A problem shared is a problem halved

HELMUT Wessely is a true EU enthusiast; and not, he says, just because he is expected to be one. He believes that trust is the added value of relations within the European Union but warns that allowing discrimination to seep into relations can destroy that added value. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Austrian Ambassador to Slovakia Helmut Wessely about the challenges that nations face in the post-Iron Curtain era, about the prospects for the Twin City concept and about the continuing importance of German as a language that links many of the region’s people.

Helmut Wessely Helmut Wessely (Source: Jana Liptáková)

HELMUT Wessely is a true EU enthusiast; and not, he says, just because he is expected to be one. He believes that trust is the added value of relations within the European Union but warns that allowing discrimination to seep into relations can destroy that added value.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Austrian Ambassador to Slovakia Helmut Wessely about the challenges that nations face in the post-Iron Curtain era, about the prospects for the Twin City concept and about the continuing importance of German as a language that links many of the region’s people.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): During communism, Austria served as a gateway between Slovakia and the West and symbolised the hope for freedom. How has the relationship between the countries evolved since then? How has the East-West division of Europe changed? What are the challenges that both nations face within the European Union?
Helmut Wessely (HW): There is something I would describe as a basic lack of understanding on the western side of the Iron Curtain: when the curtain fell, people in the West thought “those guys over there have to catch up now”. But they forgot that the West also had to catch up in many ways. Everybody expected a change from the East, but not that much from the West.

If you gave students a map of Europe in the past and asked them to draw a line marking the middle, they would have drawn it more or less where the Iron Curtain used to be.

But the intriguing thing about this line is that if you look at the European capitals and their position, it is not only Vienna and Bratislava that are quite close to each other. On the left side of this line, from north to south, almost all the countries have their capitals in the East of their national territory, for example Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin and Vienna. On the other side, the capitals are in the very West: St Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw, Prague, and of course Bratislava.

What political conclusion can be drawn from that? This is a line that marks a horizon of intense political activity and nobody can expect that this intense relationship would end with the Iron Curtain. On the contrary, the dynamic is the same. Only the context has changed. EU enlargement has created a level playing field, which should prevent discrimination. It is an extremely complicated task and there is no quick-fix approach to that.

And the EU’s added value, particularly in relation to neighbours, is trust, which is extremely important. If you re-introduce discrimination in any way, the added value will simply be lost.

TSS: What are the lessons that small nations like Slovakia need to learn to be effective in the European Union?
HW: The EU is a participatory institution, so if you fail to participate it is your own fault. In your own decision-making process you have to be honest enough to say: I have a problem and somebody in the European Union might have the same problem. Then you can successfully create lobbies. Complaining about lobby groups in EU institutions won’t help. You need to find your own allies, and for Slovakia it is not always the Visegrad Four. There is a historical link, but that does not necessarily satisfy all of Slovakia’s needs, because in many aspects it is further ahead than other members are.

Influencing the EU requires a balance between the actions of the individual and the masses. My classic example is the owner of a tree: if the owner of a tree cuts down his tree, and he is the only one to do so, it’s completely irrelevant. But if all European tree owners cut down their trees, it is a disaster. One has to be aware of this problem, this antagonism between the individual and mass action.

TSS: There has been a lot of discussion about the status of German and its importance in the region, mainly because so many young people are learning English. Have Slovaks maintained their interest in learning German?
HW: In this region, German has a deep historical tradition that won’t disappear soon. Many Slovaks I know have an almost perfect knowledge of German that comes from the times when they watched and listened to ORF (the Austrian public television and radio broadcaster) across the Iron Curtain. I often tell a story to demonstrate this: In 1975, I was posted to Prague and our delegation was received by former Czechoslovak President Gustáv Husák, who during 15 minutes of small talk complained about the “biased” and “scandalous” reporting on ORF. The Austrian ambassador asked him, “But how do you know?” Husák replied, “I watch it every weekend in Bratislava.”

Today, of course, German provides the competitive advantage of contact with German-speaking investors and access to German-speaking markets. One should also not underestimate the importance of German in Balkan countries. In my professional life, I have been astonished how many Bulgarians, Romanians and even Greeks in top positions speak German. If you want to talk to the Baltics, German is a good choice, not to mention the Scandinavians.

