President Kiska: We should be in a different position in the EU

President Andrej Kiska delivered a speech before the MPs of the Slovak National Council on the position of Slovakia in Europe on Wednesday.

“Slovakia’s domestic and foreign policy have for several past months spent a lot of energy fighting the distribution of refugees who are coming to Europe in great numbers. On the home front, this political energy has primarily focused on reinforcing and sustaining the unity of domestic political players in their opposition against the so-called mandatory quotas.In discussions with our European partners, we have made efforts to prevent the adoption of that decision, or even block it if possible. A few days ago, Slovakia eventually ended up in an absolute minority of European countries opposing this decision and faced a failure.

I have asked to be allowed to deliver a speech in front of you, dear members of the parliament, because I consider it my duty to speak on this occasion about the issue which I think has much wider implications for our country.

Europe and the world have gone through several serious crises over the past quarter century since the fall of the Iron Curtain. However, in its complexity and uncertainty, the world is now alarmingly less stable than most of us have ever seen in our lives. Therefore, I wish to note that in this world, it is not only the formal membership of the European Union and the Alliance that is essential for Slovakia today. A thing of vital importance for Slovakia is to have friends and allies who can trust us the way we want to trust them.

I wish to approach you on this matter today, dear members of the parliament of the Slovak Republic, and the political parties you represent, which will soon be trying to win votes from the citizens in the upcoming election.

Decisions about our future - about a better or worse life of people living in Slovakia and about our long-term national security - are made here at home, in Slovakia, in the first place. It is not and never will be the written international treaties and conventions only that make really good friends and reliable allies, our compliance with which should be a commonplace.

I firmly believe that the one thing that stands above all the contractual commitments, all formal obligations and all written and signed guarantees, is the ability to understand the gravity of the moment. That it is not about the momentary prestige or some kind of particular. That it is all about the strength and proof of togetherness, the strength and proof of trust - at the time of crisis or complex and intricate decision-making.

I already said on more than one occasion that the recent discussion on the refugee crisis we have been engaged in for several months is also about the heart and the character of Slovakia. It is the most important thing, for Slovakia has otherwise not gone through such imminent and serious trials during this crisis as some other European countries, including our neighbours in Hungary and Austria, or our major economic partner, Germany.

More than once I have also expressed my opinion that Slovakia has the capacities to help.That accepting several hundred or even thousand people fleeing from the war and violence would definitely be in Slovakia’s powers. I believe it would also be acceptable for a majority of our citizens if we jointly explain this decision to them in level-headed words and with the necessary accuracy. It would pose no threat to Slovakia, nor would it have any impact on how good or bad the life of people living in Slovakia is.

A lot of associations and individuals, Christian and other organisations have offered to help the people who are trying to escape the war and its atrocities. Out of their own initiative, spontaneously, and often without publicity. However, extremist opinions and recriminations have been part of the public debate from its very beginning. The sense of humanity has been blamed for naivety and, on the other hand, a natural fear of our people of the unknown has often been labelled xenophobic and extremist.

Let me say, however, that a too strong voice has been given, in the political debate in particular, to arguments that encourage this fear of all migrants. From an imminent security threat that several hundred or thousand people fleeing from the war would allegedly represent, through to ruthlessly portraying all migrants as economic adventurers arriving in Europe only to seek a more comfortable life.Sometimes I also had an impression as if the debate about our heart and about our own contribution to resolving the crisis was replaced by lecturing other countries and the entire Europe on where they had gone wrong and what they should do now.And that even reasonable opinions were overshadowed by a generally prevalent impression - in the eyes of the public both at home and in Europe - that Slovakia simply does not want people who are fleeing from the war and violence.

I think it is also important to talk about the reasons why, in my opinion, the Slovak position on this matter has failed in opposing the mechanism for redistributing 120,000 people from Italy and Greece who fled to Europe from the war and persecutions. Why, in my opinion, we failed, in the very beginning, to push the right button in this migration crisis that is going to put the entire European Union in a position where it will have to face a lot of new challenges we have not had to face before and make a lot of decisions we have not had to make so far.

