AXEL Hartmann sees a demand for German language education in Slovakia. However, the German ambassador to Slovakia is concerned about the impact the legislative change that made English language mandatory for elementary school children here might have on the ability of the next generation to speak German over the long-term. He notes that small and medium-sized companies operating in Slovakia will always need people who speak at least some German. Ambassador Hartmann, however, sees a positive new trend of German companies in Slovakia investing in research and development facilities here, which he says will increase the competitiveness of the Slovak economy.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Hartmann about a programme helping young people from Europe to obtain work or enrol in a training course in Germany, changes in Germany’s energy policies as well as Slovak-German cooperation in the field of archaeology.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Berlin is launching a €40-million programme to help young unemployed Europeans learn German and find jobs in Germany. What is the motivation behind this programme, and will Slovakia be part of its focus?
Axel Hartmann (AH): Starting in January 2013, the Federal Employment Agency (BA) will implement a special programme helping young people from Europe to find work or enrol in a training course in Germany. The Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) will allocate up to €40 million per year for this programme, which is designed to run for two years and is aimed at teenagers and young adults from EU member states, aged between 18 and 35, who intend to start vocational training or take up work in Germany.
Under this programme, applicants can, for example, obtain vouchers for language courses in their home countries or in Germany. Reimbursement of the costs of recognition procedures and courses shall also be possible. Slovakia is of course included in the focus.
Young people, employers in Germany as well as the home countries themselves can benefit from this programme. The young applicants will be able to develop career prospects; the employers can cushion shortages of skilled labour and the home countries will regain qualified and experienced professionals after a certain period of time. Aside from that, it has been difficult for young people from other EU countries to gain access to the dual education system in Germany. This programme will make things much easier for young people interested in this kind of training.
Germany is also very active in sharing its experiences with the dual education system with other countries. On December 10 there will be a conference on the issue of vocational training in Europe. Federal Minister of Education and Research Annette Schavan has invited her counterparts from Greece, Italy, Portugal, Latvia, Finland and Slovakia to exchange their experiences and expertise on the issue. Minister [Dušan] Čaplovič has already confirmed that he will accept the invitation. For 2013, the Slovak Ministry of Education is currently planning a conference on dual education in Slovakia, too. Both the Federal government as well as German investors in Slovakia will support these efforts.
TSS: Germany is changing its energy policy, shifting its focus to renewable sources of energy, while Slovakia remains strongly committed to nuclear energy. What challenges will Germany face with its shift in energy policy? What are the possibilities of cooperation between Slovakia and Germany in the energy sector?
AH: Germany has decided to phase out nuclear energy by the year 2022. This means that not only will other sources of energy have to replace the nuclear reactors, i.e. renewables, but also gas and other fossil energy sources, but that the grid must be able to transport energy from where it is produced to where it is needed, e.g. from North Sea wind parks to the industrial centres of southern Germany. Another challenge is the storing of energy.
But switching from one source of energy to another will not be enough. Energy consumption has to be reduced and it is here that we have a wide field of cooperation with Slovakia, like the isolation of buildings, the development of more energy-efficient technologies, etc. At the EU-level, there are additional fields of cooperation: safety of nuclear energy, a European energy policy, the security of energy supplies and the completion of an internal European energy market.
TSS: German investors are well established in Slovakia, for example in the automotive and information and communication technology (ICT) sectors. Where do you see further opportunities for German investments in Slovakia?
AH: German investments in Slovakia are mainly, but not exclusively, in the automotive and ICT sectors. Other important fields of German investments are machine-building industries, IT and other services and even the food and retail industries. In the last three to four years, we have had mainly investments into existing German companies, i.e. German companies investing to expand their already successful activities in Slovakia. The most prominent of those investments is Volkswagen Slovakia, which hired another 1,500 people in Bratislava and elsewhere. A positive new trend with German companies in Slovakia is their investment in R&D facilities in Slovakia. This will increase the competitiveness of the Slovak economy.
TSS: What are, in your opinion, the main challenges for the Slovak business environment in terms of remaining attractive to German investors? Has the financial crisis changed Germany’s appetite for investing abroad?
AH: Slovakia remains an attractive place for German and other foreign investors. This, of course, does not mean that there is no room for improvement. Corruption remains an issue in Slovakia and the reform of the judiciary should be continued. The highway infrastructure, especially between the eastern and western part of Slovakia, has to be completed. The German economy has remained strong during and after the financial crisis, and German companies continue to invest abroad. If Slovakia proceeds on the path of reform, it will remain an attractive location for German investors.
TSS: Do you have any information about German investors departing from Slovakia?
AH: There are only a few companies which have decided to leave Slovakia and go elsewhere. There are, of course, places in the world where the labour force is cheaper and taxes are lower than in Slovakia. But these places are either not in the EU, do not have the euro as their currency or do not have a workforce equal in quality to Slovakia’s. Therefore, the danger of German companies leaving Slovakia en masse should not be exaggerated.
