The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Garth in mid-July, as the second phase of the Brexit negotiations was about to end in Brussels.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The Brexit talks are on. Where do they stand now?
Andrew Garth (AG): The negotiations have only just started. Before the summer we saw two rounds of negotiations. And there will be many phases of the process because they will last two years. We have agreed to focus on three key areas initially. One is the status of over 3 million EU nationals in the UK, and the status of just over a million UK nationals in the EU. We do not think this issue should wait until the end of the two-year process to be resolved. We can resolve it this autumn and that is what we are working towards so we can give families the certainty that they require.
The other two areas that we’re focusing on initially are Northern Ireland, to ensure that we don’t see a return to the hard border of the past, and the divorce bill, as some might call it. And, as you can tell, we are in a very different place than the European Commission about the financial settlement.
TSS: How are things going for Slovakia?
AG: We entered the negotiations looking for a deal that works to the benefit of the UK, the EU, and Slovakia. A deal particularly focused on trade. Continuous prosperity is really important because the economic growth in Europe has been struggling and is fragile. It is important that the deal we strike keeps the European economy moving. The UK is the second largest economy in Europe. If the UK economy falters, it will affect the rest of Europe, too. We need to avoid punishment talk because that is self-harming. We need a deal that will be beneficial for both. So this close, special partnership between the EU and the UK is in everybody’s interest. We do not need to increase paperwork for businesses. There is enough paperwork already. Why introduce tariffs? Introducing tariffs would mean extra work, would make business more difficult, and it would also mean that European products become more expensive than those from outside the EU.
TSS: What were the main concerns you have heard among Brits in Slovakia over the year since the referendum?
AG: Interestingly, when I talk to the Brits living in Slovakia, they are quite relaxed. Many of them are married to Slovak nationals or they have jobs here. They’ve also seen our offer to EU nationals in the UK, and know that, if that is reciprocated, then their situation won’t change. Our offer to EU nationals is that if you were in the UK legally before, what we’re calling, ‘the specified date’, you are entitled to remain and to apply for ‘settled status’ once you’ve been in the UK for five years continuously. You might already have achieved those five years by the ‘specified date’, or you might achieve them after it. Now obviously it’s crucial what that day is. And that is one of the things we’re negotiating first. But it will be no earlier than March 29, 2017 – when we triggered Article 50 – and no later than March 29, 2019 – when we leave the EU. Under our proposal EU nationals would receive the same rights as British nationals. The same economic rights, employment rights, pension rights, health and welfare rights. We think it is a very fair offer. If reciprocated, then that should be reassuring to the Brits living in Slovakia as well. There is a big difference in numbers of course, there are at least 95,000 Slovaks living in the UK and we may have a maximum of about 2,000 Brits here.
TSS: Slovakia is interested in becoming the home of one of the agencies that will be moving away from London due to Brexit, the European Medicines Agency. How do you see Slovakia’s chances on this?
AG: I’m sure that Slovakia will make a compelling case. From my understanding, Slovakia is one of the countries that does not have any institutional EU HQ in the country. However, competition for these agencies is going to be really tough, particularly from the bigger member states.
TSS: The UK is one of the European countries that suffered the most terrorist attacks over the past year. How have these affected the atmosphere in the country?
AG: We, Brits, are a resilient nation. Unfortunately, throughout our history we’ve had difficulties in this area. The true British spirit is to keep calm and carry on, that’s what we will do; we will not allow terrorists to change the way we live our lives. I was in the UK a few weeks ago and it was really busy. Tourists are still coming in. We don’t see any negative effects on the number of people coming to the UK. It is still a beautiful country, particularly when the weather is good, and it’s got lots to offer.
TSS: How does Britain cooperate with the EU, including Slovakia, on countering terrorism?
AG: That will be part of the negotiations as well. Obviously, keeping citizens safe is important to every member state. Currently we have very strong bilateral relationships within the EU, all of which cover security, and also a relationship with the relevant EU institutions. We want that to continue. Again, how that continues will depend very much on the negotiations themselves.
