'Regret that UK Left the European Union'

Cover Story By Alankar Srivastava

Slovakia assumes the Presidency of the Council of the European Union at a crucial juncture

H.E. Žigmund Bertók, the Ambassador of the Slovak Republic to India, speaks to Diplomatist Editor-at-Large Alankar Srivastava, on Brexit, the EU, Slovakia-India bilateral relations, etc.

Excellency, it’s a pleasure to have you with us. Twelve years after joining the European Union (EU), Slovakia has for the first time taken over the Presidency of the Council of the EU. Give us a sense of the significance it holds for a country situated at the heart of Europe.

Slovak Presidency of the Council of the EU is the culmination of our integration journey. For over a decade of membership, we have adopted the euro our national currency and Schengen our area, and the EU became, in broader sense, our home.

The Slovak Republic assumes the leadership of the European Union with a great honour, and also with a large responsibility as we undertake the Presidency role in very challenging times. Despite these challenges and increasing uncertainty, the Slovak Presidency intends to promote positive agenda and to enforce sustainable solutions. The programme of the Slovak Presidency is focused on four priority areas:

a) Economically strong Europe
b) Modern single market
c) Sustainable migration and asylum policy
d) Globally engaged Europe

With a view to guaranteeing continuity and a satisfactory handover of the Presidency, Slovakia worked closely with its predecessor Netherlands and the successor Malta through setting long-term goals via preparing a common agenda determining the topics and major issues. The Presidency also enjoyed close cooperation with the European Commission and the European Parliament.

Post-Brexit world will be glued to the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the EU for the next 6 months. Do you think it will add to the pressure, and make the job more challenging?

It is clear that the result of UK referendum to leave the EU has surprised the European politicians and majority of economy experts. Most of them probably underestimated the impact of growing tensions and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa region, which resulted in a massive migration into rather unprepared Europe, and on the other side, did not meet all the challenges caused by the global economy slowdown, resulting in lower economic growth in most of the EU countries.

Slovak government fully respects the decision of majority of British citizens. The fallout from so called ‘Brexit’ brought new situation and challenges, which require setting up a new strategy of relationships as well as internal reforms within the Union. Also questions over an unprecedented influx of migrants into the EU will considerably influence Slovakia’s 6-month Presidency.

Regarding the four priorities of Slovak Presidency (named above), strong focus will be on migration and asylum policies, as well as all activities contributing to support internal and external stability and security of the EU. If we in Europe do not respond to these global challenges in a unified manner, problems are not going to be resolved.

The Slovak Presidency is also working hard to prepare the most important event to take place during its tenure - the informal meeting of the Prime Ministers and Presidents of the EU Member States that is due to take place in Bratislava on September 16, 2016 where leaders are to discuss the EU’s future after the United Kingdom’s exit.

In your opinion, what are the steps that are imperative to restore the confidence of citizens in the European project?

First of all, allow me to state that I regret that people of the United Kingdom decided to leave the European project. This action indeed demonstrates that the trust of European citizens in the EU has been significantly undermined. Still, I do believe that staying with the EU is the best solution for Europe and its citizens; however, it is essential that the Union regains trust of citizens and focus on solutions that will bring a long-term perspective to the European project.

Concerning new imperatives, there is a need to build upon the best experience and focus on the positive agenda with the aim to overcome fragmentation, and decrease existing barriers among the Member States (and associated partners) in order to connect them more closely to the EU Single Market. It is also particularly important to keep up negotiating free trade agreements that I personally consider significant contributors to the internal and external stability. Slovakia as an open economy has been supportive to these processes, and I see an opportunity for more active approach towards the major emerging economies, including India. The Slovak Presidency also focuses to deliver tangible results, which will bring direct benefits for daily lives of citizens, because the people must be the centre of our attention, and their needs shall be taken into consideration in all important decisions.

Europe’s vanishing biodiversity is a matter of serious concern. Are you hopeful of a regulation to protect climate, ecosystems and resources?

My country has a rich and diverse natural heritage. It hosts a large proportion of the species that are threatened at the European level, and has the important responsibility for protecting these species within its territory. Species in Slovakia require greater action to improve their status. While many species already receive some conservation attention, others do not. Species can be saved from extinction but this requires a combination of sound research and carefully coordinated efforts.

