Never enough bridges between Austria and Slovakia

Slovaks tend to look at Austria as a sort of paradise and Austrians tend not to look to Slovakia at all, says Ambassador Helfried Carl, who completes his first year in Bratislava in September.

Austrian Ambassador Helfried Carl. Austrian Ambassador Helfried Carl. (Source: Jana Liptáková)

Carl, in his first ambassadorial placement, wants the two peoples to see each other through a more realistic lens.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Carl about the geographical and cultural proximity between Austria and Slovakia and how it can be used to foster business links, about the controversial joint crude oil pipeline project and literally building bridges between the two countries, but also about Conchita Wurst whose Eurovision song contest victory in 2014 he considers a historic moment for his country.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Vienna tops many quality of life rankings. How do you do it? What are the lessons that Bratislava can learn?

Helfried Carl (HC): It is obvious that there is a different legacy during the years of communism that has nothing to do with the current Bratislava but has to be accounted for. We were lucky enough after 1945 not to be in the same position as Czechoslovakia, which explains some of the difference, but it doesn’t explain why Vienna is much higher in quality of life than other western cities. The main indicator is that we have good public service in Vienna, so the quality of the public authorities is important, and also the level of public investment. In Vienna, a lot of public investment is made, which is sometimes criticised in Austria, but it shows off in the end and the success speaks for itself.

And then, Vienna has profited in the last 25 years from the opening of the borders and the changed situation towards our neighbours. When I studied for a year in Vienna in the 1980s it was a grey city in the very corner of the western world, whereas now it is in the centre of Europe, which makes a big difference. And in this situation we see even more that Vienna and Bratislava go together. We need to realise that this is now going to become one big conglomerate, and also in terms of urban planning and infrastructure we need to think of this as one common European subregion. This is one of the reasons why we are pushing for trilateral cooperation between Moravia, Vienna and the region of Bratislava. Still you can see that there had been borders between the regions that make no sense any more, also economically. In terms of our bureaucratic structures we need to focus on this.

TSS: Austria has just hosted the Eurovision song contest. How did the success of Conchita Wurst in last year’s edition of the contest affect Austrians in their perception of the LGBTI community?

HC: It has been a very important event for Austria and it was a big success for the LGBTI community. It was a little risky as well. In hindsight it’s easy to say that Austria is tolerant and everybody now loves Conchita Wurst, but we had a discussion with an Austrian intellectual, an expert on song contest issues, who pointed out that if she had lost, it would have been a completely different public discourse. So we were rather lucky in this sense, but it has meant a lot for the LGBTI community in Austria, which is already quite active in the country. I must say I’ve never really been a fan of the Eurovision song contest, I like other kinds of music, but I was hooked that evening to the television, and when Austria received 12 points from Israel I realised that it was a historic moment and that Austria has arrived in the 21st century.

TSS: Austria remains the second largest investor in Slovakia. Have all the investment opportunities been fully utilised? Are there more opportunities for business cooperation?

HC: I’m certain there are more opportunities. The structure of the Austrian and the Slovak economies are very different. The success stories of the Austrian economy are small and medium-sized businesses and they are also present here in the region of Bratislava, and also in the east of the country. The Slovak successes are more in the bigger industry sectors, which we have as well but not to the same extent as here with the focus on the automotive industry. We work in niches on the world market, small enterprises with a big share. So definitely there are many opportunities, because there are so many enterprises. Also, there is more focus on Austrian companies situated in the east of the country than in the west. But I want to invest some time to get the western part of Austria more interested in Slovakia. And the third thing is the quality of the workforce and the availability of skilled labour. In the east of the country people tell me they would employ more people if they had more skilled workers available, especially welders and similar professions. There is a shortage of welders in Košice. So I think if there is a development there, there will be more investments.

TSS: Austrian companies in Slovakia are now helping to implement elements of dual education in the Slovak schooling system. What is their experience thus far? What lessons can Slovakia learn?

HC: The idea to invest politically and also capital in the pilot project in Vráble is also born from the fact that there has been a tradition of dual education in Slovakia in the past. Austria has tried to export its system of dual education in other European countries, because there is a tradition on which we can base our experiences. In Vráble it was very successful, we were also in very good contact with the government and they told me that it was helpful for them to have Austrian entrepreneurs arguing all the positive aspects that are there. From the outside this might seem a big investment, to have a 15-year old learn the job on the premises, but in Austria this means an investment into the workforce. The rate of people staying in the company where they learned the trade is very high and it also means that you can have a tailor-made approach in education.

It also means in structural terms you have the workforce you need, and this is an issue in both Austria and Slovakia, whether schools and universities produce the right kind of workforce. Dual education is one of the answers. It is also important due to the ageing population. In the 21st century it is an imperative to invest into young people, because we have no other sources of wealth but education. The ageing population means that the quality of the workforce has to be improved.  The business community in Slovakia was slightly sceptical at the beginning, but we’ll see how it works next year. The government has already said they will make adjustments if necessary in the very pragmatic spirit that I have experienced from them so far.

TSS: While the project of the crude oil interconnection between Bratislava and Schwechat remains among the priorities for the EU, in Slovakia it is still controversial. How do you perceive this project and the failure to agree upon its final route?

HC: I do not perceive a failure to agree at all. We had a discussion with the former minister in April and he told us that the Slovak government still sees this as an issue of high priority, and that the EC is also willing to contribute to the energy security of both partners.

