More focus on research would draw investment

SLOVAKIA is not doing enough to support research and development, says German Ambassador Thomas Götz, who represents the country with one of the largest number of investments in Slovakia. 

German Ambassador Thomas GötzGerman Ambassador Thomas Götz (Source: Jana Liptáková)

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Götz, who has been in the posting for a year now, about electric cars, Germany’s stance towards nuclear power, but also about reconciliation with the past that not only Germans are still going through.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): In Germany, a traditionally euro-optimistic country, support for the EU has been on the decline, according to the Eurobarometer survey. What are the reasons for that?

Thomas Götz (TG): The question is whether this is really the case. Needless to say the German government is very EU-optimistic and I still think that the great majority of people in Germany support European ideas and the EU. But as in many other countries of the EU, criticism has risen over the recent years. That goes back to, of course, the big financial crisis we have had or we are still having, and now the immigration issue. But people also think that there is too much bureaucracy in Brussels. The EU is deciding about issues that people feel should be decided on the national level. Generally, I think that criticism towards the EU is not as strong in Germany as in some other countries, for example as in Great Britain and the Netherlands or Finland.

TSS: One of the issues that is shaping the attitude towards the EU right now is migration. How do you perceive the debate about migration quotas in Germany?

TG: There are two different levels. First of all, there is discussion within Germany because refugees flowing into Europe caused big problems for German communities. Many of the refugees want to go to Germany and we simply do not have enough facilities to accommodate them. The other part is the discussions we have on the European level, the proposal by the president of the Commission to introduce the quota system. Germany, together with some other countries would be in favour of some quota system, but there is considerable resistance from some other countries, including Slovakia. In Germany there is a lot of sympathy for those refugees who flee from war. People coming from Syria for example, especially Christians, but not only Christians that are persecuted by Islamic State. There’s a lot of reluctance towards the people who simply come to Europe for economic reasons.

So there’s a clear difference in the public debate. We have an obligation to deal mainly with those refugees that are forced to leave their home country because of war or other persecution which is also in the middle of the public debate in Germany. We have a problem in Germany that we don’t have enough facilities for the influx of refugees. Many would like to come to Germany. There were, for example, many problems in the past few months with people from Albania, who are considered as coming from a safe country. These people are only coming for economic reasons. But there is not so much need to deal with those people as with those fleeing from war, from Syria for example.

TSS: Another thing is that Germany was very welcoming to refugees from also Czechoslovakia before 1989.

TG: Yes, we had a lot of refugees from eastern Europe, also from Czechoslovakia, and they have been accommodated very well and they have integrated very well at the time. But of course now we are facing different cultural problems with today’s refugees.

TSS: In 2015 we marked the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. What does this anniversary mean to Germany and Germans?

TG: The end of the WWII means the end of a very cruel and brutal system in Germany and in Europe. We had the opportunity for a new start, to build a democratic system first in the western part of Germany and later on also in the eastern part. The anniversary is a very important day for us. WWII, like WWI, should never be forgotten; all the crimes that have been committed in the name of Germany should not be forgotten. Have we come to terms with it? We are still dealing with it and we have to deal with it. And I think it’s also important that younger people have a chance to see what happened at that time. Younger people, in Germany but also in other countries, should be aware of what happened in order to prevent it from happening again.

TSS: Do you see this happening also in Slovakia?

TG: In the context of the memorial days you have in this country, 70 years of liberation, that this is also an important topic of discussion in this country. I’m not sure how far younger people are involved. It is a thing of the government, also of the political parties. It is also happening at schools, which is important. Younger people should know their own history, it is important.

TSS: Germany is one of the major investors in Slovakia, active especially in the automotive and ICT sectors. Some years ago there was a registered trend of investing into research and development. Has this trend materialised?

TG: Most of the German investments have been made in the industrial sector in the past 10 or 20 years. R&D is very important and I must say that Slovakia could do better. From the government side there is not much investment in R&D. My own personal feeling is that the country should do more in that field, including for the cooperation of industries, universities, and research centres. This would be very helpful in developing the economy. So I’m interested to see what the new economy minister [Vazil Hudák] will be doing, this is certainly one of the subjects I want to discuss with him. More should be done, also in terms of budget. There is a very low percentage in the national budget for R&D. If you compare this with other countries in the EU, Slovakia’s percentage is relatively low.

TSS: Does it mean with more support from the state for R&D it would be also more interesting for German companies to invest more in this area?

TG: For German companies Slovakia is an interesting place for investment because the conditions are right, you still have a very good educated labour force, and costs are competitive, the political situation is stable, along with democratic structures, there could be better conditions as far as transparency is concerned, but circumstances are developing in a good direction. For cooperation I think it’s no longer sufficient to have just investments, what Slovakia would need is more cooperation, more transfer of technological skills. But again, that needs some preparations on the side of the Slovak economy.

TSS: Part of those efforts is the introduction of the dual education system. German companies are involved. What are their experiences so far?

