very positive manner”.
“Slovaks got interested even in issues like fisheries’ quotas, although the country is landlocked,” she said.
“Also my parents, my family now understand better what I do in Brussels,” she aded.
Goldirova said that the objective of the Slovak communication strategy was to make sure that the national audience would not be a passive observer of the presidency. As an example, a grant scheme gave the opportunity for schools, NGOs and others to engage with the presidency in a creative way. Almost 30 projects across all regions were supported through the scheme, she said. Another way to engage with young people and young professionals was to offer them the opportunity of six-month internships.
Visnar Malinovska said that after the stint she would return to Secretary General of the Commission. “I will bring with me a big bag of experience in communication,” she said. Goldirova, who is a former Brussels-based journalist, said she would continue with her current position as spokesperson for the Slovak permanent representation.
As a wish to the incoming Maltese presidency, Visnar Malinovska said she hoped it would continue to be transparent.
“The advice is to be transparent, engage with people. It’s very laborious, but at the end it pays off,” she said.