I understand there is a lot of emotion concerning the environmental side of the problem. I myself am environmentally very conscious, but I don’t fully understand the worries about the risk of a pipeline project. In my lifetime I haven’t heard of a pipeline problem in western Europe. So I don’t know where the concerns come from, particularly in a city that has a refinery practically in the centre of the city. I know that there is a history there, that there was an accident and that probably contributes to the worries, but I think that a pipeline project in the 21st century is not something to worry about. Perhaps there are people who are not interested in the environmental side of the project as much as they maintain; I think there are also other interests connected to the refinery that are contributing to the problem.

TSS: The bridge over the Morava River for cyclists and pedestrians joining Devínska Nová Ves and Schlosshof has become very popular since it was opened in 2012. Are there any new bridges planned?

HC: I envy my predecessor. A diplomat always wants to be a bridge builder, and that is also what I aspire to be. It was a big success, we do not have enough of these projects. We are now concentrating to have more, and it looks like there could be at least one more such pedestrian and cycling bridge. We do not yet know exactly where but a working group is looking into the possibilities. There are also ideas to fortify the connections over the Morava River, where you now have no connection when there is high water. Generally I find it not the standard of the 21st century not to have a bridge that could be used by cars all year round to cross the river. This is a very clear statement from my side and I hope we can rectify this situation.

TSS: A certain nostalgia is sometimes felt in Bratislava about the historic tram that was running between Vienna and Bratislava a century ago. Any similar sentiments in Vienna?

HC: There is a frequent mention of the tram, but I think sometimes history need not be repeated. We have now a train from Vienna to Bratislava, and I’d rather have a real train than a tram. I don’t think the route needs to take one hour, we need to shorten this period. There are ongoing projects of electrifying one of the two rail routes to Vienna. And the issue in Slovakia, to be very frank, is the Bratislava main station. That needs to be solved and, for the city of a size of Bratislava, this needs to be a priority. Unless this is done, it will be hard to have further progress with railways.

TSS: Have all possibilities of tourist exchange between the two cities been fully tapped?

HC: There could be more exchange of course, but frankly, Bratislava is not an issue in my view. The issue is Slovakia as a whole. My experience is that the rest of Slovakia has a marketing issue and has a lot of potential. There are many beautiful cities in the east, with potential for tourism, that are not known to the Austrian public at all. Generally Austrians would know Bratislava as a name, but wouldn’t be able to tell you more about the country. Probably the High Tatras are also a brand that is there, but not the cities. And this should be one of the main areas of cooperation.

TSS: There definitely is a knowhow on the Austrian side that could be shared, yes?

HC: I’m sure there would be a lot of readiness. It has been shown that in tourism you don’t have this kind of market share where you have to compete for the same kind of people. So I think there is a big readiness to cooperate.

TSS: Which places have caught your attention in Slovakia so far?

HC: I realise that I have to be careful not to get in trouble, because when I presented my credentials to President Kiska I had to promise him to go to the High Tatras, and I haven’t done so yet. And I think by the end of September I have to make a report to him on this, so I have to make sure that this is on my list. But I have been to other cities in the east, like Prešov, Košice, Levoča. I’m going to Kežmarok in June. I’ve been to Banská Bystrica and I was overwhelmed by the beauty of these cities, by the rich history, influenced by many cultures, some of them Germanic, then Hungarian, then the Slovak culture. I must say that I found it very fulfilling to be there and to learn more about our common history. I am planning to do this even more next year because the first year I had to do a lot of rounds here in Bratislava, but it’s important to make sure that you get to know the whole country and not just the capital.

TSS: This is your first ambassadorial post, so Slovakia is a testing ground for you on the new job. What are your priorities or vision for your term here?

HC: The situation, as it is now, in terms of the political and economic relations between Austria and Slovakia, should stay as good as it is. There is not much room for improvement there. But I feel there is a kind of ill balance in the relationship between the two peoples. Slovaks tend to look towards Austria as paradise and Austrians tend not to look to Slovakia at all. And I’d like to make this more realistic in both ways. That could also contribute to the political and economic sphere. I’m very proud that Austria is regarded as a benchmark in almost every field here, but it is important for Slovaks not to forget that Austria started from scratch in 1945 as well. Austria was a very poor country, poorer than Slovakia in 1945.

There is a lot of development possible and I think Slovakia can also be proud of its achievements in the last 20 years. Austria has been successful over the last years also thanks to the fact that we were looking more realistically towards our history, we were assuming responsibility over the things that Austrians did in the Nazi time and it also meant there was less bad conscience because we faced up to it. We got in touch with our roots again, also for example our Jewish roots, because there could be a dialogue again. And this kind of openness meant in my view that Austrians lost some of their inferiority complex.

This I think is interesting for Slovakia as well, because Slovaks could be more proud of their country. You have a very pragmatic culture which has a lot of potential for development but I also think that it means you need to face issues that are here. One of such is the issue of the Roma population. When we talk about developing the workforce one must not forget up to half a million people in the population of Slovakia. I don’t have any advice how to do this. This is a Slovak issue, but it is an issue that needs to be faced.

TSS: While western Europe deals with the problems of immigrants, here it is the Roma population.

HC: Yes, and I have to add that in Austria we did not speak about migrants for a long time,. Slovakia sometimes reminds me of this phase in our history.

TSS: So migration is now one of the hot topics in Austria?

HC: Yes, problems are being discussed and also thanks to our minister there is a much more open discourse. We have not solved the problems, definitely not, but in order to solve problems you need to face up to them and there I think we have done a great step forward in the last decade or so.

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