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'Preserving non-negotiable values'
18 Mar 2013 Beata Balogová Foreigners in Slovakia
EVEN when squeezed by an economic crisis, there are non-negotiable values which need to be preserved, as these have been passed on from generation to generation, says Marios Kountourides, ambassador of the Republic of Cyprus to Slovakia. He lists culture and traditions unique to each nation as being among such values. Slovakia has a special aura for the ambassador, who is enchanted by Slovakia’s natural beauty but above all the warmth of its people.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Kountourides about the rotating presidency of the EU, the current economic challenges, and the €17-billion financial bailout package that Cyprus is currently negotiating, as well as the tourism potential between Cyprus and Slovakia.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What are the major achievements of the six-month presidency of Cyprus that finished at the end of 2012, and what are the areas where hoped-for progress was not made?
Cyprus, one of the smallest members of our European Family, with limited administrative resources, took over the Presidency of the Council of the EU under extremely adverse circumstances both in Cyprus, but also in the EU as a whole. When a crisis unfolds, we need to recognise that the real victims are the people. Our daily routine is suddenly put out of orbit, uncertainty becomes an unwanted part of life and values are brushed aside. Thus a ‘Better Europe’ was the theme adopted for our presidency.
It is my personal conviction that Europe will be a ‘Better Europe’ if it sees the crisis as an opportunity for change that finally turns the EU into something visible, something concrete that one can hold onto, but above all something one can look up to. Thus, Cyprus’s greatest achievement was to make the European citizen a little bit more aware of the fact that we all need to try harder to make Europe become a Europe that we all can associate with and feel proud to say that this is our Europe.
TSS: Cypriots recently elected centre-right leader Nicos Anastasiades to be their next president. EU officials have welcomed the election of Anastasiades. What does his victory mean for your country?
TSS: Cyprus is still awaiting a long-delayed EU bailout worth €17 billion, and a decision is due this month. What are the main challenges that your government faces in relation to the bailout package?
TSS: You are the first resident ambassador of Cyprus to Slovakia. How do you assess the level of contacts between the countries?
All Slovak ambassadors have played a paramount role in Cyprus and I wish to thank the current ambassador of Slovakia to Cyprus, Anna Tureničová, who was awarded by both the [Cypriot] president and parliament for her efforts in bringing the two communities together.
Slovakia has made a practical contribution towards the enhancement of peace in Cyprus through the presence of the Slovak contingent in the UN Peacekeeping Force on the island, currently having 140 soldiers there. It is an issue that the Cypriot people are very much aware of. Relations between Slovakia and Cyprus are at an excellent level and this is why in times of economic crisis we opened in 2010 the first Embassy of Cyprus in Bratislava, which was something that we owed to Slovakia.
TSS: Based on official data, 767 Slovak companies have owners based in Cyprus and this number continues to increase. In addition to tax optimisation, what else draws Slovak companies to have their seats in Cyprus?
It must be pointed out that the data covers only direct investment relationships with Slovak residents in the government-controlled area [of Cyprus]. Cyprus has a market-driven economy, supported by a stable democracy, and by a highly qualified, multilingual labour force. Its advanced telecommunications and infrastructure networks constitute further positive factors, especially when considering the island’s strategic geographical location. In addition to its efficient legal, accounting and banking services, Cyprus has a low corporate tax rate as well as a large number of double taxation treaties.
TSS: Cyprus, which is often dubbed a tax haven, has started cooperating with Slovakia in enquiries into risky companies. Slovakia hopes that this cooperation may cast light on some past financial irregularities. What has led Cyprus to launch such cooperation with Slovakia?
Cyprus has an extensive network of Agreements for the Avoidance of Double Taxation, covering almost all EU Member States, which is continuously being expanded. All such agreements concluded by the Republic of Cyprus contain exchange of information provisions which ensure transparency in tax matters. This is certainly not a characteristic of tax haven countries. In the specific case of Slovakia, cooperation in the field of the exchange of direct tax information is based on two legal bases: the Exchange of Information Article of the Double Tax Agreement applicable since 1980 between the two states and the EU Administrative Cooperation Directive applicable for Cyprus and Slovakia since their accession to the EU in 2004.
TSS: How many Cypriot companies are active in Slovakia? Where do you see room for cooperation between the countries in the area of business?
TSS: Cyprus and Slovakia are among those EU countries with double-digit unemployment rates. How has Cyprus addressed the issue of high unemployment and what are the main challenges the labour market of your homeland faces?
Our strategy to combat the phenomenon includes the improvement of job matching, job searching and career guidance services for rational use of the labour force, combating segmentation and facilitating the participation of specific groups in the labour market such as the young, long-term unemployed, women, and low-skilled and disadvantaged groups. We also need to restructure the education system to respond more effectively to the changing working environment and improve the attractiveness of technical education. We also want to address forms of discrimination in the labour market, and specifically the gender pay gap.
TSS: Is the tourism potential between Slovakia and Cyprus being fully explored?
We would like to see more Slovaks visiting Cyprus. In order for that to happen first and foremost the issue of direct flights needs to be addressed. It became apparent during the brief spell that Czech airlines operated a direct flight from Bratislava to Larnaca in 2011 that there was a substantial increase in tourist arrivals to Cyprus from Slovakia. Based on that fact alone, the embassy is encouraging all those concerned to include Bratislava in their strategic plans, as a new destination. I am convinced that this step would prove catalytic in improving tourism between our two countries.
While charter flights from Bratislava to Cyprus during the summer period are always full, it is nonetheless recognised that further steps must be undertaken to incite more airlines to reap the benefits of the destination and increase the flight seats available. Based on our experience the Slovaks visiting Cyprus tend to repeat their visits to the island. Our guests from Slovakia treasure in particular the diverse aspects that they can enjoy during their visit, from sandy beaches, officially the cleanest in Europe, to the picturesque mountain villages, the gastronomy and the historical sights, among other things. There is still more to be done though in bringing Cyprus closer to Slovakia.
A major issue of concern is the promotion of tourist packages by Slovak tour operators to the northern, Turkish-occupied area of Cyprus. Due to the current political situation on the island, travellers entering the Republic of Cyprus via closed airports and ports – that is, all ports and airports in the northern, occupied area – are in breach of the national law of the Republic of Cyprus.
TSS: What are the most important objectives you would like to achieve during your diplomatic service to Slovakia?
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