Not only here in Slovakia, but nowhere in Europe has anybody ever said that the mechanism of the so-called quotas is a solution to the migration crisis. There has never been a dispute in this regard. In the situation when hundreds of thousands ofpeople arrived in Europe in the past months and when no one is expecting that this trend may reverse suddenly, nobody could have thought and argued that redistributing first 40 thousand and now 120 thousand people could solve the problem.

I think that the Slovak foreign policy lost the battle over the so-called mandatory quotas in Europe because it had failed to properly consider two essential things.

I am sure you remember I called this administrative distribution mechanism an unfortunate idea when I stood here before you with my State of the Country Report in June. And I pleaded that Slovakia offered help voluntarily and out of its own initiative, according to the resources and capacities we have at our disposal.

I even said I considered the very word "quotas” unfortunate and inappropriate, though it had become such a commonplace expression in this context. After all, we are not talking about goods in stores or songs played on a radio. We are talking about living human beings. About men, women and children who run to Europe in order to escape death, violence and persecution. Maybe we in Slovakia got the impression that the name “mandatory quotas” took away the human from the misfortune of real human beings. Not in most of Europe, however.

Even there - in most of Europe - citizens and political leaders realise that economic migrants are also part of this enormous wave of people coming to Europe. And that they are not few. That we cannot and do not want to take them all in. That we must be able to register them, and those who fail to satisfy the asylum requirements must be returned back to their safe home countries.

Nevertheless, in most of Europe, the rather bureaucratic term “quotas” did not lose its humane and humanitarian aspect in this particular context. In most of Europe, citizens and political leaders alike still believe that we should and must help the people fleeing to Europe from the war and violence, as well as those who are already here; that it is our duty - and that we have capacities for that. Most of Europe and its political leaders can still see what is behind that unbecoming term ‘quotas’ - a man; and the quota numbers mean human beings.

I think we have underestimated this humanitarian aspect, this emotion. When Slovakia voluntarily announced in July it would accept 100 people out of the total of 40,000, we lost sympathies in most of Europe and we lost the understanding and comprehension they might have for our reasonable arguments. Slovakia has become a target of jokes and ridicule in European and global media. As if a man - the value of a human being - has been omitted from the Slovak position. Irrespective of the origin, nationality, religion, age or social status of a human being fleeing from the war, violence, persecution.

I think - I firmly believe - that the politics must now and always preserve this humanitarian dimension. When the politics gets narrowed down to individual interests, it is just a step away from egoism, a principle that holds no future for the united Europe. They also say that small countries - and this is something you often hear in our Central European region - should, above all, take reasonable actions in order to protect their own interests. It is surely true. But reasonable actually means that we must be able to show our heart and character at the time of crisis.

The second reason why I think our European policy and Slovak position lost the battle against redistributing 120 thousand refugees was our failure to fully understand the second - equally important - purpose of the so-called quotas. It is the mutual solidarity among European countries in the wake of perhaps the most serious crisis of rules since the establishment of the European Union.

I hope it is clear that no European country, no leaders, have ever believed and believe that redistributing several thousand people who would be assigned to countries opposing the distribution mechanism could resolve the problems of the most affected countries.Or that a contribution made by our countries, including Slovakia, would make the situation in those countries where tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people arrive any easier.

I equally admit that not only the European Commission but a majority of European leaders, too, understood that Europe as a whole had too long been standing by and just looking at what was going on. That in the early months of what later turned into a huge migration wave, Europe was just an idle bystander, more or less. Only now, when perhaps all of us in Europe finally understand the real size of the problem, when we understand the proportions of difficult decisions we will have to agree on, we have come to realise that Europe as a whole needed to send a signal. Not only a concrete help to countries that need our assistance, but also a signal from one Member State to another. Surely not as a solution to the migration crisis, but a sign that we want and can act out of solidarity, as one man. A signal from one Member State to another, as well as a signal to all the citizens across the European Union.

I believe that this was the reason why even the representatives of a majority of the countries opposing the so-called temporary quotas announced, even before the vote on this issue took place, they were ready to accept larger numbers of people than the so-called quotas originally envisaged. Because they realised that no financial or any other offer could equally replace this gesture at that particular moment.