Business and investment bring with them the demand for foreign language and specialised training. The Austrian Institute in Bratislava has recorded an enormous demand for specialised language training.

I find it interesting that Lutheran high schools play an extremely encouraging role in language training. I was in Kežmarok and discovered an interesting item at the lyceum there. There is a marble tablet with six or seven Serbian names on it, saying that these are the most important personalities in Serb literature, the main pillars of the 19th century, who studied in Kežmarok at the Lutheran German-speaking high school. The head of the local publishing house told me that many people from the Balkans studied at the German lyceum as part of their preparation for university in Vienna because their knowledge of German was weak and they had no chance to study it in their homeland. I would like to have more Austrian teachers of German at Slovak schools. As well as teach, they should organise active partnerships with Austrian schools.

TSS: Are Austrians open to learning the languages of their neighbours?
HW: When we try to persuade Austrians to learn Slovak, which I think they should do more, the problem is that each Austrian – and it is basically the Eastern Austrian – has a dilemma: should he learn Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, or Slovenian? This is not as theoretical as you may think. Austria has a high percentage of foreigners per capita, much higher than most European countries.

TSS: In terms of their physical proximity, Bratislava and Vienna are among the closest capitals in the world. Have the two cities sufficiently used the potential that this closeness offers in terms of business and cultural contacts?
HW: There is a lot of talk about the “Twin City” concept, some of which is more realistic and some less, I must say. One of the most discussed is infrastructure, such as the current motorway that provides easy access to Vienna. There is a lot of talk about the Strassenbahn tram from Vienna to Bratislava: It is a nice story, but that’s it. The original tram itself ran only for five years, during World War I, and then the whole project stopped with the new borders. The travel time was two hours. Realistically, nobody would travel to Vienna for two hours today. The quality of the tracks cannot be improved dramatically and the costs would be very high. Also, with the current surge in housing prices at border areas, nobody would sell their land cheaply. There are investors looking at the area of Wolfsthal and Berg with big projects in mind, so again the land would be very expensive, not to mention the environmental aspect of the whole project.

When it comes to infrastructure projects, a lot of re-thinking is still necessary. But, for example, the northern link via Marchegg - both for road and rail - will be improved and maybe we will get a new bridge over the Morava River, which would shrink the travel time to Vienna to less than 60 minutes. The Marchegg-Schnellstrasse, a fast road north of the Danube, is definitely on the map too.

But the Twin City approach is politically interesting. It reflects geographic and economic reality. There is even a Twin City orchestra. The reason why the Twin City concept makes sense at all is the availability of infrastructure that the cities might not have separately. The Danube link is particularly attractive for the Austrian public, who come to Bratislava by the Twin City Liner, so much so that a second ship was put into service this year.

TSS: The free movement of labour has been one of the most intensely discussed issues since Slovakia entered the European Union. What are Austria’s plans regarding the transitional period for labour market restrictions placed on the new EU members?
HW: There was a lot of criticism towards Austria because of its decision to maintain some of the restrictions on the free movement of labour. But there are also a lot of myths about it. First of all, politically speaking, this was a part of the deal on EU membership. Austria too made a lot of compromises to enable the 10 countries to join and they had to make compromises as well. Realistically, if you look at the overall situation, the practical impact on the labour markets of both sides is rather minimal. If you are in Vienna, you see Slovaks working there. Also, the restrictions are being applied to fewer and fewer sectors of the market. I think this is one of those issues that has simply been exaggerated.

The Austrian Labour Minister insists that Austria is opening more and more sectors. But all this must happen with the consent of the government, unions, and employers, because in Austria the social partnership works differently compared to Slovakia.

TSS: The Slovak media have printed several stories about Slovak care givers and nurses who have worked in Austria and are now being required to register with the authorities, which may mean many of them will no longer be able to work there. The media have reported that this might create a situation in which many Austrians could end up without care, as there is a shortage of nurses and care givers in Austria. Could you share your view on this situation?
HW: This is a big issue in Austria, regardless of the coming elections, because this is an area in which the current legislation is ineffective. The main point, though, is very simple: everyone who works in Austria should have proper social coverage, involving a cost factor. The question is more about how to produce a reasonable regulation rather than the lack of highly qualified nurses. Care givers are often needed more at the stage in which old people need somebody to be there to help avoid accidents, prepare simple food, etc.

