Miroslav Lajčák, Slovakian Foreign Minister:

If We Differ, We Differ For Good

We see our EU membership as the completion of the political and economic success story of the modern Slovakia, and there is no better alternative for us than a functioning, strong and successful European Union. But unity does not mean uniformity, and we freely express our views, whether it comes to migration or enlargement policies

We spoke with Miroslav Lajčák, Slovakian Foreign Minister, about the pressing issues that the European Union is currently dealing with, Slovakia’s stance when it comes to the accession process of the Western Balkan countries, and particularly Serbia, and the Slovak experience during the reform process, which may be useful to our country. Slovakia has always stood by Serbia in its European ambitions, and it has demonstrated that with practical deeds, says Lajčák, noting its achievements during the EU Presidency, such as the opening of two key chapters in Serbia’s EU accession negotiations.

There are several important issues that are shaping the future of the EU, and Slovakia is very vocal in expressing its stance on each on them. Let us first talk about the migrant issue. Are we closer to finding a sustainable solution, or are opposing voices within the EU tearing the Union further apart?
Migration is a complex issue that requires the joint action of the entire EU and other partners.I believe that the EU has moved forward on this since the Bratislava Summit. During that summit, all participating member states agreed on the necessity of border protection, cooperation with the countries of the origin and/or transit countries in Africa, tackling root causes, as well as keeping the Western Balkan route closed and the EU-Turkey deal intact and functioning. All these measures are at the heart of the EU approach to the issue of migration.

What is your stance when it comes to the post-Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU, and what are your priorities?
We are heading towards a unique process that the EU has never experienced before – the departure of a member state. Our main objective is to preserve the best possible relations of EU27 with the UK. Here we could offer our relatively recent experience from the “velvet divorce” of the Czech and Slovak republics, since we managed to part ways in a very civilised and responsible manner, and lay the foundations for excellent cooperation and ties afterwards. When it comes to negotiations about the future EU-UK relationship, it has to be clear that there can be no cherry-picking of the benefits of European integration without also respecting corresponding obligations – namely, participation in the single market without accepting all four freedoms, including the free movement of persons.

It seems that the Visegrad Group of countries is forming a sort of bloc of its own, often arguing against the positions of core EU members, or at least France and Germany. Do you feel that you are well heard and understood on an equal footing?
The statement in the first sentence of your question is, of course, incorrect and this is not happening. The Visegrad Four is a group focused on regional cooperation. Our cooperation is not directed against anyone. Our philosophy is not to be in opposition to anyone. Most of the time, our views and positions are the same as those of other EU member states. But sometimes we differ, based either on different interests of this region (which is fully legitimate and happens also in case of the Benelux countries, the southern EU members or others) or based on different historic experiences. The latter was the case when we rejected the logic of mandatory quotas for migrants as being the only solution for the migrant crisis.
For us, unity does not mean uniformity and we should be free to express our views. But if we do that, it is always in a constructive way and in the spirit of seeking European compromise. Sometimes our partners fail to see that and take different views from us as sign of lacking solidarity or European immaturity. But, eventually, if you look at what the EU is doing right now in the context of the migrant crisis, you will see many of those measures and approaches that we were advocating for right from the start.

Taking into account the size of its economy, the potential of its human resources and its tradition of social values and political stability, it is no wonder that Germany is considered a natural leader in the EU

In that respect, what is the real weight of Slovakia’s current EU presidency?
Here we have to differ. When one member state holds the EU Presidency, it is not defending or advancing its national interests. So, it doesn’t matter how big the presiding country is or to which groupings it belongs or what preferences it has. What matters is the extent to which that country is able to be an honest broker and consensus builder among the different interests and views of the individual EU member states. That’s because that is precisely what is expected of the EU Presidency. Your weight, respect and success is judged by the way you perform the role of honest broker and fair mediator.
The country holding the EU Presidency can also use this position to put its own priorities on the EU agenda – areas where it wants to leave its specific mark. In our case, we chose areas where we want to achieve tangible progress for people and also to use our specific experience and understanding. That is why we are also focusing – apart from on sustainable migration and asylum policy, the digital market and the energy union – on enlargement, at a time when there is generally little appetite for this policy in the EU. And if you look at the results in this field so far, we have managed to find consensus among all EU members to request that the European Commission give its opinion on the application of Bosnia-Herzegovina and to open two key chapters in Serbia’s accession negotiations.