I believe this is why the representatives of a number of countries critical and disapproving of the so-called temporary quotas announced they would respect the decision immediately after the quotas had been approved by the Council of the European Union. Because they want to respect European laws and understand that the disagreement of the part of the public, or even leaders' personal difficulties in their domestic policy are indeed irrelevant - that they are irrelevant vis-à-vis weighty decisions and challenges Europe is about to face in the coming weeks and months. And because they want to contribute to them with all the weight and due respect as countries whose leaders are aware of their contractual commitments and the significant implications this situation has for the future and unity of the entire Europe.

Dear Members of the Parliament,

When I assumed office of the president I was convinced that our most important international agreements and commitments - and our foreign and European policy in a broader sense - were based on the firm and deeply anchored principles of a generally respected democratic country that Slovakia is. I presumed that our foreign policy pursued the same objective as our domestic policy - that is, to ensure better conditions for life today and good prospects for tomorrow. In particular, the prosperity and security for our people. I presumed that Slovakia was a rule-abiding country with strong friends and faithful allies. That we are a country whose foreign policy enjoys a strong consensual support from all relevant players across the political spectrum. To put it simply, I believed I was taking a 1st class train that was well on its track in this regard.

The statement that our relationships are “free of any problems and outstanding issues", frequently repeated by our diplomats in the documents they supply to me ahead of my meetings with foreign country officials, was something I did not consider an empty phrase.I also liked to focus on concrete possibilities that could reinforce Slovakia’s international relations and benefit our citizens. After I assumed the office - and on every possible occasion since then - I have always asked the people in charge of our foreign policy about clear, argument-based and realistic objectives that we want and can achieve vis-à-vis individual countries, regions or groupings of which we are members or partners. However, not all the answers I receive include Slovakia's generally articulated strategic interests described down to the details of specific achievable objectives.

I have also been raising questions of how we managed to reinforce our interests in those regions where Slovakia has been involved more than anywhere else, working towards their benefit. Or where Slovak experts did a great job and earned Slovakia a good reputation. Whether we are able to add an economic dimension to the political involvement equally well as our neighbours and partners: through new contracts and new opportunities. For instance, how many times and in what manner has Slovakia succeeded in turning its presence in crisis regions such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Cyprus, Bosnia or the entire Western Balkans into an opportunity?

The answers are rather evasive. It is definitely not due to Slovak diplomacy facing a lack of outstanding representatives. There is certainly a sufficient number of such representatives, with many of them having already been invited by the international community to hold important positions.

We discuss this issue with the Minister of Foreign Affairs quite often, and I see that he realises this problem and wishes to do something about it. In my opinion, this weakness can be attributed to the fact that we have not learned some things yet. We should learn how to make use of what we do today and turn it into an opportunity for tomorrow. How to find a way for the Cabinet, parliament, government agencies, businesses or non-governmental sectors to join forces in fulfilling the generally articulated interests, and then transforming the specific cases of Slovakia’s involvement into economic projects. I have seen and I still see opportunities for the president to both encourage and contribute to this process.

However, since June last year, a couple of things have happened that made me ask myself a question: hasn’t Slovakia been getting into arguments with our key allies over important European issues a little bit too often over the recent years? And, in many cases, also with those Member States which even we describe as the leaders of the European Union and our strategic partners? This in itself would not be a problem, if we were clearly aware of the foreign policy interests and European interests which Slovakia was pursuing at that particular moment. And, first of all, what we were seeking to achieve and trying to promote in any given situation. Or whether it was mere domestic political ambitions that overshadowed the genuine interests of our country in the European Union.

Four years ago Slovakia was the last country which kept refusing and obstructing the efforts towards reaching a Europe-wide consensus during the complex and lengthy process of saving the Eurozone. It was about this time in the fall four years ago that the entire Europe gazed in astonishment at Slovakia where our government fell apart over the vote to extend the European Financial Stability Facility, with early parliamentary election held soon after. In fact, this decision turned out to be devoid of any conflicts in terms of domestic political affairs. In the end, a convincing majority of almost four fifths of MPs in the National Council of the Slovak Republic voted in favour.