TG: It’s very good Slovakia passed this law. I think it will be a big advantage for Slovakia, but it will take some time. The law has just been passed, the system will be introduced in September and so we have to wait a few years before we see the, hopefully positive, results. On the other hand there are some German companies who have already started with the system even before the law was passed, Volkswagen, for example, so they are on a good path and they are in favour of that. I said that Slovakia has a very good labour force, but we have to look ahead – where is the country in five or 10 years. And you need more skilled labour below the university level. My feeling is that the country has too many lawyers, too many political scientists, the universities are producing too much of these graduates and what the country needs is more engineers, mechatronics.

TSS: In Germany there is considerable opposition against the prospect of the subsidisation of nuclear plants in the EU. What are Germany’s arguments against this plan?

TG: As you know we have decided to phase out nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima. The main point for us is that nuclear energy is not controllable in the end. It produces a lot of nuclear waste and we do not know what to do with it. That’s the main point. Some countries like Slovakia get the nuclear fuel from Russia, and send the waste to Russia, but also store it, and that poses a danger for generations to come. This is not something that can go on forever. That is why the German government has decided to opt out of nuclear energy which has the support of the majority of the German population. We are trying to get more into the renewables, we are trying to have better efficiency. That is an important point, because a lot of the energy that is produced is being spoiled, so you can do a lot with better efficiency. And we also think that this will create a lot of innovation from the technical point of view. Because we need new grid systems and new storage systems for energy and we have started this process. It is not easy, I admit, but it has big support of the German population and I think we can do it. Maybe it will take a little longer than we expect now, but I think we can manage it. And of course we hope others will follow. Each country has to decide on its own, but also we have something like an energy plan for Europe and your own commissioner Mr [Maroš] Šefčovič is responsible for that.

TSS: How do you view these plans for the energy union?

TG: The good points are efficiency and renewables, which go together with what we think. It’s also important in this context to look for alternatives. We are very dependent, for example, on Russian gas, your country up to 100 percent. We have to diversify; we have to establish more LNG-terminals, to have gas delivered from other countries. We also have to think about alternative routes for pipelines and your country is doing that, there are plans for other pipelines. This is an important process. We have to see that we secure energy deliveries from abroad also in the next 10 or 20 years from various sources.

TSS: Germany has ambitious plans for the usage of electric cars. Slovakia would like to have more electric and hybrid cars on its streets too. Is there any cooperation between the two countries in this respect or are there any plans for such cooperation?

TG: Volkswagen is producing one of its electric cars, the eUP in Bratislava. Unfortunately at a relatively slow rate. Another point is about demand. Governments can decide, but the customer makes his own decision and unfortunately up to now, demand for electric cars in Germany is not as big as we would have thought it would be. So I think a lot of work has to be done to convince people that it makes sense to drive electric cars. There are some fine models on the market, but relatively expensive, and the network for refuelling is not yet very well advanced. But in the end it’s the customers. Also here in Slovakia, if you look around what cars people prefer, you see a lot of SUVs in the streets, same in Germany. That’s not the future, unfortunately. They are fine cars and Volkswagen is producing some of the finest here as well, but they consume a lot of petrol and they are not very efficient. So the question is how to convince people, and there I see the task for governments. Also on the technical side, the industry must produce better batteries, because the cars we have on the market today have limited reach. We need more technical innovation on that side, and then maybe we can convince people to go for those cars.

TSS: It is common in Slovakia to learn German as a second language at school. In the past years, however, language education in Slovak schools has been dominated by English. How do you perceive the knowledge of German language among Slovaks?

TG: Everybody has to know English. We are not fighting against English, it is clear that young people should learn English and they should be able to converse in English easily, that’s very important. On the other hand, we are living in an open Europe and one language will not be enough. Everybody has to know a second language and maybe a third language too. And my argument of course is, if somebody wants to learn a second language, then I would recommend German. Slovakia has a border with Austria, a German-speaking country. Germany is the biggest trading partner for Slovakia, there are more than 400 German companies present in this country. Germany is one of the biggest investors. From that viewpoint it would make sense to learn German and I’m also going to schools where students can learn German, trying to convince them to do so. I think there are very good arguments for learning German. It’s true the numbers are not as good as they used to be 10 years ago, but still, after English, German is the most popular second language. Together with the Goethe Institute and some other institutions I keep up efforts to maintain that level.

TSS: Slovakia and especially Bratislava has considerable German heritage.

TG: Some of your politicians speak very good German. When I talk, for example, to the parliament speaker, Mr Pellegrini, he’s fluent in German, the mayor of Bratislava speaks German like I do. So does the foreign minister. So there’s a good basis. Sometimes I ask people whether they speak German and they would say no, but in the course of the conversation I’d find out they at least understand a lot, and that is also important.

TSS: Have you had a chance to travel around the country? Which places have caught your attention here?

TG: I have some favourite places in Bratislava which I will not reveal because otherwise too many people will go there. In general I like the countryside very much and there are some wonderful spots where you can observe birds, which I’m interested in. I also like the mountainous regions further east. I certainly want to go to the Tatras in summer time. From touristic point of view this is a very interesting country with wonderful places, places of history too, with a lot of interesting castles, churches, and buildings. So it’s worth coming here. And I wish more German tourists would come here.

TSS: Do Germans know it’s worth coming here?

TG: Unfortunately, Slovakia is not well known in Germany and I have talked to some politicians about the possibility to promote Slovakia, also to the new Slovak ambassador to Berlin, who sees this as his priority as well.

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