THOSE in this region who study the German language are making a good investment in their education and their potential future employment with German companies, Axel Hartmann, Germany’s ambassador to Slovakia argues, explaining that his country invests considerable funds in German-language training in Slovakia. The German ambassador is not only a fierce advocate of studying German but also of telling the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall to the younger generation who, though they have no real-life experience of living with the artificial separation of Europe, still need to be aware of the importance of those historical changes for their lives.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Hartmann about Germany’s role in seeking solutions to the sovereign debt crisis, the change in German policy towards nuclear power, the challenges facing the German and Slovak labour markets, as well as business and cultural links.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): EU leaders are searching for ways to calm the markets and resolve the eurozone sovereign debt crisis. What role is Germany playing in this process?
Axel Hartmann (AH): Germany endeavours together with its European partners to show a way out of the European debt crisis. I remember very well the establishment of the euro in the late 1990s when Helmut Kohl was still the chancellor of Germany. The common currency in principle was a European answer to German re-unification, while Kohl and [France’s President Francois] Mitterand wanted to make the unification of Europe irreversible, which was indeed one of the main points behind the euro. Germany of course has economic advantages, since the euro brings additional exports to Germany, and this is why we have a special role in the process and a special interest in having a strong euro as opposed to weakening of the euro. All eurozone partners must fulfil their commitments and trim their deficits to below 3 percent of their GDP: this is the main point of the euro talk. Yet it is not only Slovakia where opposing political views are being presented; there is an intense debate also in Germany. But there is no real alternative to the euro and we are all in the same boat. It cannot work in a way that one state makes a special detour and others will pay for it.
TSS: As its major trading partner, Slovakia carefully watches the condition of Germany’s economy. What are the major challenges that your country faces?
AH: The German economy was running very well for the last two years: we came out of the economic crisis together with Slovakia in 2009. This also indicates how tight our economic links are. Slovakia supplies a lot of products which Germany needs for its automotive sector, but also in other sectors German companies active in Slovakia produce high-quality products such as the systems provider Scheidt & Bachmann in Žilina or Tatramat in Poprad. The German economy nevertheless owes its success to investments into research and development. If a country does not invest in its own research it can still cooperate with strong partners but its dependency on them grows to be enormous. Currently, our economy is slightly slowing down, but we see this as it regaining some balance, a kind of normalisation rather than recession.
TSS: Germany has decided to unplug its nuclear power stations by 2022. What challenges does this decision bring and what will be the impact on the country’s economy and energy policies?
AH: The nuclear debate started in Germany as early as the 1970s, so it has already been going on for more than 40 years. A considerable part of the country was against nuclear energy. In the 70s a strong green movement emerged in Germany, and in 2000 the government decided to abandon nuclear energy. The new government of Mrs [Angela] Merkel and Mr [Guido] Westerwelle [who in the 2009 German elections was the leader of the Free Democratic Party, which joined Merkel’s CDU/CSU to form the current ruling coalition; he stepped down as party leader earlier this year but remains foreign minister] originally extended nuclear energy production for more than 10 years, until well after 2030. But then the Fukushima catastrophe again modified these plans and Mrs Merkel, who in fact is a physicist, made what was publicly perceived as a U-turn and said that her country would turn off the nuclear plants much sooner. Germany has an advantage in that it has been using renewable energies for more than 30-40 years and has developed some leading technologies in these areas. Nevertheless, even renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, brings challenges since the sun does not shine every day, nor does the wind blow regularly. But now we have 10 years to address these challenges. As for the current energy mix in Germany, in 2010 we had 78.2-percent fossil-fuel-based energy, 10.9 percent nuclear and 9.4 percent renewable. Also, renewable energy production is more expensive. If you compare today’s tariffs for energy: one kilowatt-hour in Germany costs €0.24, while the European average is €0.17 and in France, which uses nuclear energy, it is only €0.11. It is an economic disadvantage not to use nuclear energy, but it is a political decision Germany has made since Fukushima.
TSS: Slovak citizens are now able to work in Austria and Germany under the same conditions as local workers after the two countries opened their labour markets on May 1 to citizens from eight member states in central and eastern Europe, including Slovakia. What impact has the end of the transition period had on Germany’s labour market and what challenges has it brought?
AH: Germany was among those states which extended the transition period for its labour market, and in my country this was predominantly the position of the trade unions, who worried that millions would flood the German labour market. The numbers, however, have shown that it is a rather moderate movement. Altogether we have about 10,000 workers from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, which is a relatively small number when compared to the fact that we need around 100,000 engineers in Germany. Thus we are now looking to other countries in the EU area, for example Spain, where there is high unemployment. Germany is facing the problem of ageing and also a lack of special-skilled workers. I understand that Slovakia is facing similar challenges and your country needs more skilled workers, which is of course a challenge for the education system. The gap between salaries in Germany and Slovakia has been gradually narrowing, though for Slovakia it will be very difficult to keep a nurse at home for €600 or a physician for €1,200.
