A free Spanish lesson

SPANISH Ambassador to the Slovak Republic Alfonso Diez Torres has been in Slovakia for one year and four months but he does not feel isolated here. He says Slovaks are not dramatically different from the Spanish. "There are differences of course, but we have more things in common. Like the Spanish, Slovaks are quite open, more than other people of central Europe," the ambassador said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.

photo: Courtesy of the Spanish Embassy

SPANISH Ambassador to the Slovak Republic Alfonso Diez Torres has been in Slovakia for one year and four months but he does not feel isolated here. He says Slovaks are not dramatically different from the Spanish. "There are differences of course, but we have more things in common. Like the Spanish, Slovaks are quite open, more than other people of central Europe," the ambassador said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Slovakia is struggling to erase the deep gap between the western part of the country and the east. Spain is often described as an example of successfully balanced regional differences. Does your country have a recipe for solving this problem?

Alfonso Diez Torres (ADT): I don't think there is a general recipe valid for every country. There are several factors that have contributed to our positive results, though we still have some problems balancing the Spanish economy in the regions. Spain, however, has been quite successful in building up a new system of distributing regional power, which we call the state of autonomies - the self-governing regions. It is not a federal state, but is one that has been able to give regions a very high degree of self-government.

It has been a complicated process because these regions all have their historic roots. We have regions with their own strong personality, strong language - Catalonia and the Basque country, for instance. But managing this process has been the first factor that has contributed to the success in breaching disparities between regions. Of course this has also entailed a fair and efficient system of financing the regions, which is very important. It has been evolving and changing and will probably be subject to more modifications, but I think it's working reasonably.

TORRES and President Schuster bring Spain and Slovakia closer.
photo: Courtesy of the Spanish Embassy

TSS: What was the role of EU membership in that process?

ADT: EU structural funds have played a very important role, as they have helped to finance the infrastructure, which is indeed one of the main factors in fostering regional development and, probably, this is the main challenge in Slovakia. Apart from this, EU membership has forced Spain to embark on a process of deep structural reform - to open a very protected economy, historically speaking, to such an extent that we now have one of the most open economies in Europe and the world. This is the main factor that explains the development of the Spanish economy in the last decade.

TSS: Do you feel that the potential for contacts between Slovakia and Spain has been fully explored? How would you evaluate the Spanish business presence in Slovakia?

ADT: We have experienced a very important increase in our trade from 1995 especially - it has multiplied almost nine times. The figures I have for 2003 show that imports from Slovakia to Spain have reached almost €300 million and exports more than €480 million. This is undoubtedly very good in terms of the increase from our point of departure, which was very low.

We have to make a greater effort to improve our economic relationships in investment, which is still too poor, too modest. We have a few, for example, in trade distribution, the automotive sector, air transport (Sky Europe), and Danube boat trips. One of the major items for trade is car components and one company just established itself in Košice.

What we need are major investors who can attract other small and medium-sized companies to come here. Lately Slovakia's good performance has been attracting the interest of Spanish investors.

Spanish investors have not been very visible in this part of Europe and this takes time to change. Spain has been very devoted to Latin America, for instance. But, of course, being in the EU now, it's a matter of time before investors start to look for opportunities here.

TSS: How has EU membership shaped Spain over the past few years?

ADT: I think Spain has proven that being in the EU is an opportunity, but also a challenge. Many people both outside and inside were sceptical about the chances the Spanish economy had to survive, competing with a much more developed and competitive European industry. The only way to do it was to embark on the deep and sometimes traumatic process of structural reform, which ranges from the labour market to the insurance and social security system to privatisation. It made the economy much more competitive.

The fact that we are growing at a faster rate than the European average shows that Spain has been able to cope with this challenge.

For countries like Slovakia, which are now starting this process, this is the best example we could offer. The EU is an opportunity, but you have to take the steps in order to be able to compete in a very competitive environment. Otherwise, you will not survive; the only way to do it is to have courage to make the right decisions, which in the short run may not be popular.

TSS: Will the March 11 terrorist attack in any way alter Spain's foreign policy line and its links with Slovakia?

ADT: It should not. The terrorist attacks as such did not have an impact - although some perceive that they have - on Spanish foreign policy. What has really changed our foreign policy is the new government. This government (long before the attacks) made the commitment that, if they came to power, they would pull out the troops from Iraq, provided that the UN did not take political and military leadership. Because this has already proven not to be possible before June 30, the government considers it safer and more appropriate to withdraw the troops.