However, there is an agreement between the social affairs ministries that certain qualifications that can be gained in Slovakia will provide access to the Austrian labour market sector and no authorisation will be needed for this type of work.

TSS: Austria is often dubbed an environmentally aware nation with a rather uncompromising attitude towards nuclear energy. But facing pressing energy needs, some nations have been revising their attitude towards nuclear power. Is Austria likely to change its stance? What is the origin of Austria’s position and what has influenced it?
HW: Again, it was part of the deal. It also was part of a deal when we joined the European Union: we said we would respect the sovereign right of every nation to decide about their own energy resources and production issues, and this applies to Slovakia. But we also have the right to be involved in the public discussion and protect our citizens.

Politically, we still believe that nuclear energy is neither a sustainable nor a cost effective form of energy. Building the plants also costs energy and the cost of decommissioning and storing nuclear waste is not really covered by the industry, but by somebody else. There is already a bilateral dialogue, which we wish to continue successfully in the future. Our concern is about the security of nuclear power plants abroad.

There is no longer an internal debate about nuclear energy in Austria. There have been multiple discussions about our electricity imports but, as you know, electricity has no identity. Austria’s geography makes it easier to produce environmentally friendly energy as we have an high number of hydro-electric plants and waterworks, though these open up environmental issues of their own as well.

TSS: Over the past eight years, European organisations have often dubbed Slovakia one of the region’s top reformers. But reforms should concern not only post-communist countries. What are your thoughts about the reform process?
HW: The question is how courageous you can be in reforming. [Former prime minister Mikuláš] Dzurinda was definitely very courageous and he proved that tax reforms can provide great advantages. When you look closely at the Council of EU Finance Ministers and how ministers defend their national tax systems, you will understand the difficulties of tax harmonisation in the EU. It is one of the biggest playgrounds for political promises. I think the flat tax is really a big step if combined with other measures. It is normal that the discussion about private health insurance has continued. However, a private insurer will undoubtedly want to make a profit and it does not seem very helpful to ban them from doing so. This simply eliminates the private investor.

Of course reforms are not only a matter for post-communist countries. Most of the informed public in Austria voted in favour of the EU, hoping that it would give a huge boost to reforms. The problem is that probably some of this spirit has got lost, which is typical of the ups-and-downs of politics.

TSS: The importance of cross-border cooperation and regional links has grown, though post-communist countries still tend to underestimate the role of the regions. What are the best examples of regional cooperation between Slovakia and Austria?
HW: There is the large project called CENTROPE that involves Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. There are many synergies and there is a lot of natural development going on. The infrastructure is now satisfactory. The cooperation over Bratislava airport was stopped for political reasons, that is clear. The question now is: where do you want to get the money from to renovate the airport? I once proposed that Vienna airport might have its own terminal building at Bratislava airport and provide services from there. Let me assure you that Vienna airport has no intention of transferring flights to Bratislava that don’t provide the same quality of services.

TSS: What aspects of Slovak culture are the most appealing to Austrians and vice versa?
HW: There are many artists who have been successful outside Slovakia, including in Austria. A large number of Austrians come here, especially for the opera, which is a first-class performance at a fairly cheap price.

However, Slovakia needs to learn how to better market its culture and tourism services. I’ll give you an example. The Tutanchamun exhibition in Vienna received a lot of coverage. At the same time, there is the Thebes exhibition at the Slovak National Museum, but there was nobody telling people visiting the Tutanchamun exhibition to check out something similar in Bratislava. The province of Lower Austria is preparing a special exhibition, 2011 in Carnuntum, featuring its Roman heritage. It hopes to include places like Devín in the project.

It would be extremely beneficial for the biggest tourist sites, such as castles, to make it possible for foreigners to pay in euros. There are some monuments, such as restored churches in remote parts of Slovakia, that have no road signs directing tourists to these architectural jewels.

Agencies could focus more on a specialised clientele. There is a big demand in Germany and Austria for what is called popular folk music. It is a huge market. Slovak folk music is not identical to that, but why not join the hype and participate more actively in cross-border events, e.g. by cooperation with ORF?

General facts

Political system: Federal republic


Total area:83,858 sq kilometres

Population:8.3 million
Until the end of World War I, Austria was for centuries the centre of an empire that ruled over much of Central Europe. It is now a federal republic consisting of 9 states.

Source: EU website:

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