We Need Real Choices: Interview with Jiří Schneider

photo: MFA/Jindřich Rambousek

Two years ago, here in Wrocław [at Wrocław Global Forum], you called United States and Europe “G2 of the world” and today you referred to them as “catamaran on stormy waters”, so I was wondering if you think that we can observe serious, permanent shift of power in contemporary world or just this storm that is going to pass?

Well, I hope it’s a storm that is going to pass and I hope that we will be able to actually maintain the integrity of Europe throughout the storm. Speaking about the bond between America and Europe, as it was mentioned, I think the facts are robust, the numbers, the figures of the trade give no reason for skepticism. I mean the trend, the mood is quite skeptical and probably it’s not the best recipe to give up and to keep up with this gloomy trend, which wouldn’t lead us anywhere. Of course there are common traces and interests that we probably observe more when we see United States and Europe as a part of the free world from outside. I still believe there is a power of attraction, the liberal model of free societies, where this is the best model which can unleash creativity of people and their talents, I think this is the most convincing argument that we should stick together and not to give up.

So you think that no matter what crisis we have nowadays “acquis Atlantic” as you call it still exists and it will exist?

photo: MFA/Jindřich Rambousek

Yes, yes. But on the other hand I think these values should transform into allocation of resources and a political will. And here I express my doubts that I don’t see political will, [in the panel discussion] we haven’t touched very important and I would say worrisome trend of rapid decrease of defense spending in Europe. We are not there yet, but I think we are close to the tipping point, there is more and more cost of NATO spending on the other side of Atlantic. I think that’s worrisome and it shows that this community of values and common interests is not transforming into commitment to actually making it happen, allocating resources and various policies. The same goes for the lack of determination to have a free trade area between both sides of Atlantic, I think there are repeated attempts – I remember TAFTA in 90s, now the Free Trade Agreement, dialogue that is going on and quite reasonable recommendations – but I would love to see the political will to implement these recommendations.

You pointed out that there is an issue of maintaining liberal values in economy nowadays and seeing what is happening – meaning bailout mechanisms, demonstrations against austerity measures, popularity of politicians such as Francois Hollande – do you think these liberal values can be promoted by Europe nowadays, can we be credible in promoting them?

I think we should restore politics or put politics into place in Europe. I think source of frustration which is demonstrated in the events or trends you described is that politicians do not have real choice. We don’t have flexible integration model in Europe and it’s very difficult for politicians to say to the electorate that basically there is no choice, we have to do this and we have to do that. It doesn’t matter if it is a dictate of the Commission or European Central Bank or the markets, so it’s very difficult to do politics, which should be about choices and if there are no real choices, then it’s very difficult so it’s a blind ally. In my view, I think we have to think seriously about not moving blindly into even less flexible model of integration, which might be good on paper but if it’s not endorsed by people then it’s doomed to fail and it’s not sustainable. There’s not technocratic solution to the current challenges and the real choices should be put on the table. Of course there should be a real choice in front of the countries and societies which are indebted and of course there is a choice, there always should be a choice. The problem is that if the institutional arrangement and the legal framework in Europe doesn’t allow that then it’s really difficult. So my key point is we still speak about politicians but are they really politicians because they do not have too much space for maneuver and that should be the basis of the politics in liberal democratic system.

This is not the only problem that we have in Europe because euro zone crisis, financial crisis is one thing but the consequences that follow are another thing. I mean threats that come from inside of Europe, such as rise of populism and nationalism – suffice to mention huge success of Golden Dawn in the last elections in Greece. My question is how do you think Europe will handle it in the closest future?

What you mentioned are just consequences of the root cause, which is the lack of political space or choices. In such a situation I think the frustration is a fertile ground for this kind of simplistic solutions. So it’s just a consequence of a root cause and I think we should address the root cause and not to heal just the consequences of that. In my view the root cause is to open up the space for political choices. European integration is too precious to be lost just for the sake of keeping the achieved status of rigidity of the integration, that’s my personal view.

So what about Central Europe in current situation? In one of your interviews you mentioned that it is a story of success that we just have difficulties selling outside. Nowadays when you see foreign newspapers, you see information about Jobbik or Gorilla scandal or lately in your country David Rath’s online casino scandal. What can be done in Central Europe to improve this image outside and in consequence increase our role?

