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Britain looks to the Olympics, and Europe
30 Jul 2012 Beata Balogová Foreigners in Slovakia
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
TSS: How do you assess the tourism potential between the two countries and what do you think Slovakia has to offer British tourists?
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.
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