THE PRESENCE of Austrian businesses in Slovakia is evident not only through their involvement in banking, insurance or construction, but also through smaller initiatives such as the Austrian farmer who delivers fresh milk to schools in Bratislava, or an Austrian bakery that is now opening a branch in Bratislava. These are just a few facets of the links between the two nations, which have traditionally been strong. For example, the German language has always been spoken in Slovakia and is to a certain extent part of its cultural tradition, said Josef-Markus Wuketich, the Austrian Ambassador to Slovakia .
The Slovak Spectator spoke with Ambassador Wuketich and the Commercial Counsellor of the Austrian Embassy, Patrick Sagmeister, about symbolic as well as real bridges between the two countries, tourism prospects and the idea of a German university here.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Cooperation between Austria and Slovakia has intensified over the past few years. Have the possibilities of economic cooperation between neighbouring areas of Slovakia and Austria been fully explored? Which areas has this cooperation produced the best results and where do you see room for improvement?
Josef-Markus Wuketich (JMW): Today Austria and Slovakia are strategic economic partners. Slovakia has come very close to my country’s top ten trading partners, already occupying the eleventh position. On the other hand, Austria comes third on the list of foreign investors, thus creating many job opportunities for Slovaks. No wonder that regional cooperation and economic cooperation in particular have been vibrant all these years. The Automotive Cluster Centrope project, for example, is designed to strengthen the automobile and supply industry in the Slovak-Austrian border region. But there are also other successful examples on a minor scale: an Austrian farmer who delivers fresh milk to a few schools in Bratislava. On the Austrian side there is an interest in cooperating in the fields of tourism, cross-border business parks and sustainable energy.
Patrick Sagmeister (PS): Economic cooperation between Austria and Slovakia is reaching its highest level ever, with trade standing at €5.5 billion. There are about 2,000 Austrian companies in Slovakia, with 300 new companies joining the business community every year. Yet saying that the business potential is fully explored would be too strong a statement. With that said, Austrian products are very well represented in Slovakia, with only very few countries where we are as strong as here: Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary. There are areas of cooperation that have produced the best examples but where there is still the potential for improvement. Yet cooperation is very successful with large Austrian companies such as banks, construction companies and insurance companies. But then there are many smaller success stories, for example an Austrian bakery is opening in Bratislava. I also see room for improvement very much in the ICT area, where Slovak companies are very strong and partnerships are being established.
TSS: Restrictions on the employment of Slovaks in Austria ended on May 1, 2011. Has the opening of your labour market had any significant impacts?
JMW: Since May 1, 2011, the number of Slovaks employed in Austria has increased by 6,278 and now stands at 17,481. The Austrian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs estimates that the employment of some 5,080 Slovaks can be attributed directly to the expiration of the transition period for the Austrian labour market. All in all, around 26,800 persons from neighbouring countries in central Europe have found employment in Austria since May last year.
TSS: There are about 2,000 Austrian companies that have a subsidiary in Slovakia which has invested in Slovakia. What are their expectations of the new Slovak government in terms of the business environment?
PS: The expectations of companies towards the government in terms of the business environment are always the same: they want to have a good and enhanced business environment. In the case of the present government, I think people expect continuity and first of all they hope that there will be a stable environment for the next couple of years and they also hope that some things will not change too dramatically, for example the tax burden or improvements to the judiciary as well as the tendency to curb bureaucracy. Our chamber of commerce is doing a survey once a year where infrastructure in central and eastern Slovakia is always a topic. Here Austrian companies always express hope for improvements.
TSS: There is a new bridge over the Morava River linking the villages of Devínska Nová Ves and Schloss Hof. What is the significance of this project?
JMW: We feel that this cyclists’ bridge will provide a strong impetus for the tourism business in the region and add to its attractiveness. The bridge also constitutes a step towards improving the transport infrastructure along the Morava River. In the next EU budgetary period the project of a road bridge over the Morava might come up.
TSS: The private Goethe University has applied for registration in Slovakia. If the university gets a licence it would be the first university with German as its teaching language. How do you perceive such projects? How do you assess the importance of such a school?
JMW: I think that a university of this kind could enrich the educational opportunities in Slovakia, as its faculties are supposed to offer studies in tourism, media and cultural sciences as well as international business management. The German language, on the other hand, has always been spoken in Slovakia and is to a certain extent part of its cultural tradition. And German opens doors to job opportunities in countries like Austria, Germany, Switzerland or Luxembourg.
TSS: Slovak tourism experts see prospects for tourism development in Austria and Slovakia as very similar, the only difference being in terms of state support. How does the Austrian state support tourism and what lessons can Slovakia learn from Austria?
JMW: The Austrian Federal Ministry of Economy, Family and Youth is responsible for the strategic use of public funds to support activities in the tourism and leisure industry. In addition to federal budget funds, the Austrian Hotel and Tourism Bank, which is a subsidiary of commercial banks, provides, under the aegis of the Ministry of Economy, favourable loans to attractive and innovative tourism projects. This system is quite successful and has been in place for 60 years now. It goes without saying that financial resources from EU co-financing funds are being utilised as well for the tourism sector.
TSS: There are a number of projects to construct transport infrastructure between Austria and Slovakia in the pipeline. Do you consider the current level of transport infrastructure sufficient? What effects will construction of planned transport infrastructure have on economic cooperation?
PS: Infrastructure is very important for the Vienna-Bratislava connection as well as for the whole region, which is indeed one market that belongs together, so that it develops stronger and faster. Currently, the highway from Bratislava to Vienna is excellent. It took a little bit longer to build these highways.
There is still some deficit towards the border to Lower Austria, but when the transportation infrastructure is further developed and the new bridge over the Morava River is built it will make both passenger and cargo transportation more effective since currently people have to make a detour through Bratislava.