Despite until recently being of no political 'colour', Slovakia's newly-appointed EU commissioner, Maroš Šefčovič, will represent the social democratic political family in the EU executive, he told EurActiv Slovakia in an exclusive interview.
Before becoming Slovakia's European commissioner, for the last five years Maroš Šefčovič, a career diplomat and a graduate of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, was his country's Permanent Representative to the EU in Brussels.
The media have been speculating about your nomination as commissioner for months. When was it actually discussed with you, and how did you feel about it?
Concrete discussions regarding the issue took place after the official announcement of [former Slovak commissioner] Ján Figel' [last September] that he was returning to national politics. I considered this nomination to be a great honour and a professional challenge. At the same time, I realised the huge responsibility that goes with this post, given that decisions of the European Commission eventually have an impact on almost 500 million European citizens.
You are the only career diplomat without any political affiliation in the outgoing Commission. As ambassador and permanent representative of your country, you gained experience of preparing Council meetings. Do you believe this will be an advantage in your new position?
Definitely. During my five years as permanent representative of the Slovak Republic to the EU, I had the chance to gain a close overview of the functioning of the mechanisms and administrative procedures in the European institutions. What is more, during this time I was able to build a network of professional contacts, which, I hope, I will appropriately benefit from in my new function.
At my interview with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso I informed him that I will work with a social democratic affiliation, which was positively acknowledged by him as well as by the chairmen of European Parliament's social democratic group Mr. [Martin] Schulz. The European Commission is interested in having the best possible cooperation with the European Parliament. In this sense I will try to do my best for the continuous intensification of horizontal political communication.
Some say that it was a tactical mistake for Slovakia to clearly ask for the energy portfolio in the new Commission. Do you agree?
The distribution of portfolios is an exclusive competence of Commission President Barroso, who has to build a team able to gather the support of the European Parliament and to build authority among member countries and citizens of the EU. That is why the Commission president will put emphasis on a wide political, professional, geographical and gender balance in the next Commission.
We are approaching the phase when taking into consideration all these aspects becomes crucial in the forming of the new team. Too much mediatisation of strongly formulated requests in this period could have unwanted effects.
What would be the advantage for Slovakia of getting energy, or another strong portfolio?
The code of conduct of commissioners and the EU Treaties are very clear – the members of the European Commission cannot seek or accept instructions from national governments or other subjects. Their utmost priority is pursuing the wide European interest. At the same time, every commissioner brings their own experience and concept of values acquired in their previous career. This experience helps the commissioner to build horizontal authority and influence, and to be effective in the college of commissioners.
Is it vital for Slovakia to have a strong Commission, capable of withstanding the pressure of national interests?
Since it joined the EU, the Slovak Republic has been a strong advocate of communitarian methods and of respect for European and international law. For middle-sized countries such as the Slovak Republic, a stable and respected legal framework is the main guarantee of its equal status on the international scene. EU membership significantly strengthened Slovakia's international standing. It is also necessary to point out that the influence of the Slovak Republic in comparison to countries outside of the EU is much higher and much more tangible today.
One of the main missions of the European Commission is to be the guardian of the treaties. The high number of infringement procedures and related imposition of fines for breaking the rules of the single market serve as evidence that this is a very demanding duty which the Commission takes very seriously. Therefore a strong EU, respected and able to resist pressure from member states, if their demands are in conflict with wide European interest, or European law, is in Slovakia's interest.
Do you expect that Barroso II will be fundamentally different from the outgoing Commission, at least in some respects?
When we look at the political guidelines of José Manuel Barroso, it is evident that the new Commission will with great energy engage in the preparations of the mid-term strategy to strengthen the overall position of EU in the 2020 horizon. The priority of the awaited strategy for the EU in 2020 will be measures for increasing the competitiveness of the European economy, to ease the impact of the financial, economic and social crises and the creation of conditions for stimulating economic growth and the creation of jobs.
There will be even more emphasis on quality lifelong learning, investment in research and development and further modernisation of the EU budget. I also foresee that the Commission will focus on diversification of energy networks, the construction of low-cost energy transmission networks and issues such as global warming and climate change. We cannot overlook that we are also bound to reevaluate the structure of the EU budget and the upcoming negotiations on future financial perspectives.
Don't you think that José Manuel Barroso should have had an opponent for his re-election as Commission president?
José Manuel Barroso was the first, and with great anticipation, to announce his intention to seek re-election. His mother party, the European People's Party, won the elections to the European Parliament and his nomination obtained the quick and unanimous support of the European Council. The vote in the Parliament after a difficult internal discussion confirmed this support across the political spectrum.
Do you see yourself as a 'middleman' between Slovakia and Brussels?
As I have already said, the main role of the Commission is promoting the wide European interest. Besides that, an important part of the mandate of each Commission member is to act as a kind of double-way channel – which means trying to shed more light into the Commission functioning, and at the same time bringing into his work in Brussels information on how the European policies are perceived concretely in member states, and in the case of the country which I know best, Slovakia.
Which of the topics of the last five years could be called 'Slovak topics'?
The main theme was to finish the integration into all European structures. The Slovak Republic was on head of the countries, which were expressly pushing for the enlargement of the Schengen zone, and in spite of some technical complications in our preparations, we managed to enter Schengen together with other countries.
We also managed to join the euro zone, which had an immense effect, not only economically but also politically. The economic convergence was also one of the Slovak topics, meaning leveling the economic differences between the member countries and their regions. Slovakia was advocating it, together with other countries, during the negotiations on the financial perspectives. The Slovak Republic was very successful in this regard, and today, after five years, we could talk about Slovakia having an average GDP per capita of 69% of the EU average, instead of 49%.
I would also mention our continuing support for EU enlargement, intense Slovak activity in the Western Balkan region, where the current Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák played an important role, or our support for the development of relations in the framework of the Eastern Partnership.
Slovakia was also active in the discussions on energy mix and energy security. In fact, we had 'our' topic in each key area. We were always realistic and pro-European; thanks to that we were able to push our priorities and build an image of a serious pro-European partner.
Don't you fear the disappearing enthusiasm for European integration in Germany?
Not at all. Even during the strained times of the economic crisis, Germany was a steady supporter of the Community method and European solutions. The German Presidency of the EU was an example of concentrating on European topics. The engagement of Chancellor Angela Merkel and other high German representatives in European issues is the best example of continuous German enthusiasm for the EU. However it is natural that all of us have to do more for better understanding of European processes, and the immense added value of EU membership for European citizens.
Do you agree that the EU is too intellectual and only for specialists?
I don't think so. There is an understanding in the EU, especially after the last rounds of enlargement, that sufficient knowledge of citizens is a key issue and in this context it has recently launched a number of initiatives and information campaigns, aimed at conveying the message precisely that the Union is not too intellectual and only for specialists, but part of the everyday life of its citizens. It is our role to communicate the positive effect and the high added value of being in the European family.
What could animate the European debate in Slovakia? During the European Parliament elections it proved not to be very developed.
Actually the election debates in all EU member countries were dominated by national themes. We have to draw lessons from this phenomenon. More activity of the political elites, educational institutions or media will be needed. European topics and European knowledge should inspire for the same place in national political discussions as internal developments.
At the same time I think that the European discussion will naturally become more intense in the new member countries. I am convinced that thanks to the information activities of the European and national institutions, in a few years the discussion on European issues will be perceived among citizens as a normal thing, and the difference between European and Slovak topics will slowly fade away.