The very close economic ties between Slovakia and France result from a favourable investment climate in Slovakia that stems from its political and economic stability, says Ambassador Christophe Leonzi, representing France in Slovakia since October 2016, in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): President Andrej Kiska recently visited France, as the first president of the independent Slovak Republic to do so. How do you assess the visit?
Christophe Leonzi (CL): Andrej Kiska’s visit to France on November 21-22 was very successful. It demonstrated once again the high level of trust existing between France and Slovakia, which results from both our strong common European commitment and our traditional friendship, on a political level (the president of the French Republic visited Slovakia three times in three years) as well as on economic and cultural matters. This visit took place right in the middle of the Slovak Presidency of the EU Council, so much space was devoted, of course, to the future of the EU. President Kiska’s visit demonstrated the common will of our two countries to further strengthen our economic links, especially regarding digital technology, since the Slovak president, who has a strong interest in this sector, visited the very dynamic startup incubator Numa, in the centre of Paris. The Franco-Slovak friendship is also anchored in history; therefore, on the occasion of President Kiska’s visit to France, our two countries agreed to an important Franco-Slovak cooperation in the military, cultural, scientific and educational fields to commemorate, in 2018 and 2019, the end of the World War I and the creation of Czechoslovakia. Indeed, as President Kiska pointed out during his visit, the Czechoslovak National Council was founded in Paris and Milan Rastislav Štefánik worked as an astronomer in Meudon. Finally, on the occasion of Mr Kiska’s visit, an agreement on educational, linguistic, academic and scientific cooperation was signed; this text is a valuable asset for strengthening the human and scientific links between France and Slovakia, in particular through the International French School in Bratislava.
TSS: What is the most important message sent by Kiska’s visit?
CL: The Franco-Slovak partnership is fully mobilised for the European unity and for the defence of the EU’s fundamental rights and values: this is probably the main message emerging from this visit. As a matter of fact, our friendship is anchored in our common commitment to the heart of European integration: our two countries are members of the eurozone and the Schengen area, which we strive to strengthen. Moreover, France and Slovakia share the awareness of the threats and of the seriousness of the crisis affecting the EU. Indeed, the EU is facing internal tensions due to Brexit, the terrorist threat, the rise of populism all around the EU, whose irrational pressures undermine the European unity and the effectiveness of our actions. The EU is also exposed to external threats aimed at our security and at the system of values shared by our democratic and liberal nations. France and Slovakia cooperate in order to re-launch the EU in accordance with our common values and on the basis of a positive agenda that concretely addresses the citizens’ needs.
TSS: France is Slovakia’s sixth biggest economic partner, with around 400 French companies being active in Slovakia. What do the French investors appreciate the most about Slovakia?
CL: With more than 380 subsidiaries and 29,000 employees, France is definitely one of the main investors in Slovakia, just behind Germany and Austria. Most of the largest French companies are active in Slovakia, as well as many SMEs, in the main economic sectors: automotive (PSA and equipment), plastic (Plastic Omnium, Bourbon) energy (Veolia, Engie), construction (Bouygues and Vinci), telecommunications (Orange), chemicals and pharmaceuticals (Sanofi), services (AXA, Mazars, food vouchers), etc. The very close economic ties between our two countries result from a favourable investment climate in Slovakia, due to the political and economic stability of this country. But the excellence of our economic relations is also the consequence of our common currency and our integration into the internal market of the European Union, which are great assets for the French and Slovak economies.
TSS: What are the new fields where you see some potential for economic cooperation to develop?
CL: There are a lot of opportunities for deepening our economic cooperation, notably in the fields of infrastructure (roads, railways), food, and luxury goods, but also in energy, in particular in the nuclear sector, which represents more than 50 percent of our electricity production and is an essential asset in the fight against climate change. Another field of cooperation is emerging: digital economy, which is an essential source of growth and employment for both France and Slovakia. As testified by the event on the Internet of Things that the French embassy organised last July, and by the emphasis placed on digital economy during Mr Kiska’s visit to Paris, I am convinced that the French and Slovak digital ecosystems will strengthen their ties. In order to strengthen bilateral economic and commercial relations, we should continue to develop co-operation in innovation and research, as well as in the field of technical and vocational education. The development of smart cities is another area where economic cooperation can develop: French companies have developed a real know-how in this field and we foresee a lot of opportunities and exchange of experiences in this area, which is fully in line with our climate commitments.
TSS: Slovakia has wrapped up its first-ever presidency over the EU Council. How do you assess its performance?
CL: The Slovak Presidency was definitely very successful and played a very constructive role in many ways, thanks to its competence, recognised by all, and its pragmatism. In a difficult period with so many uncertainties, which require a stronger and more united Europe than ever before, the Slovak Presidency managed to give a new impetus to the EU on the basis of a positive and very concrete agenda and well-crafted proposals. The Bratislava Summit on September 16, with the Heads of States or Governments of the EU27, was not only organised in a remarkable way, but is also, undoubtedly, a success for our Union. The Slovak EU Council Presidency played a decisive role by supporting the ratification of the Paris climate agreement, which is so vital for the future of our planet. It also worked a lot in order to better protect the external borders of the European Union, in particular through the historic establishment of the European Border Guard and Coast Guard Agency and the revision of the Schengen Borders code, which aims at extending to EU citizens the systematic checks when entering or leaving the Schengen area. The Slovak Presidency also made a lot of effort regarding the fight against terrorism: the EU adopted the important Counter-terrorism directive and reinforced the control of firearms. Finally, in the trade area, the Slovak presidency managed to push the signature of the positive EU-Canada agreement, while modernising the EU trade defence instruments, which are so important for the EU to defend its interested in a globalised world.
