Ready, steady Slovakia

It’s been a rollercoaster few weeks for the Slovak Republic. Recent parliamentary elections – held mere months before the country takes over the EU Presidency –  delivered a surprising result, with no clear winner and the rise of radical parties.

Wake-up call
“This is wake-up call for us and for Europe,” Slovakia’s Ambassador to London Dr Lubomir Rehák told Embassy.

The traditional parties to the left and right put their differences aside and hastily created a four-party coalition, giving Slovakia a stable government to lead preparations for the Presidency.

The migration crisis dominated the elections and is likely to dominate the Presidency agenda. The Slovak government has been critical of the EU’s handling of the crisis, particularly the imposition of migrant quotas on member states, which it worries will attract more migrants to Europe, and “play into the hands of the people traffickers,” explains Rehák.

However, the EU’s latest plans to process asylum claims in ‘hotspots’ and return those who are ineligible to Turkey are “more rational” he says, adding: “We must protect the Schengen area and the rule of law. The alternative is chaos.”

What to do with migrants already in the EU is a “complex problem” admits Rehák. “We are in favour of solidarity but any solution must take into consideration the concerns of the EU population. If we ignore this, it will feed into the rise of radicalism,” he warns.

For its part, Slovakia is resettling vulnerable Christian families from Iraq. “They are likely to be able to integrate more easily into Slovak society,” explains Rehák.

Britain’s initiative to focus financial and humanitarian assistance on neighbouring countries hosting the refugees is also to be welcomed, he adds. It’s the kind of pragmatism that Slovakia will miss should the UK vote to leave the Union, he adds.

Please stay
“We like the British rational approach and we feel that the EU needs permanent revising of its policies driven by member states. So Slovakia wants to the UK to remain.”

Either way, the Slovaks are busily preparing for all contingencies. “If the Brits vote to remain, we will have to start the implementation of the agreement reached in February. If Britain votes to leave, we will have to initiate this complex process of separation,” says Rehák.

“We hope it won’t come to that. The EU project may not be perfect but it’s the best we can do. It has guaranteed peace in Europe for more than 70 years – and played a role in the peace process in Northern Ireland.”

Apart from the “crisis issues” there are other long-term priorities of the Slovak presidency, adds Rehák, such as tackling youth unemployment, the completion of the single market and energy security.

Spreading the area of peace and prosperity to the EU’s neighbourhood is also important – especially in Ukraine, which is of strategic interest for Slovakia as a neighbour and transit route for energy from Russia.

With Russian sanctions due to expire on 31 July, the EU will be monitoring the Minsk Peace Process closely, says Rehák, but adds that dialogue with Russia is crucial. “We need Russia to help resolve this crisis even though we condemn the annexation of Crimea… We should ensure Russia understands that the EU’s intentions in Ukraine are not anti-Russian; our aim is to spread the area of prosperity and peace.”

The Ambassador himself has a good understanding of both the European and post-Soviet worlds. He was a former Ambassador in Brussels on the EU’s Political and Security Committee during the Georgian crisis (2008-10). He studied and served in Moscow shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and headed missions in Minsk (2006-08) and Kazakhstan (2011-12).

Inventive Slovakia
Now in London, Ambassador Rehák plans to focus on boosting UK-Slovak economic ties. Last year, Britain ranked only 17 in the list of Slovak investors but after a £1bn investment by Jaguar Land Rover in January, the UK is now one the of top investors. Rehák wants to build on that success and encourage cooperation in areas such as advanced engineering. The ‘Aeromobile’, a flying car, was a Slovak invention, and Slovakia will be involved in the construction of the futuristic 1000km/hour ‘Hyperloop’ connecting Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna. Other sectors ripe for investment include energy (particularly nuclear energy) and tech industries, where Slovak companies lead the field in antivirus software.

The Slovak Presidency of the EU will be a good platform to promote Slovak culture and tourism in the UK beyond Bratislava’s reputation as ‘Parti-slava’. The Ambassador and his wife Dana (also a diplomat) are genial hosts and enjoy having people over to sample Slovak culture and top-notch wine, of which the Ambassador is justly proud (he hails from a region that produced, it’s claimed, the wine served at the Queen’s wedding celebration in 1947).

The Slovak community in the UK forms another cultural bridge and providing consular assistance is a top priority for the Embassy – that includes fielding anxious inquiries from the Slovak diaspora who are concerned about their status should Britain leave the EU.

“The next few months will be interesting,” says the Ambassador. No doubt there are a few twists and turns on the rollercoaster to come.

Elizabeth Stewart, editor of Embassy Magazine, interviewed the Ambassador of the Slovak Republic on 15 March 2016