How has the conflict between Ukraine and Russia shaped EU policy and its economic prospects?
Destabilisation generally is a problem in today’s world, and may vary in its mutations. Slovakia, as one of Ukraine’s neighbours, understands this very well. That’s why we support an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire in the east of Ukraine and why we continue calling for the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.
It is obvious that this issue is defining for political and economic relations between the EU and Russia, which used to be the EU’s strategic partner. There is almost no political dialogue and economic cooperation is hit by the existing sanctions regime. It is in no one’s interest to prolong such a situation. It needs to be resolved and the best way to find a solution is in a critical dialogue – about Russia, but also with Russia.

For those watching from the outside, it appears a bit surprising that new EU members, whose brighter future started once they joined the EU, are such harsh critics of, for instance, Germany, which played, and continues to play, a significant role in guaranteeing the political and economic prosperity of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. How do you now see the pros and cons of your membership in the EU?
Firstly, Slovakia has not been and is not a “harsh critic” of Germany. Germany is our strategic partner; we have similar positions on so many issues and I personally have a very good, friendly relationship with my German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who recently chose Slovakia to celebrate the most important German holiday – the Day of German Unity.
Slovakia has never doubted the benefits that EU integration and EU membership brought to the country. The successful transformation of our political system and the economy with the help of our European partners, modernisation of our infrastructure with the help of EU funds, adoption of the euro, increased attractiveness for foreign investors – these are merely a few of the benefits resulting from our EU membership. Not to mention freedom to move, live, work or study anywhere between Tallinn and Lisbon. Even though we face challenges – like migration, terrorism, falling trust in the European project among the European public – there is no better guarantee of maintaining stability, democracy and prosperity in Europe than the EU itself. To put it differently, we see our EU membership as the completion of the political and economic success story of the modern Slovakia, and there is no better alternative for us than a functioning, strong and successful European Union.

Even though we face challenges – like migration, terrorism, falling trust in the European project among the European public – there is no better guarantee for maintaining stability, democracy and prosperity in Europe than the EU itself.

…and the de facto leading role of Germany in shaping the future of the EU?
Taking into account the size of its economy, the potential of its human resources and its tradition of social values and political stability, it is no wonder that Germany is considered a natural leader in the EU. It is a vital trade and investment partner for many EU member states, including the V4 countries. However, the EU is a group of 28 member states and it is not possible – indeed, it would go against the very idea of the EU – for one single member or even a group of selected states to set and shape the future agenda alone. We are united in a constructive spirit of solidarity and each and every member state bears its share of our joint responsibility (I think the member states made that very clear at the summit in Bratislava last September).

Are political issues clouding the equally important and worrying issue of economic stagnation in the EU? How do people in Slovakia feel about that?
The European economy is on a slow, but steady path of recovery from the economic and financial crisis. The economy of Slovakia is in very good shape and is one of the fastest growing in the EU. So, in this regard I am an optimist. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that the public is not sensitive to recent developments in the Eurozone and those in Europe’s neighbourhood. On the contrary, the level of uncertainty linked to geopolitical tensions remains high and could affect European economies. It certainly affects the mood and trust of the people. Job security, personal safety and globalisation are just some of their worries. These worries and fears are then exploited by the propaganda and populist political parties who offer easy answers, but no real solutions. Slovakia is unfortunately no exception in this and our people are also exposed to it.

In your opinion, how are the aforementioned issues shaping the future of the Western Balkan region? There is also uproar about migration, with the Balkan region not wanting to be left as a waiting room for holding migrants. What do you see as the most probable outcome when it comes to migrants concentrated between Greece and the Hungarian border?
Migration is a huge challenge. It is not a seasonal issue and is not a problem of one or a few countries. It is a Europe-wide problem and needs to be tackled by joint efforts.
We take the necessary measures internally and try to be united in actions and increase diplomatic efforts externally. We are definitely not leaving our Balkan partners on their own. The Bratislava Roadmap adopted at the Bratislava Summit last September also contains a reference to the EU’s support to the Balkan countries. We will continue to send our assistance and experts to our Balkan partners and also help with border protection, in order to relieve the pressure faced by the Balkan countries.