First of all, we still live in different times. At the time when this success was vindicated by our entry to the European Union at the same time in existing, so-called Old Europe the “longer members” didn’t share this feeling of success. Even in Germany, which actually benefited most from the enlargement, there was not kind of triumph in a sense that this was a real success that actually helped to cushion the problems of the German economy. And it was far bigger success I would say – I mean economically – than unification of Germany, which was the first enlargement. So there is no synchronized time of perception. Now we have to sell the success in time when the mood in Europe goes contrary to that and at the same time we are facing our own problems in our own countries, so our record is not shiny white, it’s a kind of grey and only if you compare it to other states that stay still outside of the EU then you realize that it’s a big difference. When you talk to people in Ukraine or in Serbia – to mention just two countries – I think you realize that they have this sense of success of Central Europe. The problem is that as time passes and we also have to adopt austerity measures our people, our citizens do not have this sense of success. They rather think – okay, have we moved further? They are looking at their salaries, at the rises in prices and things like that. Of course I think it has an impact on politics in our countries. But I still believe that the recipe to that is that we should work together more in Central Europe, we have to use more opportunities of opening casino online up in our region, have more trade across the border, have more contacts and to really capture the opportunities which come with the membership in the EU. I still enjoy passing borders without control and I think there is a lot of opportunity in that. Of course it brings certain responsibilities and we have to cooperate more closely because I think the borders are open not just for good business, but for bad business as well, but it’s not a reason to stop using the opportunities we are having. That’s why when I think of Visegrad cooperation, I think it has more potential inside than as a lobby group in Brussels. I’m not downgrading it, it’s been noted that it’s a good platform for coordination, but it’s not here only as a label in Brussels. It’s here to enable the cooperation in all sectors among our countries and I think there’s a huge potential and I believe it should be driven by us and I believe that between Prague and Warsaw there is atmosphere of creative thinking how to use these opportunities and I really believe that Czech-Polish cooperation is an engine in the regional cooperation.

In the context of Afghanistan you once underlined that Central European countries should go beyond region in foreign policy, in engagement. How is it now? Should we concentrate on the region as you said or still go beyond the region and go in kind of two directions?

We have to do both. In both directions our membership in EU and in NATO is enabling us to do more. I will give you some examples. In area of defense we’ve been able to present a joint declaration or plan of cooperation in the area of smart defense, regional cooperation in defense before Chicago summit of NATO. I think this is clearly an example that our membership in NATO is enabling us more cooperation in this field. Another example is going outside, I think we all participate in Afghanistan not only militarily, but we do the reconstruction. Next week we are starting the first course where we would like to transfer the experience of those people who were as civilians doing the reconstruction in Afghanistan to other people who would be participating in combined missions which are going to be missions of future, the joint missions of military and civilians, so-called comprehensive approach – another example where we can cooperate among ourselves, exchange experience when working outside. Another field where I think there is excellent cooperation – and we share I would say the ethos of that – is a transition assistance, sharing our transition experience with countries which are undergoing transition or are not even at the stage of transition, North Africa, Maghreb countries were mentioned last year as an example. We shouldn’t overestimate the similarities but at the same time our experience from what the Czech, Slovak, Polish, Hungarian society was going through or society in Baltic states in recent 25 years I think is valuable experience, especially in terms of transforming the whole system. Again, we should be active, we shouldn’t be shy of our experience and by the way, this is the implicit recognition of our success if we are able to share it outside.

My final question concerns investments and attractiveness of the region for foreign investors. As you mentioned, Poland has the biggest amount of investments, the biggest number of investments per capita is in Czech Republic – what does your country do for attracting investors and what it can improve in the future to make it more attractive for foreign investors?

I think we’ve tried various recipes – incentives, tax breaks. I remember in mid-90s, in ’97 the government adopted some measures under impression that without these incentives we would lose in the competition for investors. I think it had some impact, but in long term what matters is political and economic stability, the quality of life, because with investments there always come foreign investors’ managers. I remember – it’s anecdotical – there was a case when our company in charge of attracting investors was dealing with some interested companies and they asked a lot of questions and finally there were two or three countries in the final choice and they asked the questions such as “do you have opera?”. And actually the fact that there is an opera, which is not bad in Prague I think mattered to that. So I think there are hard facts, but there are some soft facts about the quality of life and of course what matters is the bureaucracy in the country and from that point of view the case you mentioned is not helping because I think a country has to have an image of a country that is capable of managing and governing. This is our homework.

So let’s wish us good luck with that. Thank you for the interview.

Interview:  Martyna Bojarska