Slovakia is host to an estimated 40,000 species of animals and plants. This number represents 25 percent of the total species described for Europe and could represent more than 2 percent of the species in the world. Approximately 20 percent of the species assessed by the European Red List of Species are present in Slovakia. Of the total number of species assessed in the country, 4 percent are considered threatened and at least 8 percent are near threatened at the European level. Many of these species are endemic to Europe and are found nowhere else in the world. Species that are considered threatened are found mostly in forests, wetlands and grasslands. These ecosystems require particular attention in order to ensure the habitats of these sensitive species remain.

The Slovak Presidency promotes the development of measures directed towards the circular economy. Our objective is to reduce waste production, protect the environment and efficiently use natural resources, namely water - which is a the most significant resource of Slovakia, consisting of almost 1500 springs of mineral and thermal water.

With the audacity and frequency of terror attacks increasing at an alarming rate, don’t you think the time has come for an effective global deterrence to root out terrorism?

The unprecedented rise of terrorism is one of the most serious, horrifying, shameful and painfully sad reality of the 21st century. Yet, military suppression of this grouping is only a fragment of the solution. The main part of it must be a commitment to better governance and stronger international cooperation. The Slovak Republic supports, in the long term, the activities of international preventive diplomacy and peaceful conflict resolution. Also, the new European global strategy for common foreign and security policy shall become our tool to co-shape rapidly changing world. The key objectives are protection of international order, strengthening security and facilitating peaceful and durable solutions to crises.

Please share your views on Slovakia-India bilateral relations.

India and the Slovak Republic established their diplomatic relations already in 1947 during the time of former Czechoslovakia. After the creation of the Slovak Republic in 1993, the relations with India kept their excellent and friendly qualities. The two countries have traditionally supported each other in international fora, and Slovakia supports permanent membership for India in the United Nations Security Council and also its wider international integration. We are interested in more frequent high-level contacts to keep an intensive dialogue and put the cooperation to the new level. We strongly support an active approach through visits of the leading political representatives accompanied by delegation of prominent business partners.

The economic cooperation is, nowadays, the most important pillar of our bilateral cooperation, with a great capacity to grow. A positive fact is that our trade statistics keep a growing trend but in quantitative projection, it still lags behind the potential. We are very optimistic towards the fresh initiatives of the Indian government including Make in India, Digital India, Smart Cities or Start-up India and many other programmes focusing on the easing of doing business; all these make your country very attractive to our entrepreneurs and encourage them to start joint businesses with Indian companies or directly invest in India.

Our key priorities are focused on facilitation trade and supporting direct business partnerships. Mutual trade turnover last year grew to almost 322 mil€. Despite Slovakia having long-time passive trade balance with India (import 268 mil€ vs. export 53 mil€) in 2015, our exports reached 75 percent growth over the previous year. We believe that within the set motion of activities, this trend shall continue and let me assure you that we, at the Embassy, are willing to support all perspective for cooperation between the Slovak and Indian businesses.

Despite being a Eurozone member and having a good infrastructure, strategic location and a skilled labour force, there are no significant Indian investments in Slovakia. Are steps being taken to attract Indian companies?

I must disagree with you on this point because recently an important 1.5 bn€ investment of the Tata Group’s been signed in December last year for the new factory to be built near the city of Nitra in Slovakia. Even though from fiscal point of view, the investment was done by British financial institutions on behalf of Tata Motors UK, I perceive the investment of Jaguar Land Rover an investment of India, because every big financial decision is being made in Mumbai headquarters. This brings another set of opportunities to broaden our cooperation into number of different areas, not only automotive business. We, at the Embassy, keep working on this issue with our friends from the Tata Group.

Especially for foreign investors interested in doing business in Slovakia, we have a One-Stop-Shop internet solution via the Slovak Investment and Trade Development Agency - SARIO. At their website http://www.sario.sk/en, the Indian companies can find all relevant information and the offered services for placing an investment or starting trade with the Slovak companies. We work closely with the SARIO agency, and their One-Stop-Shop for investors is linked with the Slovak Embassy’s website section for Trade and Investment.