The promise was already there. The government has to honour its promises. The terrorist attack did not change their point of view.

TSS: What will be the other forms of Spain's participation in the renewal of Iraq?

ADT: The new president has expressed that Spain will continue to contribute to the stabilisation, democratisation, and territorial integrity of Iraq. Unfortunately, the situation in Iraq is getting worse. Spanish troops could not perform the humanitarian mission they were sent for. If they cannot fulfil their mission, if they have to stay in their barracks, this is another reason to withdraw the troops.

TSS: Does Spain, which has been a major recipient of EU assistance, have concerns about much poorer countries entering the EU?

ADT: Spain has never viewed enlargement with a short-minded bookkeeper approach in terms of wins and losses. For us, enlargement is the most important political project devised and planned in [the EU's] history. It was a political must.

Beyond this we think it is an opportunity for all of us. Even in purely economic terms it could be beneficial in the medium to long term. Of course, we know that new member states have more financial needs. That implies that Spain will probably suffer some decrease in the financial aid that it receives in the future.

I think it is important to understand that we try to foster a fair distribution of the financial burden of the cost of enlargement among member states.

Regarding the potential influx of Slovak labour, I don't think there is such a fear. Our position during negotiations was in favour of a short transition period or no transition period. But we could not apply a unilateral release of these periods - If you do it on your own, you create a gap. You don't want to be the hole in the net. It is perfectly possible for all of us to live with the figures proposed by the European Commission for the next financial plan, so that the poorest regions of the current member states can continue recieving community funds.

In the case of Slovakia, most workers who wish to go and work in Spain should not have a problem getting permission because not having the free movement of workers does not mean you cannot apply for a work permit. And we have a commitment towards the new member states: that they will have preferential treatment.

TSS: Do Slovaks and Spaniards know enough about each other? What are the most important cultural projects that Spain promotes here?

ADT: We have two major eventst. One is an exhibition of one of the best contemporary painters in Spain - Josep Guinovart in July at the Danubiana. This exhibition of contemporary art will show that not only is Spain a country with a very rich tradition, but it is also a modern country.

In September, we will have an exhibition in collaboration with the Slovak National Museum on the path of the St Jacob's pilgrimage. It will educate and explain what St Jacob's Way did in getting Europe united in Christianity.

Poor St Jacob most probably never came to this part of the continent, even though believers from here have come as pilgrims to what is considered his tomb at Santiago de Compostela ever since the early Middle Ages. We think it is timely - as Slovakia is joining the EU. It will be the most important exhibition we have had in Slovakia.

We have already signed an agreement with the University of Economics to open The Cervantes Institute, which will support studies of the Spanish language. The project is in its final stages, so that it should open in a matter of weeks or months.

TSS: What are the spheres in which Slovakia could learn things from Spain?

ADT: Spain is a major tourist destination - one of the biggest in the world. Sometimes, I think this creates a very unilateral view of Spain. But I think that now, especially as Slovakia is about to enter the EU, Spain is seen as a good example of transition - political and economic - to modernity. From a relatively backwards situation, in a quite short period of time, it has been able to almost converge with the most developed economies in Europe. Now the most recent figures show the average income per capita for Spain is 87 percent of the EU average. When we entered the union in 1986, it was around 63 or 65 percent. This proves how successful a story of integration it has been - not only economically, but also politically and even culturally.

TSS: Spain is among a favourite tourist destination for Slovaks. Is it mutual? Is there anything that Slovakia could offer to Spanish tourists?

ADT: The number of tourists is increasing steadily, but it is still very modest. It takes time to build up a trademark - the mark of a country. Slovakia is a very young state, although it's a very old nation. But still, it needs time even for people to get to know and place where it is on the map. Some cites of eastern Europe, like Prague and Budapest, have become some of the most attractive destinations for Spanish visitors, especially on short holidays. Bratislava deserves and could be linked to this trend, but the problem is that it was not well known, was not included on these tours. And more than just Bratislava, I think what is more interesting is the country as such. In terms of landscape and natural beauty, I think Slovakia is one of the most favourable countries in the region, but it is still not so well known.

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