Shortly before I took office as president, the Russian Federation annexed Crimea and became involved in fighting in eastern Ukraine. At that time the Slovak government, along with our partners in the European Union and the Alliance, took a clear stance by saying that Russia had breached international law. Slovakia has repeatedly approved EU’s joint sanctions against Russia. It was about this time last year when I travelled, following an agreement with the Prime Minister and the key members of the government, to a NATO summit in Wales to offer our contribution to the reinforcement of collective security.

In this spirit we, that is,the president and the government members, have acted and made decisions during the discussions at the European Union and Alliance’s roundtables and, as far as I am involved, both in camera or publicly, and we have always done so in full compliance with Slovakia’s interests and our strategic documents.

Slovakia also helped Ukraine at a critical moment to address its literally existential problem by launching the reverse flow of natural gas. We can rightly say that Slovakia helped Ukraine avert an energy collapse and defend its sovereignty. But, on the other hand, Slovakia has been simultaneously sending out signals and taking certain foreign policy actions which raised concerns and questions among our allies and partners particularly in those critical months when we, and no one in Europe, could have had any idea of how big this conflict would grow and where it would stop.

All of these three cases and all major European topics over the past years, including the current refugee crisis, have had something in common – the cohesion and future of Europe. They have also involved more general threats to Europe. There is one and the same question which applies to all of these situations at home: what specific foreign policy interests has Slovakia been pursuing by these actions? What feasible and attainable goals have we set for ourselves in foreign policy – and what have we accomplished in particular? Have we made any new friends or reinforced any bonds? Or was it domestic political ambitions that overshadowed the genuine interests of our country?

There is one argument we can hear quite often in response to these and other situations: we are members of both the Union and the Alliance, we vote and make decisions together. But, regardless of the joint decisions, we have the right to have our own opinion and we will not let anyone to deprive us of this right. And, even after a decision has been made, we reserve the right to keep that opinion.

Nobody is going to argue about exercising one’s own right to have an opinion. But I am convinced that Slovakia should be aiming higher.

There is much joy and delight in being able to express one’s own opinion, even if put harshly at times. Feeling free, not constrained by anything, being able to sharply criticise everyone who we think deserves it - this is the joy and delight that everyone discovers quite early in their life. They are fine with it for some time, and it is perfectly acceptable for that age. No other ambitions, only basking in the joy and delight of knowing that one’s own opinion will be voiced publicly and aloud. However, even young people can discover quite soon that there is much more joy and delight if they actually succeed in changing something in their community.

Slovakia is still a young country. But it has come a long way and grew up fast – which is why our ambitions in foreign policy issues should by far exceed our excitement about voicing our own, different opinion.

Dear Members of the Parliament,

I have opened my speech by pointing to the disturbing instability of the world. I have mentioned several crises which are testing Europe’s unity and which naturally raise questions: how many crises can a united Europe take within such a short time? With its population of half a billion, the European Union has existed in its enlarged form and with its current rules for a short time indeed.

One of the most topical and most legible priorities under Slovakia’s foreign policy and one of the most vital interests of Slovakia is to stay in the centre of the European Union and contribute to its future arrangement in a constructive manner. It is written in our country’s strategic documents this way. This is how we say it quite often. There has long been a consensus on this issue among several Slovak governments and it is something that all major political powers throughout the entire domestic political scene absolutely agree on. As President, I pursue this interest both abroad and home. And now and in the future, I will strongly appeal that we always keep this interest in mind, that we promote, cherish and foster it, and that we do not put short-lived domestic political ambitions above it.

Therefore, I want to avail myself of this opportunity and to make two points that are also related to the topic of my speech.

I consider the first one to be quite natural in that I am bound by the Constitution to do so. As president and as an official representing the Slovak Republic abroad, I consider it my personal responsibility and duty to also act at home by reminding us, if necessary, of our commitments: the Slovak Republic recognises and respects the general rules of international law, international treaties by which it is bound, as well as its other international commitments. This is our duty, and it is binding equally on the president and on all public authorities in Slovakia.

The second point that I wish to make and that I feel confident about is Slovakia’s enormous interest in erasing, as soon as possible, the bad impression we have left on most of the European countries and on many of our friends as the refugee crisis has unfolded. So that we find a way out of the isolated position in which we are now, and in which Europe sees us, as soon as possible.