TSS: France still has not called off the state of emergency, announced after the terrorist attacks. What are the reasons for this decision?
CL: Following the attacks in Paris in 2015, a state of emergency was declared in response to the immediate danger posed by the terrorist threat. Since then, it has been extended several times. The measures implemented under the control of the parliament enabled the deployment of an accelerated strategy to detect and destabilise the jihadist networks operating in France and in Europe or transporting combatants to conflict zones. Along with the prolongation of the state of emergency, the government has strengthened the legal arsenal and the means of the police, the judiciary, the army and the intelligence services. In particular, a law was adopted in May to improve the efficiency and guarantees of criminal procedure, and to strengthen the resources of the police. Of course, all of these measures are in strict compliance with our laws and our principles.
TSS: Has the security situation in the EU following the terrorist attacks improved in your opinion? How has Slovakia contributed to solving the issues in this field and has it also cooperated with France?
CL: Following the terrorist attacks and in the wake of the Bratislava summit, the EU emphasised security issues, both external and internal, and made huge progress in this regard, as testified by the last European Council under the Slovak Presidency, on December 15. Indeed, it is absolutely essential to demonstrate that Europe protects its citizens, by ensuring its own security at the external borders and combating terrorism. Last April, an indispensable step was taken with the adoption of the Passenger Name Record Directive, which will be an essential tool to enhance the security of European citizens by facilitating the identification of the movements of terrorists. It is now very important to implement this text. Beyond this important file, the Slovak EU Presidency played a major role in strengthening the security of European citizens, especially with the revision of the Schengen Borders Code. Moreover, the Slovak presidency managed to revise the Firearms Directive, in order to introduce stricter controls. It is now very important to adopt another text in discussion aimed at better tackling the financing of terrorism, as well as to agree by the end of 2017, as stated by the conclusions of the December 15 European Council, on a European Travel Information and Authorisation System to ensure that visa-exempt travellers are screened systematically. The EU also needs to do more in the field of defence, as stated by the conclusions of the December European Council: if Europe does not defend itself, nobody will do so in its place. The EU should work intensively in the coming months on the development of civilian and military capabilities, a coordinated annual review on defence, the process of developing military capabilities, the establishment of a permanent operational planning and conduct capability at the strategic level, the establishment of a European Defence Fund, etc. It also requires increased cooperation between the member states, including between France and Slovakia. In this regard, after the attacks, France decided to activate the article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union, which allows EU member states to ask for help if they are a “victim of armed aggression” on their territory. I am very happy that Slovakia has answered positively to our request by sending staff officers to the EUTM Mali mission and that Slovakia is now taking part in the EUNAVFOR Sophia mission in the Mediterranean Sea.
TSS: You took over the post in late October. What is your impression of Slovakia and Slovaks so far?
CL: As I knew before I took up the post, since I’ve been working for many years on European issues and, especially, central and eastern Europe, Slovakia is a very pro-European country and my first weeks in the country only confirmed it. I would say, besides, that as a French diplomat, it is very easy and nice to work with the Slovak people, to “connect” with them, which certainly results from the proximity between our two countries in terms of culture, heritage, way of life, etc. This is an important reason why I’m enjoying this post in Slovakia. Besides, I was struck by the dynamism of the Slovak economy – not only in the automotive sector, but also as regards the new technologies, with many dynamic startups and a very active research sector. Finally, I really appreciate the quality of life in Bratislava, which is a very comfortable, historical and green city, at the very heart of central Europe.
TSS: There are numerous cultural events presenting France and French culture in Slovakia. Does this work vice versa? Are French people aware of Slovakia and Slovaks?
CL: Every year there are many cultural events presenting the rich Slovak culture in France. For example, since 1996, many artists, writers, musicians and Slovak intellectuals lived in the Cité internationale des Arts in Paris where they have been able to work on their projects for several months. Besides, I would like to mention the photographer François Kollar, who was born in Slovakia and worked in France, where he became well-known: a very nice exhibition of his works has been presented at the famous Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris and, in 2016, in Bratislava. Many French people associate the image of Slovakia with the great figure of Milan Rastislav Štefánik, who was both a hero of the French army during the Great War and one of the great architects of the creation of Czechoslovakia. The places he went are all marked by his memory, as in Meudon, in the suburbs of Paris, where President Kiska paid tribute to Mr. Štefánik in November. Štefánik is perceived as a statesman who fought for our common democratic values as well as for a more united Europe. This hundred-year-old Franco-Slovak memory reminds us that the European Union and its values result from an unresolved, multi-decade struggle between democratic and liberal nations against authoritarian systems. However, the image of contemporary Slovakia evolves; it is perceived as a modern European country, in the very heart of European integration. In this regard, I have the feeling that the image of Slovakia gained a lot from the successful Slovak EU presidency. Finally, how not to mention Peter Sagan, a great champion and very famous in France? Year after year, he proves to be one of the leading cyclists in the Tour de France, followed by millions of French people, who therefore know Slovakia very well.
TSS: What can draw more French tourists to Slovakia in your opinion?
CL: Slovakia has diverse and beautiful landscapes, with mountains, including the High Tatras, ideal for activities such as hiking or skiing. Besides, the country can be proud of its rich heritage and patrimony, with a beautiful capital, so many well-preserved towns and impressive castles all around the country. Moreover, it is very convenient to travel around Slovakia, since the distances are relatively short and the infrastructure is improving a lot. Therefore, Slovakia is definitely an interesting destination for French tourists, even if there could be more transport connections between our two countries, especially with eastern Slovakia.