In a time when there is generally little appetite for the enlargement policy, during its EU Presidency Slovakia managed to advocate in favour of Bosnia-Herzegovina and to open two key chapters in Serbia’s accession negotiations.

Is this the only issue related to security in the Balkans, or do you see other issues that could come into play?
The migrant crisis has an important security aspect, but that is not the only issue. The spread of extremism, increasing the radicalisation of young people and the return of foreign fighters from conflict zones, are also major concerns for the region and the EU. That is why we aim to approach them also in cooperation with the Balkan countries.

As you said, Slovakia is looking forward to tangible progress in the accession process for the Western Balkans and Turkey during its presidency. To what extent are candidate countries utilising this opportunity?
Slovakia is a keen supporter of EU enlargement. Reinforcing the credibility of this policy is one of our Presidency’s priorities. We have to recall that this policy and its credibility is a two-way street, with both sides having their obligations and tasks. It is encapsulated by the principle “Strict but Fair”. The “Strict” part means that the necessary conditions must be met, and once this is achieved the EU responds accordingly and advances its own obligations towards the partners – that is the “Fair” part. I’m glad to say that it works. After a not-so-easy process with Bosnia-Herzegovina, we managed to adopt Council conclusions requesting that the Commission assess B-H’s application for EU membership. Before that, we achieved the opening of two important chapters in Serbia’s accession process. And I believe progress will also be achieved with other countries.

Slovakia has announced that Serbia might open three chapters under your country’s presidency. How likely is that outcome today and what are the decisive factors in that respect?
Slovakia has announced that during its presidency it will act as an honest broker and we have already mentioned what that means when it comes to the enlargement process. The most important chapters in Serbia’s accession process – chapters 23 and 24 – were opened already in the first month of our Presidency and we remain ready to work closely with both Serbian and European institutions and member states in order to open other chapters. Nevertheless, the question of whether more chapters will be opened depends predominantly on Serbia. I will not reinvent the wheel when I say that Serbia’s accession process is closely linked to Chapter 35 and the progress in the Belgrade-Priština Dialogue.

How do you perceive bilateral relations with Serbia?
Slovakia has always stood by Serbia in its European aspirations. What I find very important is that we are not only proclaiming our support for Serbia, but rather we have been showing that with practical deeds. That’s because that is the real essence of a true partnership and friendship – not only reassuring your friend about how important they are for you, but also proving that visibly and tangibly. We are helping Serbia with the transfer of experience and knowhow from our transformation and integration process; we are using our ODA to help if there are floods, emergencies; we are helping to alleviate the impact of the migrant crisis… And if you consider the actions of the Slovak EU Presidency vis-à-vis Serbia, they also speak for themselves.

Based on Slovak experience, my advice for Serbia would be to carry out reforms, especially in the area of rule of law, and to do so as quickly as possible. Direct foreign investments can’t be boosted in a volatile judicial environment.

Slovakia went through rough times with its reform process, but also managed to develop a strong economy and a particularly strong industrial sector. What would be your messages for the Serbian government in that respect?
Painful reforms pay off eventually. The Slovak Republic has undergone a significant reform process leading to its integration into the EU and NATO. The knowledge and experience gained during the process of transformation and the implementation of reforms allowed Slovakia to actively participate in shaping the European Development Policy, as well as to be part of EU external assistance tools. One of the effective tools used in the official development assistance remains the programme Centre for Experience Transfer from Integration and Reforms (CETIR). Within this programme, numerous Slovakian institutions continue to share their specific experience with relevant state institutions in partner countries. Last but not least, my advice would be to carry out reforms, especially in the area of rule of law, and to do so as quickly as possible. Direct foreign investments can’t be boosted in a volatile judicial environment.

Did you also play the card of cheap labour in attracting, for example, producers in the automotive sector; do you see Serbia today as a good investment destination for Slovakian companies, or as a rival in attracting foreign investments?
Building on what I’ve just said, it is also important to reach economic stability, part of which should be a taxation system that provides reasonable incentives. It is also crucial to invest in infrastructure, education, make the healthcare system as reliable and transparent as possible and boost regional cooperation.
With regard to Serbia, we do not see you as a competitor, but rather as a partner on a market that is becoming attractive in many areas, including the automotive and IT sectors, energy, infrastructure, environmental protection or water management.