It is definitely not in Slovakia’s foreign policy interest to encourage further misunderstanding, which all of us here must indeed feel. Regardless of whether we deem it absolutely unfair or whether we want to and are able to understand it. In fact, this kind of our participation in the talks and decisions, which Europe will have to make in the future, is of no benefit to Slovakia. If the Union is to be effective, we should act as one and handle the migration crisis. I would also consider it particularly unfortunate if we took over the presidency of the European Union in a few months without our partners genuinely believing that Slovakia’s heart is on the side of the common Europe and that our character is an important contribution to it.

Dear Members of the Parliament,

There is not much time left of your tenure. I presume that most of you will be running for re-election on the ballots of your parties in the upcoming election. The way the election campaign is to be conducted will be your answer to the question whether placing domestic political ambitions above Slovakia’s foreign policy interests is to become a norm in this country. I think that all of us here believe that this is in the best interests of the citizens. Let’s give people in Slovakia a reason to not only understand and acknowledge them, but also identify themselves with them, both in heart and in mind.

Our Europe – the European Union – is not a bank machine. It is neither its central idea, nor its purpose or asset. However, it seems to me that, except for ceremonial occasions, we hardly say good things about the European Union in our everyday political debates.The word Brussels is nearly seen as a bad word and the bureaucrats in Brussels are portrayed as being responsible also for those decisions which are in fact made by the representatives of national governments, including our own ones. Let’s try to tone it down so that we do not lose public support for a united Europe because of domestic political ambitions. The European Union is not a problem, but a solution, even for us in Slovakia.

The refugee crisis diverted Europe’s attention from the east to the south. However, we should not ignore our other genuine interests, either. Hopefully, it seems that people are no longer dying in eastern Ukraine and that a truce is in place. And that the Minsk agreements are still being implemented. But there is still uncertainty associated with the developments behind Slovakia’s immediate, and European Union’s easternmost border. Becoming a Europe-oriented and vital neighbour is not only the right of Ukraine’s people, it is also one of Slovakia’s genuine interests.

For this reason the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project goes against Slovakia’s interests as well. In this regard I share the exact same opinion with the Prime Minister and we have agreed to seek support from other partners and Member States. This is an example of a genuine Slovak interest and I am convinced that it is also an example of a Europe-wide interest. I would be gladder if Slovakia was in such position these days and months so that we could act with more power in Europe. So that our fears and arguments could be seen as being voiced by a country that can listen to and understands the arguments and concerns of those whose attention and support we would want to seek.

I have also mentioned the situation eastward from us because it is a question of Europe's security, hence Slovakia’s security, too - that is, the fundamental task of every country to ensure its own protection and security of its citizens. I do not think it is wise if we are underestimating a somewhat weaker public support to our membership of the North Atlantic Alliance in the long term. I do not think it is prudent if we feed the impression among the public that it is only them, without us. If we downplay or even conceal the commitments that we have made voluntarily. As if it was somebody else – they – forcing us to do something. If we create the impression among the public that our security guarantees are only some spare heavy overcoat that we just put on if an extremely harsh winter arrives – and because such a winter is not coming to Slovakia right now, we do not need to talk about it.

Dear Members of the Parliament,

It seems to me that the diverging opinions you may have – either here in the Parliament or those that exist between the major political parties – are in fact irrelevant when it comes to Slovakia’s foreign policy interests. Because there indeed is a consensus on those interests that are fundamental.

For this reason we should never forget the interests of our country on any occasion, not even for the sake of domestic political ambitions. The doubts cast on Slovakia's position and interests, the campaigns for changing the country’s orientation which are starting to appear, or political extremism will grow even stronger if we admit that there is a shred of truth in their goals and argument. Or if we start playing games with them. This is especially true today when many debates we conduct – both as citizens and as politicians– are significantly affected by the aspect of an information war which is also targeted at Slovakia and its people.

For this reason I want to conclude my address by asking the following of you, dear Members of the Parliament, and of the parties you represent: give the Slovak people a reason to not only understand Slovakia’s foreign policy and European interests, including all commitments and benefits that come with them, to not only confirm them in the general election, but also to identify themselves with them and have faith in them, both in heart and in mind.

Thank you.”