The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Ari Rath, a prominent journalist in Israel and your close friend, passed away this January. What was his message?
Helfried Carl (HC): It was interesting to hear from Ari about how he faced challenges in Austria and had to escape from the Nazis, but also about how important it was to come to terms with the past. This was difficult because many people had to face the history of their parents, victims or perpetrators. To look openly into the eye of history can be very difficult and painful, but it has a liberating effect. Ari exemplified this for me, from the perspective of a victim who wanted to contribute to society, to make sure things like those in the 1930s would never happen again. His legacy is that we need to be very attentive to any kind of movements that go in the direction of differentiating between the rights of different people.
TSS: You have paid your share of attention to Slovakia. The Engerau memorial in Petržalka comes to mind.
HC: Petržalka is not a story of Slovakia because it used to be part of Germany. It was a story which was actually tackled by the courts. This is not typical in Austrian history, that you have Nazi perpetrators brought to justice after 1945. And all of this has been documented very well by Claudia Kuretsidis-Haider, who did a lot of historical and scientific work on this issue but also worked with civil society to bring people here to commemorate the event every year.
TSS: Are you planning any more activities on this topic?
HC: Next year is a very important year for our common history, the anniversary of 1918, but so are 1938, the so-called Anschluss of Austria, 1948 when communists took power in Czechoslovakia, 1968 which is important for Czechoslovakia and for Austria, in terms of the wave of refugees who came after the occupation, and then 1988 the first demonstrations here, and 1993, the anniversary of Slovakia and our bilateral relations. I am focusing on a big project which we hope will help to relate all these different anniversaries in one project lasting from March to November 2018. And the second-half of next year is also going to be the Austrian presidency of the EU.
TSS: You mentioned the 1968 refugees, who are important to remember in the current context.
HC: Yes, although these were a different kind of refugees, they were clearly political refugees. There is a difference from what we see today, where you really have to look carefully at who has the right to asylum.
TSS: President Van der Bellen visited Slovakia this spring. What was the most important outcome of his visit from your perspective?
HC: It was one of the first visits that he paid to a foreign country, after Germany and Switzerland, and the first visit he paid to a V4 country. This was a signal that he feels very much in tune with President Kiska’s pro-European attitude. I think the aim to have a close working relationship between the two presidents was established during that visit. There was a clear understanding between them, and we had a very good discussion at the university. He was impressed by his visit to Devín, and we had an economic forum at the end of the visit that highlighted the very important business relationship we have. I am sure it was not his last visit to Slovakia, and I am certain that the presidents will have a chance to exchange their views again soon.
TSS: President Van der Bellen was elected through a very complicated process.
HC: It’s actually the first time a national-level election had to be repeated nationwide. This is a result of the very high standards our Constitutional Court applied to the conduct of the elections. So we can now be certain that this is the result and nobody can doubt it.
TSS: His victory was one of the positive political signals for Europe in the past few months. In hindsight, what did his win mean to Austria?
HC: One of the important results of the election is that it did not leave the country divided, as some had feared. President Van der Bellen is a universally accepted president now. One of the most important things we have learned over the last couple of months is that it is possible to relate to the mainstream feeling that the European Union is a positive achievement in the history of the European continent. There is criticism, but the broad majority of people want the EU to exist in the future. The important thing is to mobilise the majority and not assume that things will work out on their own. We always have to fight.
TSS: This year, we celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Empress Maria Theresa, but in Austria it is celebrated much more intensively than in Slovakia.
HC: I realised that for Slovakia the important date is the coronation, and this was also celebrated by the city of Bratislava last year. But we marked the 300th anniversary here too. The Austrian Cultural Forum did an exhibition, which was a joint effort between our national library, the Bratislava University Library and the Gallery of the City of Bratislava. There are some interesting works there, most of them facsimile prints, and it underlined the linkage that Maria Theresa provides between Slovakia and Austria.
TSS: That was the time when Slovaks and Austrians were basically part of one large nation, and only the later history created a distance between the two countries. Are we still so distant?
HC: The normalisation of our relations has grown, and this is a big step forward. It’s also a danger because people think this is a given, but it was not. Everybody takes for granted that there are no borders between us, and this benefit is being used by people more and more. In my view, Slovaks are much more aware of Austria than vice versa. I am trying to contribute to raise the awareness. Overall, I think there is remarkable progress.
TSS: President Van der Bellen also mentioned the potential of the Vienna-Bratislava-Brno region. What are the areas where the cross-border cooperation between Slovakia and Austria can develop further?
HC: We have the trilateral Slavkov cooperation. During the Slovak presidency of the Slavkov cooperation, a work-plan was agreed where the partners stated they wanted to focus on transport, dual education, industry 4.0, energy infrastructure and security and common European issues. The perception of the area as a common region is growing. The problems we face are very similar, like dual education, and although our labour markets are very different, we face similar challenges. It is always about keeping in mind that the economy does not end at the border. The administrations need to realise that their planning horizons need to go further.
TSS: The Austrian government has presented a plan to stop social and wage dumping and to prefer the local workforce to migrants from other EU countries. How are these plans proceeding, and are they likely to be realised even after the early elections in Austria?