TSS: Prime Minister Iveta Radičová has said that Slovakia will have to create attractive conditions in its own labour market in order to keep its best brains at home. Observers also suggest that further, well-targeted investments are needed in Slovakia’s education sector. What approach do you think Slovakia should take in reforming its education system?
AH: In Germany we have the so called dual system: after finishing elementary school, students learn a profession in a factory and at the same time also study at school the theoretical aspects of their profession.
This is a very efficient system and all our special-skilled workers come out of this system. Skilled workers earn a lot of money in Germany since these professions are very well paid. Skilled workers are in a much better position during a recession since at these times unskilled workers are laid off first. Germany has a very flexible labour market and Slovakia’s labour minister Mr [Jozef] Mihál did apply some of the German elements in the revision of Slovakia’s Labour Code.
However, some German investors are already finding it difficult to hire skilled workers and the state must take some steps to reform the education system. Along with the German-Slovak Chamber of Commerce, we have submitted some proposals and we hope that the government will examine them.
TSS: Starting this month, English will be mandatory for all incoming third-grade pupils. In response to the legislation, which was passed last year, the German Embassy in a press release suggested that along with English other world languages should also be taken into consideration, and called for the creation of the best possible access to several foreign languages. Do you think the decision to make only English mandatory will put the study of German at a disadvantage in Slovakia?
AH: The German language in Slovakia is a traditional language, and this region was often influenced by German traditions. Before WWI about 50 percent of Bratislava’s population was German-speaking. The times have changed but the German language is still important, especially through the prism of the economy, since there are more than 400 German companies working here in Slovakia, giving jobs to more than 90,000 people. These employees need to speak some German. Yet if you make English an obligatory first language, we wonder why the students are not given the choice between English or German as the first language, since even those who are of German origin will now have to learn English instead of German. We feel that if you look two decades ahead, there will be a younger generation who will not be able to speak German any more since the classes will be reduced to only a couple of hours per week. In the end only a very limited number of young people will speak German. If we look at our economic relations and the need for young employees able to speak German, then difficulties will emerge. But we are very much engaged here; we invest considerable funds into German education here, having almost 30 teachers from Germany working all around Slovakia. It is expensive but we are doing it gladly because we want to increase the quality of German education. Of course we also have lecturers in the German language.
As for the figures, last year there were around 40,000 English final exams taken at school and about 15,000 German exams, which is a clear signal that the German is the second most spoken language here.
TSS: As of September, there will be a continuation of lectures about the construction and fall of the Berlin Wall in schools in Slovakia. What lessons can the younger generation learn from the fall of the Berlin Wall?
AH: For people of my generation the fall of the Berlin Wall still marks one of the most outstanding events of the last 30-40 years. Being born and raised in West Germany during the so-called cold war I would not have dreamt that Slovakia and many other countries of the former Warsaw Pact would today rank among Germany’s closest allies in NATO and the European Union. Yet the younger generation today, those aged under 25, do not remember the experience of living under dictatorship. They are used to freedom of movement, freedom of speech; they can work wherever they chose to. It is important that they are aware that these freedoms are not naturally granted to all people. The uprisings in many countries of the Arab world that we see today are, in the first instance, motivated by exactly the same reasons. The lesson that the young generation can learn is that two decades ago there was a border close to Bratislava that could not be crossed. Today, when people travel to Austria they do not even realise that they are going abroad. The young generation must understand that the most important value is freedom for everybody; freedom was more important than peace.
TSS: German investors are well established in Slovakia, for example in the automotive and ICT sectors. Where do you see other opportunities for German investments in Slovakia? Are there any unexplored areas?
AH: Our business contacts are on a very high level. The main challenge now is to maintain this level and not to sink below it. Volkswagen is now expanding production of its Up! car and other companies are also thinking about expansion. I do not think, however, that there will be any new big companies coming, so we have to concentrate on what is here now and maintain the level of business links. The business environment is friendly, and the new Labour Code brings some more flexibility. Investors are facing the problem of a lack of skilled workers, which is one of the main challenges of the labour market.
TSS: Traditionally, which are the strongest cultural bridges between Slovakia and Germany?
AH: There is a small German minority, which has been in Slovakia for more than 800 years. We are supporting them as much as we can, but it is a story that is slowly running out because it is mostly the older generation that is involved. The German president plans to visit Slovakia at the end of September also to meet with the German minority in Kežmarok. He will deliver a speech to mark the tradition, history and future of the Germans still living in Slovakia. This all shows our engagement with this minority, even if it is a very small minority of only a few thousand people.
5. Sep 2011 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová