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AMBASSADOR TO THE EU REFLECTS ON MEMBERSHIP CHALLENGES

Slovakia's man in Brussels

THIRTY-EIGHT-year-old Maroš Šefčovič makes a good impression in Brussels - energetic, competent, intelligent. But you would hardly expect anything less of the holder of such a key position. As a new member of the EU, Slovakia's permanent representative to the EU has an essential role in defending Slovak interests. Šefčovič is that man.
"It has taken some time to understand the terminology and procedures used in Brussels," admits Šefčovič, Slovakia's new ambassador to the EU. "Even if you read all the information from the Council, the issues are difficult to understand. This has been the case for all new member states."

THIRTY-EIGHT-year-old Maroš Šefčovič makes a good impression in Brussels - energetic, competent, intelligent. But you would hardly expect anything less of the holder of such a key position. As a new member of the EU, Slovakia's permanent representative to the EU has an essential role in defending Slovak interests. Šefčovič is that man.

"It has taken some time to understand the terminology and procedures used in Brussels," admits Šefčovič, Slovakia's new ambassador to the EU. "Even if you read all the information from the Council, the issues are difficult to understand. This has been the case for all new member states."

The Slovak Spectator caught up with Šefčovič as he enters his second month as the country's permanent representative to the EU. The diplomat is frank, and willing to take on criticism that Slovakia, like many other new member states, has been on the defensive during these first months of EU membership.


The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You wake up in the morning and hear French Economy Minister Nicolas Sarkozy on the radio. He's proposing that new member states like Slovakia with lower than average tax rates should not receive structural aid funds. How do you react?

Maroš Šefčovič (MŠ): We try to get all the relevant information and find out what is really happening. The media love declarations like this because they are simple and spread like fire. Soon you have most politicians back in Slovakia commenting on what has been said or not said. Such statements are also used by EU sceptics to say that Slovakia is being bossed around and manipulated.

At some point during the day we will get a telephone call from the spokesperson in Slovakia or Brussels asking how they should react. In this specific case, the best way [to react] was for the Minister of Finance, Ivan Mikloš, to make a statement.


TSS: Do problems like this indicate that there are specific countries that Slovakia could build alliances with more easily?

MŠ: The EU is made up of shifting coalitions. Take the example of the negotiations on the new European constitution. We were perhaps a little more cautious than other countries about transferring sovereignty. That's due to the fact that we only gained our independence just over 10 years ago. We were anxious to have safety clauses. During the negotiations on the constitution our coalitions reflected this.

Last month, when discussing the Financial Perspective - the EU's budget plans from 2007 till 2013 - we had a totally different agenda than other older EU countries. Still, we feel welcome in the EU even if Slovakia has had some difficulties, such as with the proposed one percent limit on the EU budget, or with the limitation of the right to work in the new member states.

There is a totally different spirit in the EU even if there is not always a common approach. You do not feel that there is a hidden agenda with specific countries. We know the telephone numbers of our colleagues in other countries.


TSS: Was being an observer in Council of Minister meetings for one year useful? Did this help Slovakia learn the ropes before becoming a full member in May 2004?

MŠ: The observer status of Slovakia was perhaps too long. One presidency - six months - was enough. During the second half, as an observer, it was more difficult to say what you wanted to your Council colleagues and not be able to vote.

After that whole year, it was not easy to change from being merely an observer to being a full member. That [transition] might have created the impression that new member states are on the defensive.


TSS: Are there other factors that have created the impression of new member states mostly being on the defensive rather than pro-actively promoting their interests?

MŠ:This depends on the number of staff in Brussels and the backup at home. Our staff is growing in Brussels, as are the number of Slovaks working in the institutions. Still, when you need information and key documents, it can be more difficult for new members than for the older states to obtain it. This was the case during the discussions on Turkey. Older member states were much better informed as to what the Commission was thinking.


TSS: Are Slovaks really aware of what it means to be a member of the EU?

MŠ: In some Ministries the EU is still considered to be just the business of EU sections. But the EU affects the work of all civil servants. They must actively look for information. I believe it is a matter of time before the civil service and the citizens realise that they need to be active in the EU. Major discussions - like that on the European constitution - are very useful. They made people aware of the issues, to study the documents and take action. Now we're involving not only the Slovak civil service but also the parliament.


TSS: What are your top priorities for the coming months?

MŠ: These first few weeks I've been trying to devote as much time as possible to meeting my colleagues here and in other embassies. I need to find out what is on their agenda and what they are thinking. This was so much easier before, when I was ambassador in Israel and had only three colleagues. Probably at the end of the year, I can start thinking about how to improve things.


TSS: What are the striking differences about being in Brussels than anywhere else?

MŠ: The most striking difference is that I do not have the impression of being abroad. When I was in Canada, Israel and Zimbabwe, I had the most contact with foreigners. Here, I have so much contact with other Slovaks. It's a new kind of diplomacy for Slovakia.

Another difference is that you're not only a diplomat for your country but also in some sense, [a diplomat] for Brussels back home. You have to report home - honestly - as you are not always successful. And if you're not sitting at the negotiating table here in Brussels, you might not see that your position has no general support.

Back in Slovakia people may not understand that. So you also have to explain to people at home what Slovakia can realistically achieve in the EU.

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