HC: One thing is the principle of having same pay for the same work in the same workplace. This is something that is not contested in the EU. It is very difficult for us to accept that if workers are sent to Austria by foreign companies, they are not paid the same as workers in Austria. This has now been extended to transportation, and there were complaints that this was creating too many bureaucratic hurdles. We are looking for ways to improve that, and to inform everyone on how to deal with these issues. Austria has launched a homepage in seven languages. But the principle of giving the same pay for the same work in the same workplace needs to be applied everywhere in the EU. And I hear with interest that the same slogan is now being used by the Slovak trade unions when they are confronted with workers from abroad. I always ask the Slovak partners to show empathy and to imagine a situation when Ukrainian workers would arrive to the Slovak market.
We also need to understand that the EU is a very important project that needs to be safe politically. That means that people must not see it as a threat to their interests. So we all have to think about solutions that, on the one hand, do not create disturbances in the market but, on the other hand, also protect our societies. The most vulnerable are often those who do not have highly-paid or highly-skilled jobs.
TSS: The tests of the Slovak veterinary authority have recently confirmed that there is the quality of food sold in Slovakia and western Europe is different. What is your opinion on such practices? Is the argument used by some firms that the customers prefer regional tastes justifiable?
HC: It was a big achievement of the V4 to take this to the European Commission to look into it. This is a perfect European way to deal with such an issue - to take it out of the bilateral sphere, to ask the Commission to look at something. As an aside, I have heard so many stories about this that I find hard to believe. Some people tell me they go to Austria to fill their tanks with Austrian petrol, because it is better than the Slovak petrol. I have my doubts of this, but I do not complain about it as an Austrian ambassador.
TSS: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) has signed an agreement with the Slovak government to explore building a hyperloop system that connects Bratislava with Vienna. How do you view the possibility of travelling from Bratislava to Vienna in 10 minutes?
HC: It sounds like a fascinating project. There is a possibility it will exist at some point. Obviously, it would be a nice development between the cities. For now, I am happy the Austrian railways are investing a lot into the modernisation of the track between Vienna and Bratislava main stations. In five years’ time, you will be travelling between the cities in only 40 minutes, with modern train stations along the way. This will help the region a lot. And I am also very much looking forward to a modernised train station in Bratislava.
TSS: Austria remains one of the largest investors in Slovakia. Where do you see space for further investments?
HC: Austrian companies are investing in Slovakia. We are the second largest investor in this country and the largest when you look at the real investments in terms of the industry, automotive and insurance companies. There are new plans, and I hear that Austrian investors are quite happy with the workforce here and with our priority to look into dual education. Overall, the polls show that there is a high level of satisfaction among Austrian SMEs.
TSS: Are they feeling the problems with the lack of labour force?
HC: There are hard factors and soft factors affecting this. You find that the people who work in Austrian SMEs stay there longer. This is one of the main advantages of dual education: people are becoming part of the company on an emotional level. The investment spent on someone who learned on the job pays off because the fluctuation rate is very low. They face some challenges for the future, but at the moment they are optimistic that they can at least keep the people they have as long as wages are rising.
TSS: Austria’s economy is mostly based on SMEs while in Slovakia the economy stands on large companies.
HC: We are in a good position, with a lot of SMEs that, as we always say, form the backbone of the Austrian economy. But they are also competitive on the global market. We have a lot of niche companies, who produce something very specific and are very good at it, which also means that we have a broad variety of products. They are not so dependent on the growth of individual markets, either regional or product-specific. But as in Slovakia, there is a big pull towards the automotive industry in Austria, though it is not as strong as here. We are producing parts for the cars.
TSS: What strikes you as interesting in Slovakia, that is different for you coming from Austria?
HC: I like almost everything about Slovakia, and I am not saying this just as a diplomat. I feel very welcome here. I like travelling the country. It’s very beautiful. We are divided by a language barrier, but I think there is a big similarity in the characters of Austrians and Slovaks. There is a pragmatic streak in both. I discovered the beauty of the cities here.
Regretfully, most Austrians do not know the cities further east, and there is a big heritage waiting to be discovered, to find that there is this linkage between cities like Bardejov or Levoča, Banská Štiavnica, the old mining cities, linked by the Fuggers to Austria. Also, going back to Maria Theresa, the first mining university in Banská Štiavnica was founded by her and after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise in 1867, most of the German-speaking professors went to the other side of the empire. And the famous Mining University in Leoben owes its existence to Banská Štiavnica. These are things I did not know before, and I love sharing what I have learned with my Austrian visitors.
TSS: If you had an Austrian who could spend only one day in Slovakia, where would you take them?
HC: I would tell them to go to Levoca, because this is the least-known. It reminded me very much of my own hometown, Salzburg, because there are important altars from the same time period and because Paul of Levoca is not well-known among the general population in Austria. For me it was really touching to see.
TSS: How is the language barrier? Is it hard for a German-speaking tourist to travel around the country?
HC: I think it’s quite easy. The language barrier is from the other side, since there are so many German speakers here that it is very difficult for me to practice my Slovak. And I promised myself that I would master the language, so that I can have a normal conversation before I leave the country.
24. Jul 2017 at 6:30 | Michaela Terenzani