Also I would like to bring to the attention of your readers the preparation for a high-level Economic Tatra Summit 2016 taking place in Slovakia on October 26-28, 2016. This prestigious international conference is organised under the auspices of the Slovak Minister of Finance Hon. Mr. Peter Kažimír, the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Hon. Mr. Miroslav Lajčák, and the former Minister of Economy H.E. Mr. Vazil Hudák. There will be whole one day dedicated directly to the business cooperation with India under the title ‘Central Europe - India: Emerging Investment Destinations High Level Meeting’.

Do you see a collaboration of Slovakia with the Indian government’s flagship schemes such as Make in India, Skill India, Digital India, Smart Cities, etc?

In addition to general improvement of the ‘ease of doing business’ conditions, initiatives such as Make in India, Digital India, Skill India or Smart Cities are particularly supportive to utilise advanced or green technologies like solar energy or water treatment, which are the areas of interest to many Slovak companies. Particularly we are inspired by development of Indian start-up environment driven by strong support from the government.

Our Embassy is in contact with Slovak companies interested in this territory, providing them with necessary information and assistance. During the last 2 year period, we are observing number of business projects between the two countries coming to the last preparatory phases, so we expect that year 2017 shall be fruitful for commencing various business projects based on mutual partnership.

Continually, one by one there are business success stories reflecting the intensifying Indo-Slovak B2B cooperation. As an example, the Slovak company Microstep-MIS in 2007 won the tender for delivery of meteorological system for the Indian Air Force. All 67 delivered systems at the military airports have been reliably operating since their installation. Microstep-MIS had achieved this success with Indian partner company Nelco, a member of Tata Group.

Also I would like to mention briefly another Slovak business Odemas.r.o., which in 2012 set up its Indian subsidiary Odema Renewables India Pvt. Ltd. in order to tap the immense potential of the renewable energy resources in India, and currently serves as a channel partner for the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy of the Government of India.

On the governmental level, there are regular sessions of the Slovak-Indian Joint Economic Committee, established in 1994. The upcoming meeting scheduled for the next year shall pursue cooperation opportunities between complementary businesses among the well-established companies through an active approach of both sides. Possibilities for development we see especially in the defence, automotive and railway industries, and also waste and water management technologies, green energy solutions, as well as digitalisation and robotisation of manufacturing process.

Any major Agreements/MoUs between the two countries that you may wish to share?

2015 was particularly fruitful as India and Slovak Republic confirmed the acceptance of bilateral agreement on the double taxation avoidance, which has sent a strong signal for the business. In real terms, it brought 75 percent growth of the Slovak export to India, while import from India reached its highest level 268.4 mil€. The mutual investment agreement presents a legislative backbone of Indo-Slovak bilateral economic cooperation.

Successful collaboration last year brought signing of another important document - the Memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Technical Cooperation in Railways, which is opening one of the new prospective areas for technology transfer and modernisation. Another MoU has been signed with the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) focusing on the strengthening of standardisation, conformity assessment activities and shall facilitate sharing of expertise and mutual trade.

There are also other legislative papers in preparation. In the final phase, there is the MoU between the ministries responsible for micro, medium and small enterprises, focused on opening possibilities for this particularly important area of business. Last but not least - as Slovakia has world-class nuclear technologies including power generation, security and decontamination - we have recently initiated a novelisation of the bilateral agreement on mutual cooperation in civil nuclear energy production, which will replace the rather outdated legal document signed in 1966.

Cultural diplomacy has emerged as an effective instrument of foreign policy. Are you hopeful of signing of the new Programme of Cooperation (POC) between the two Ministries of Culture anytime soon?

Cultural and art cooperation are stable part of Slovakia’s public diplomacy. It is the best way to communicate between the people of different cultures, and is crucial for achieving relationships based on equality and respect forthe values of each community. An updated programme of cooperation to the bilateral agreement (1996) is currently being revised by the Ministries of Culture of the two countries.

The Slovak Embassy is being actively involved in the EU Film Festival in India, this year we have screened a biographic musical film Rytmus - Dream from the Block in 12 cities of India. This acclaimed film has raised particular attention here, as it is partly filmed in India focusing on historical and cultural Roma links between the Indian subcontinent and Europe.