TSS: One of the main events at the June session of the Slovak parliament was the election of the head of the public-service RTVS. When public-service media are discussed in Slovakia, BBC is always mentioned as a positive example of how this kind of media should be. How is the BBC perceived in the UK today and what is its role?
AG: The BBC is an iconic institution established in 1922. It’s built a reputation for the quality of its news and its independence. And it’s famous not just for its news programmes but also for its drama programmes like Sherlock, which was also shown on RTVS. The BBC’s reputation for impartiality and quality has made it popular not only in the UK but around the world. Many public broadcasters use the BBC as a benchmark. However, it does come with a price. For example UK citizens are paying three times the price of what it is in Slovakia. But it’s important that the taxpayer gets value for money. We are increasing transparency about how that money is spent and that’s important also to maintain the public trust in the broadcast. Everybody is facing the same dilemma of competition from other platforms. Not everybody watches television any more. People are online. So the BBC has increased their online presence significantly. In fact, I use it for cooking because their recipe section is really good. So if you want to try some British recipes, go on the BBC Good Food website.
TSS: Has the decision of the British voters to leave the EU affected the attractiveness of Slovakia in the eyes of potential British investors over the past year? Are they looking differently at EU countries as investment destinations?
AG: I think what businesses want is certainty, they want to know what the trade relationships are going to be tomorrow or three years from now, because they want to plan investments. Which is why they agree with us – the sooner we move on to the trade aspects, the better. They are just waiting for these negotiations to begin. The UK is a huge market for Slovakia and trade has been really increasing. In fact, the trade between our two countries is now significantly higher than when I arrived – there was a 46 percent increase in the first quarter of 2017 alone. The UK is now Slovakia’s fourth largest export market, and it’s growing. So it’s important that we do a trade deal that works and keeps trade growing in the future. On the investment side, Brexit has not changed the situation for investors. As we see from Jaguar’s decision, they are still positive about the country, but obviously they want to know what the arrangements will be for sending part of the production back to the UK.
TSS: How is the Jaguar investment going?
AG: If you go there you’ll see how impressive and quickly it’s progressed. The amount of work that’s been done in the last 12 months is significant. Amazing! They have a plan and they are working on it diligently, keeping to timetable. The construction is up and the next step is putting the equipment in. I understand that will be done later this year with an aim to start production next year, in 2018.
TSS: Do you have information about any new investments from the UK possibly coming to Slovakia?
AG: We should not talk about that because you never know. It’s nice to get the surprises. If you think about the Jaguar investment, it was all done very quietly and it was nice when it happened. So let’s see. In English we say don’t count your chickens until they hatch.
TSS: You have been part of the Youth Embassy competition for three years and you also presided over the jury that evaluates the competing projects. What persuaded you to participate in it?
AG: I’m always keen to get involved and help organisations and programmes that help young people develop their talents. The Youth Embassy programme is really good. Particularly when young people are coming up with projects that help their local community. And now it’s expanded: we’re looking at groups of university students who are looking at the business side of things and the broader impact on society. As an embassy, we are also very much involved in the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, which is going very well and expanding across Slovakia.
TSS: How long have you been in Slovakia?
AG: Two and a half years, and I definitely feel like Slovakia is my home now. We are really happy here. Two and a half years seems to go very fast because it’s a fantastic place to be professionally. It’s very interesting on a political and also on the personal level. There is so much to see in this beautiful country. I just wish I had more time to get around.
TSS: You have had personal experience with one of Bratislava’s maternity wards quite recently. Maternity wards in Slovak hospitals have been much criticised, also compared to the way things are done in the UK. What was your experience and could you compare with British services?
AG: Slovakia is our home. So when my partner Angela became pregnant, it was automatic to think about having our children here. We realised that having twins was more complicated. But once we went to the hospital to see the doctors they gave us the confidence that we were in good hands, safe hands. And yes, the physical side of the building is different to what you have in the UK, but it’s important what’s inside. And it’s the quality of the doctors, nurses, and the equipment. And we were reassured by that. Yes, it was a different experience but at the end of it we’ve come home with two healthy babies. And we are very happy with that outcome.