TSS: One potential field of cooperation is e-mobility, i.e. the production of electric cars and their infrastructure. What is behind Germany’s strong interest in e-mobility?
AH: E-mobility, i.e. means of transportation that use electric engines, will be indispensable if we want to reduce pollution, reduce CO2 emissions and counter the greenhouse effect. E-mobility means not only purely electric cars, but also hybrid cars like the VW Touareg that is built in Bratislava by VW Slovakia.
TSS: Last year, English language became mandatory in Slovakia for elementary school children. Do you expect this change to impact the study of German in Slovakia?
AH: We can already see and feel the impact of the legislative changes that came into effect in September 2011. Parents who want to secure German-language education for their children in primary schools ask us where to turn; the situation is becoming difficult, particularly in the central and eastern parts of Slovakia. On the other hand we have seen that enrolment at the Deutsche Schule Bratislava is on the rise at the kindergarten level, and the same holds true for the schools of the German minority with German schooling, beginning as early as first grade. There is still a very high demand for early German-language education.
We have also seen a rising demand for German in the private sector. Both the Goethe Institut and the Österreich Institut have already seen rising numbers in course participants over the past few years. Since 2007, enrolment in the Goethe Institut has increased by 50 percent. Germany is very active in the support of the German language in Slovak grammar schools (gymnasiums), and the German language diploma (Deutsches Sprachdiplom) is offered at 25 schools across Slovakia. We fear that due to the changes in German-language education in primary schools this offer will, in the medium and long term, become very difficult to maintain.
Slovakia is very much interconnected with Germany in the fields of the economy and culture, and thus it is not enough to have a single German school here. If you look at small and medium-sized companies operating here in Slovakia, they need people who speak at least some German and if after a certain point they will not find such people, it will also affect the economy.
TSS: Slovakia and Germany are cooperating in the field of archaeology through a Slovak-German team, which has been excavating the Vráble-Fidvár site (in Nitra Region) since 2007. The project is financed by the Bonn-based German research institution. Moreover, Slovakia is cooperating with the town of Schleswig in the preservation of precious excavations in Poprad. What has led to this cooperation and what is the outcome so far? Are there any similar examples of such cooperation?
AH: The preservation of our common European heritage is also an integral part of German foreign policy. This is also underlined by the fact that the German Archaeological Institute (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut) is under the remit of the Federal Foreign Office. The excavation site in Vráble figures among the ten most important localities in Europe from the Early Bronze Age. It is a great example of scientific cooperation between Germany and Slovakia.
Concerning Poprad, already in 2005 a wooden tomb of a noble man from the migration period in the 3rd or 4th century AD was discovered from an excavation. Since then, the wooden construction of the grave as well as the furniture found at the site are being reconstructed and preserved by archaeologists in Schleswig-Holstein. Both Germany and Slovakia are very active in the preservation of their heritage. Slovakia already has 8 UNESCO world heritage sites, among which are Banská Štiavnica and Spiš Castle. Germany currently has 37 world cultural heritage sites.
TSS: Ondrej Pöss, the director of the Museum of Culture of the Carpathian Germans, was recently awarded a high German state prize. What prompted Germany to recognise Mr Pöss, and what significance do the activities of this museum hold for Germany?
AH: Ondrej Pöss was awarded the Federal cross of merit by our federal president, Joachim Gauck, for his achievements in relation to the preservation of German heritage in Slovakia. Being of Carpathian-German origin himself, since the early 1990s Ondrej Pöss was involved in the foundation of the Association of Carpathian Germans in Slovakia (Karpatendeutscher Verein) and served as its president from 2003-2008. In 1997 he founded the Museum of Culture of Carpathian Germans and has been its director ever since. The Carpathian Germans are only a very small minority in Slovakia. In the last census in the year 2011 only 4,600 Slovaks identified themselves as being of German nationality. Although small, the German minority is a vital and important link between Germany and Slovakia for the preservation of German culture and German language in Slovakia. In 2011, former German president Christian Wulff and his Slovak counterpart Ivan Gašparovič both visited the town of Kežmarok in the Spiš region and gave a speech in Kežmarok’s wooden church. Both presidents thanked the German minority for the important role it has played in the history of Slovakia for more than 800 years and for its contribution to the excellent bilateral relations between both countries today.
TSS: Have trends in tourism between Slovakia and Germany changed over the past couple of years and if yes, how so? In your opinion is the tourism potential between the countries being fully explored?
AH: Tourism between Germany and Slovakia still has strong upward-potential. Particularly with respect to the European capital of culture Košice 2013 it is a pity that direct flights from a German airport to Košice have not yet been established. 2013 is a great opportunity for Slovakia to make itself known to a wider part of the European public, to present its beautiful nature and cultural heritage. It’s a unique chance that should not be missed.