Under the Slovak Presidency, we are presenting different cultural activities in India including film, literature, music and visual arts. New Delhi will witness an exposition of the works made under the Slovak-led international project of young artists ‘Picasso Pupils’ in Meghalaya on September 9. The Slovak musician Michal Smetanka will present Carpathian folklore on the Raasrang World Flute Festival from September 21-25 in three cities of India. We will also introduce the recent translations of the Slovak literature to Hindi language, screening of Slovak classic films, and many more which we regularly advertise on our public Facebook profile https://www.facebook.com/ZU.SR.Dilli.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico recently remarked that ‘economy-wise, the exit of Britain should not have a big influence on Slovakia’. Excellency, can I request you to elaborate on the inherent strength of the Slovak economy.

Over a decade ago, Slovakia embarked on an ambitious plan of deep structural reforms with a vision to become one of the best business locations in the European Union. Today, Slovakia is widely seen as a success model for the other EU countries for creating an investment and business-friendly environment.

Not only political, but also economic integration of Slovakia was possible thanks to the country’s sustainable development and monetary stability. The membership in the Eurozone today reduces currency exchange risks and tightens the fiscal discipline of member countries, which results in more stable business environment. In the long run, this will be beneficial for businesses active in Slovakia and it will serve as comparative advantage for the companies setting up their centres in the EU after the UK leaves the common European market.

In 2016, Slovakia has improved its ranking in World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report by eight places to current 29th position worldwide (from 189 countries). Slovakia is, for a long period of time, among the fastest growing economies in European Union (Eurostat forecast for 2017 is 3.4%, compared to 3.2% in 2016). On the basis of this data and a fact that Slovakia (with help of Jaguar Land Rover investment) is going to become the largest base for the automotive production in the world - I am optimistic and confident that our economy is ready to withhold challenges of the future.

How do you see Slovakia’s relations with Russia and Iran?

Slovakia, as the EU Member state, has committed itself to a Common Foreign Security Policy of the European Union. Slovakia has an ambition to participate actively on creation and implementation of such policies complimentarily with Slovakia’s interests.

The impetus to the bilateral relations is using the existing potential for strengthening mutual economic cooperation based on areas such as energy, information technologies, machinery, automotive and aviation industries, as well as tourism.

Slovakia’s entrepreneurial spirit is much talked about. What are the steps that the government has taken to attract high-tech investors?

According to Global Competitiveness Report 2015-2016 (World Economic Forum), Slovakia is the leader in Central European Region in bringing new technology to host country (Out of 140 countries, Slovakia scored 10th place worldwide).

In 2014, the Slovak Republic adopted the RIS3 economic strategy aimed to support innovation through cooperation between industry and R&D centres in order to increase the role of applied research. With compliance to this strategy, government is offering incentives to encourage Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in less-developed regions e.g. through Income Tax Reliefs, Cash Grants, Contributions to New Jobs and Transfer of Public Real Estate for Discounted Price. Everything is aimed at projects of Technology/R&D Centres or Shared Service Centres. Examples of companies which extended their Slovak footprint by the most sophisticated processes are Embraco (mechanical engineering since 1998), Osram (electrical engineering since 1995) or Johnson Controls (automotive since 1993).

Enlighten us on the ‘Good Idea Slovakia Brand’.

Slovakia is a beautiful country, rich in diversity. Whenever we think of what Slovakia means to us, what describes it most precisely or how we would like people from abroad to perceive Slovakia, we get a wide range of responses. The process of building a ‘country brand’ (or ‘branding’) is a story that the country itself tells to the outwards, and it is as important as what the country truly is.

In order to be able to distinguish itself from other countries and still remain memorable in a positive sense, Slovakia as a brand needed a strong and credible single idea. An idea easy to remember, which would speak for us so as to preserve the unique status of credibility and honesty in ourselves, as well as to all those, who come into contact with Slovakia.

The background story of Slovakia as a modern country stands the claim - GOOD IDEA. For Slovakia is a country of good ideas. And in terms of the Slovakia’s Brand, the outward presentation is, of course, the most important - Slovakia as a ‘Good Idea’. It is an information shortcut, attribute, which not only aims to attract, it is also in a true, whilst simple way, characterises the entire country to the outside and inside. The textual representation of this idea – the slogan - is inseparable from the logo itself - the visual symbol of the Slovakia Brand. We have created an integrated logotype - a brand that is also a story by its form and its content reflects the complexity and diversity of Slovakia as an authentic country bursting with vitality and the ingenuousness of its people.

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