SERVING as the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to Slovakia as her country hosts the Olympic Games has brought with it a rather special treat for Susannah Montgomery: on April 1 she got to carry the Olympic Torch at the head of the Bratislava Marathon, alongside elite Kenyan runners. Montgomery, who first visited the former Czechoslovakia only a couple of months before the Velvet Revolution changed the course of Slovak history in 1989, now says that over the past 20 years the country has been through tremendous changes, and that people here seem to her to be more confident now, not least in the way they walk and talk.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Montgomery about what Britain will contribute to the Olympics, the unexplored tourism potential between the two countries, and the Slovak community in Great Britain.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What have been the major challenges in hosting the Summer Olympic Games? Each country that has hosted the Olympic Games also adds something from its country to the Olympic legacy. Is there a strong message that the United Kingdom will add to the Olympics in 2012?
Susannah Montgomery (SM):
For me personally, it has meant attending a lot of events here in Slovakia, which have been a real treat. Fittingly, on April 1, I was invited to run with the Olympic Torch and only in the very last minute was I told that I would run in the front of the Bratislava Marathon with the elite Kenyan runners. It was the first and the last time I have ever been in the front of a marathon. But it was great fun.

As for what Britain brings specifically to the Olympics, it is the third time we are holding it so we have a kind of historical perspective. But this one has a very special resonance for us in Britain because we want to use the games as a way to deliver funds to help poorer parts of Britain and this was our explicit goal when we bid for the Olympics. It is helping the East End of London, an area which most Slovaks have probably never visited because it’s not part of the tourist trail. But it’s making a real difference to our country by introducing fantastic sporting facilities for people who never had them before and it’s also creating the largest urban park in Europe, which is a real shortage in that part of London, which has traditionally been a poorer area. It is a legacy to the area since cheaper housing, the park and the sporting facilities will mostly remain. Also, two British universities have already bought land for campuses there, a really good thing for the area.

What does it bring to the rest of the world? The Olympics are to showcase things which people perhaps are not familiar with about Britain: for example, the sailing competition is in Weymouth, a small town on the south coast which probably again no Slovaks have visited. We will introduce the south coast of Britain, which is the sunniest part of Britain and therefore worth visiting for that reason alone. There are other parts of London that are showcased, for example Greenwich Park for the horse riding competitions and the River Thames, which is the best way to travel across London but which most people don’t use.

TSS: The United Kingdom has played a significant role in building the tradition of sports for people with disabilities, which has amplified the message of fully integrating disabled people in society. How has your homeland managed to build this tradition and what are the lessons that Slovakia could learn?
SM:
In Britain, for example, riding is a very popular sport and every town has a riding school and every riding school has lessons for disabled people. All through my childhood, I would finish my riding lesson and the next riding lesson would be for children who couldn’t walk, for example. I didn’t really think of it as something special. It was just something every riding school did. I think there was just a demand for it. I guess it must just be from our school system that people went to school together with kids with disabilities. Of course, the system is not perfect; we still need more access, many of our old historical buildings don’t have very good winter access. But there won’t be problem at the Paralympics because everything is designed specially; but there is still more we can do to improve.

The Paralympics is always more important than the Olympics because Olympians are wonderful but they are so far away from ordinary people, aren’t they? We love to watch them but the Paralympians have a lesson for all of us: regardless of whether we are with a disabled or able body because they show that people can do sports even if everything is against them; they can still do it.

TSS: Earlier in July, the Britain’s foreign secretary [i.e. foreign minister] launched a review of the balance of EU competencies to take what an official media release called a “constructive look” at how the powers of the EU are used and what “that means for our national interest”. What prompted the review and how does the UK intend to use the final findings?
SM:
Our foreign secretary is responding to interests from the public in the UK and elsewhere in the EU. People are often interested in the UK’s position within the European Union. I would like to say that the UK is a good member of the EU and we don’t have any plans to change that. I know that media sometimes reports differently, but that’s how we feel, anyway. The Balance of Competencies Review has partly to do with the questions from the media and elsewhere as to exactly how much the EU costs Britain, for example. Some figures vary and the highest figure that the UK is contributing to the EU is €29 billion a year. We want to make sure that we have those numbers correct. The review will take two years, at least, and the idea is to apply a focused, scientific approach to reviewing the EU.

The current UK government introduced a law whereby if any more powers are ceded to the EU, we will need to have a referendum so that the British people could decide. It may not come to that and there may never be a referendum, but in the meantime it gives people a chance to have a proper debate on the issue. We’re very good in terms of when we do question carefully whenever new pieces of EU legislation become effective because we want to make sure things are done properly. But when we sign up to an EU law, we sign up completely. We question the rules but once we accept them, we follow them completely.

