As his country’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union winds down, the Ambassador of the Slovak Republic Ľubomír Rehák addresses the enormous challenges and successes that they have faced following the referendum in June
Presidency of the Council of the EU is an extraordinary event for every country. In Slovakia’s case, the Presidency is underpinned by the fact that this is the first time our country has held the role. The Presidency is the culmination of two decades of Slovak-European integration efforts following our joining the EU in 2004, the Schengen Zone in 2007 and the eurozone in 2009.
The Slovak EU Presidency has been conducted under extremely challenging circumstances. Our priorities have not only reflected our own ideas, but also the EU agenda. However, the decision taken by the British people in the referendum a week before the Slovak Presidency began was without precedence in EU history, and made us rethink not just our priorities but the future of the EU.
Though the situation is serious, it should not be regarded as hopeless. In terms of living standards, the EU is still one of the best places on Earth. Yet, the fact that we are part of a community of nations, which has co-existed in peace for 70 years, where we can move around freely and fulfil our dreams, should not be taken for granted. It is important to properly understand the idea of a united Europe, to develop and protect it – from not only external threats but also from internal self-destruction.
Pessimism has become a new norm on our continent. Traditional politics finds it difficult to react to populist voices. The problem is that these are quite a diversion from the roots and values of our civilisation. However, their promises are tempting and likely to gain popularity. That is why it has become crucial to communicate more and to speak clearly with our citizens. It is more important now than ever before to highlight the benefits of the EU. Our citizens should not be influenced solely by the negative narrative that is mocking or discrediting European integration. The EU is not defined by the curvature of bananas or by the caprice of unelected European bureaucrats. It is a space where norms are being harmonised to replace the 28 local regulations with one set of common rules and standards. The aim is not to complicate our lives, rather the contrary – to make lives easier, to help generate wealth and to help us play a relevant role in the world.
In Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, EU leaders met for an informal summit in September. The summit was initiated shortly after the British EU referendum to create a platform for internal reflection on how the future of the EU27 should look after the withdrawal of the UK. Our leaders recognised the need to communicate better – among the Member States, with the EU institutions, but most importantly, with our citizens. In order to better reflect the concerns of our population, the leaders approved a roadmap for the coming months.
It focuses on three key areas: migration and external borders; internal and external security including the fight against terrorism; and economic and social development with special focus on creating opportunities for the youth.
On writing this article the Slovak Presidency has already achieved good progress, underlining the longstanding position of the EU as a relevant and reliable global player. The EU ratified the Paris Agreement proving its leading role in fighting climate change. We reached an agreement on the EU budget for 2017 at the Council level in record time. The European Border and Coast Guard was officially launched. Good progress has been achieved in the field of fighting against tax fraud and evasion. The EU Action Plan on e-government for 2016-20 was adopted. In the field of the enlargement process, important negotiating chapters with Serbia were opened and the Council invited the Commission to draw up its opinion on the application of Bosnia and Herzegovina for EU membership. The Council has also approved a visa-free regime with Georgia. Last but not least, after some extra effort the free trade agreement with Canada has been signed. Progress has been achieved in a number of other areas too, which means that even in these challenging times the EU is able to generate positive dynamics and has not lapsed into stagnation.
In London, we too have been working hard on the Slovak Presidency. The Slovak Embassy has continued in the well-established practice of organising meetings and briefings for the EU ambassadors and diplomats with British representatives. The key difference was that discussions on the outcome of the EU referendum dominated virtually every meeting. However, while the focus of discussions shifted from the technical details of the EU’s everyday agenda to the so-called ‘bigger picture’ on future EU-UK relations, the contours of the British position remained uncertain. Now it is clear that Article 50 will not be triggered during the Slovak Presidency, some of these core issues are therefore being transferred to the next Presidency programme. Nevertheless, we are glad that we had a chance to promote Slovakia throughout the UK. A number of interesting events, exhibitions and presentations took place under the auspices of the Slovak Presidency in London and elsewhere in the UK.
So at the end of 2016 we will hand over the Presidency to Malta. I am sure that each member of the Slovak Presidency team in Bratislava, Brussels and our diplomatic missions around the world will be able to say that we did our utmost to guide the EU through difficult times. I believe we have invested all our energy and talents to prove that even a country that is far from being a superpower can successfully lead our Union, and intellectually contribute to the progress and development of our common European project.
Photographs by Ladislav Struhar