TSS: Has the attitude of the population of United Kingdom changed towards EU membership or EU affairs in general under the influence of the financial and debt crises?
SM:
Well, in some ways we are slightly set apart as we are not in the eurozone and we probably won’t be in the future – I think I can safely say that. But it’s very important to be aware that we don’t want the eurozone to fail. We are not enjoying the fact that other countries are in trouble and we want everyone in the EU to succeed. Our position is that, for example, we think it would be useful that eurozone countries join a banking union. Also, Britain has no problem with different parts of the EU moving at different speeds; we think it’s like a big family with members sitting around a table and everyone has their different things they bring to the table. They don’t all necessarily have the same hobbies or interests, but they’re all one family.

TSS: How do you assess the level of current economic relations between the UK and Slovakia, also in the light of the situation in the eurozone? Has Slovakia’s investment potential for British investors been fully tapped?
SM:
I was at a recent event in May in Slovakia and we had a lot of British businesses coming and I was talking to them about Slovakia. I was pleased to hear people say that Slovakia made the most positive impression because of its size, the good knowledge of English that people have here, and because of the success of companies already operating here. We have many British companies active: Tesco, Marks & Spencer, as well as many fashion companies established here; we also have Rolls Royce and many different companies in terms of car components, for example. One of the excellent results of links between our countries is that we have people who are very high-skilled, talented graduates and many of them have been to the UK and when they come home they’re the perfect people to come and work for British companies in Slovakia. They know the UK, they speak English excellently, and they know how the system works. It is a perfect marriage of people who are very talented and British companies coming in. We’re working on that all the time, trying to bring more British companies here.

TSS: You visited Slovakia shortly before the Velvet Revolution in 1989 as an English-language teacher. What are your memories of Czechoslovakia or Slovakia from that time in contrast with Slovakia today, as you came back as ambassador?
SM:
One of the first things I was struck by when I came here was the lovely, unspoiled countryside, something we have a shortage of in Britain. Perhaps the other thing was the food I was offered in people’s houses and their incredible hospitality. I always intended to come back and I have been coming back over the last twenty years and there have been tremendous changes. There was a time in the early 1990s when Slovakia had been dealt quite a difficult set of cards: you had all those dying industries. It seemed that after the breakup you had an incredibly difficult task on your hands – trying to get your economy going.

It’s almost unrecognisable in many ways what’s happened to the Old Town area of Bratislava, for example – an amazing transformation and everything has somehow brightened up. The people have changed as well; they seem more confident and one can tell simply from their way of walking and talking that they are independent now. I feel really privileged that I came here 20 years ago so that I can see the level of changes having taken place.

TSS: An estimated 100,000 Slovaks live and work in the United Kingdom. What challenges do Slovaks who choose to live and work in the UK face and what are the challenges for your country regarding migration and foreigners seeking job opportunities in the UK?
SM:
We have no problem welcoming any Slovaks who come to the UK; they have a good reputation and are very hard workers. I just hope they don’t have many difficulties while they are there. Because we are a country of immigrants I guess we might be guilty of not making any particular efforts to help new people who arrive because we’re just used to everybody being a new arrival. But I hope that we’re helping them enjoy themselves while they are working hard when they’re there.
Sometimes I worry that too many Slovaks travel to the UK only to work and they don’t see the best bits of Britain. They go to the farms, they work in the countryside, and they don’t see the tourism sites. But that’s their choice, I guess, to some extent; or maybe economic reasons drive them to do that. I hope while they are in the UK, they get a chance to travel and see some interesting things as well.

TSS: How do you assess the tourism potential between the two countries and what do you think Slovakia has to offer British tourists?
SM:
I do apologise for the [British] stag parties. But I will say in their defence that they spend 500 pounds each here in Slovakia. Although some of them are really difficult, they do help your economy. We try to manage the worst aspect of that. Many of them come back later on without their stag parties and then they are more respectable. This is an encouraging sign. There are some aspects of Slovakia that really appeal to British people: the food is lovely; the climate is very good; the landscape, the wildlife, the kinds of things that you still have in your forests that died out a thousand years ago in Britain: bears and wolves and beavers; we don’t have them any more so it’s rather exotic and wonderful to us. Your landscapes could be called unspoiled and that’s very rare in the UK because it’s such a crowded island. These are all things that are rather special. There is real potential for eco-tourism and I think it is something we both can encourage because it does no harm to the environment but does bring economic benefits. Another group of potential tourists might come to visit spas. It’s not something that has been a tradition in Britain but I think there is real potential to open that up a little bit more.

We have very large numbers of British tourists coming to Bratislava, 70,000 a year, including, of course, cruise-ship travellers who spend a lot of money here. Even though they’re only coming for a day, they spend a lot while they’re here.

I know one interesting thing about the High Tatras: many British tourists visit the mountains but they currently are mostly travelling with Polish tourist companies that take them to the Polish side of the border and bring them into Slovakia and the British tourists love the place but they often do not even know that they have been to Slovakia. This shows that there is much more potential for people to come directly to Slovakia.

We are very interested if the Slovak Tourist board is interested in promoting events; we would be very happy and we would give them advice about which Britons to target for different types of holidays.