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The attempts of China to gain influence is all the more reason to increase mutual cooperation between Germany and the Visegrad Group within our membership of the EU, says Renata Alt from German FDP in the interview with EURACTIV Slovakia.

By Zuzana  Gabrižová,  EURACTIV Slovakia

Renata Alt is a member of German Bundestag for the Free Democratic Party (FDP), currently in opposition. She is the chair of the parliamentary group for relations with Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary and a member the foreign affairs committee of the Bundestag. She was born in Slovakia.

When we spoke last time, two years ago, you mentioned that one of the main concerns in Germany is that Central Europe is distancing itself from Western Europe and opening up to Russia. Would you say that this is still the main concern, or has this changed over the last two years?

I think that my concerns were justified back then, as the situation has worsened since. I actively engage in promoting much closer cooperation between Germany and the V4. For this reason, I introduced a bill containing specific steps to achieve closer collaboration between the two sides. 

During the first wave of pandemic, we saw how mutually close and dependent our economies are. At the same time, we can see the role China and Russia are a playing. It was evident that China was trying to make use of the situation that came up in spring during the first wave of pandemic. For example, there was little discussion on the effectivity of the face masks that were sent from China. I even came across information from the Western Balkan region and other countries, according to which the whole plan to help Europe was in fact a plan to show that Europe is incapable of taking care of itself. It was an attempt to demonstrate that we are dependent on help from abroad and the first country that is willing to help is China. Overall, we are currently witnessing strong efforts of China to gain more influence in the European Union.

This is also true for the EU candidate countries. Montenegro is in a very dangerous situation, as it has de facto no money in its treasury and signed a very odd treaty with China on the construction of a highway. After completion, this highway will become the most expensive highway on the European continent. The government will have to pay 21 million euro for every kilometre of road. Additionally, the treaty states that China can claim land, infrastructure, and ports, if Montenegro happens to be unable to pay the instalments. It is all the more important to increase the mutual cooperation between Germany and the Visegrad Group within our membership of the EU.

What exactly does your proposal contain? How should it deepen the cooperation of Germany with the V4 countries? 

One part of the proposal is about the negotiations between the governments, as well as meetings of parliamentary groups. Currently, we can meet once a year, as a group, during the legislative process. Thanks to this proposal, we managed to gain an approval, last year, to organise two additional meetings for MPs of the V4 countries in Germany. I was really hoping to invite MPs from Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the same way, we wanted to visit Hungary. Unfortunately, this has been postponed by the pandemic. I am hoping that by the end of October, the end of this legislature, we will have these trips done. On the one hand, we can communicate digitally, but for the purposes of initiating and defining our goals and strategies, it is much better if we meet in person.

There is a lively discussion in Germany At the moment on whether the joint European purchase of vaccines was the right course of action, or not. What is your opinion on this polemic?

My opinion is that the process of procuring enough vaccines for the German population did not go well. Our fraction of the FDP holds the same opinion. It is rather alarming that countries like Israel or the United States have much more vaccines per inhabitant that we do. The irony of this whole process it the German company BioNtech, which has been developing the vaccine incredibly fast right under Germany´s government sight. No one has counted on such a rapid development. It took the German government by surprise and not ready.

But weeks ago already, it was to be expected that the approval of vaccine would go well. The German government could have quickly started to dedicate itself to getting enough vaccines independently of the European Union. In these separate negotiations with pharma companies, Germany could have taken great care to make sure, that other countries also had access to the vaccine. I am aware that the Central European countries were worried if they had enough finances to cover the cost of vaccines. Germany could have been able to help those countries that cannot afford the vaccine. I think that how it ended presents one of the negative results of the German Presidency of the Council.

But in principle you do not dispute the common EU approach when purchasing the vaccines?

No. I oftentimes criticise that many of the countries are only taking their own interests into account. We can clearly see this on the way Poland and Hungary behave, when the EU is deciding on major issues, including the new budget. Due to this, it was important that the EU acted as one when securing the vaccines with the aim of making sure that everybody gets one.  

It is positive that in due time we will have four vaccines on the EU market and in the United Kingdom. I further hope that the production of vaccines will increase and that they will soon cover the needs of all member states.

You referred to the Germany Presidency, as well as the Hungarian and Polish veto of the new budget and the Recovery Plan. It must have been one of the most difficult things that the German Presidency had to deal with. In the end, a compromise was reached in the form of the European Council´s conclusions on the Rule of Law Mechanism, which serves as a condition to access the EU funds. What do you think of this compromise?

Hungary and Poland behaved irresponsibly when they blocked the funding of Europe during times of worst crisis. I welcomed that, after political pressure, solutions were found that consider the connection between the rule of law and the payment of finances from the EU funds. However, the explanatory declaration weakened the whole mechanism.

It is now important to observe, how this mechanism will be implemented by the European institutions. It this process turns out to be ineffective, we can soon expect another similar crisis and blockade. I fear this because, as I raised up before, Russia and China share an interest in destabilising Europe and the European Union. Sometimes, I have an impression that the member states are not aware of this and don’t see the need to unite and define their strategy. This strategy would serve to define the goals of the European Union, as well as the role we want to play. A quarrelled continent is a weak continent.

It is crucial to appeal to countries like Poland and Hungary, but also Slovakia and the Czech Republic, whose veto of the conclusion of the Council on the enlargement of the European Union was also not very helpful. We ought to be constantly aware of our future strategy, as the pandemic has hit hard on the financial sovereignty of member states and other countries.

Was it noticeable in Germany that during the dispute on the the Rule of Law, Slovakia and the Czech Republic tried to set themselves apart from Hungary and Poland, as well as the V4 label? Do people in Germany register the diplomatic efforts of Slovakia to present rather nuanced impression of V4, rather as a unified front?

Yes, we notice it. I always try and point this out, as others do not monitor the Central European countries as much as I do. The blocking of the new budget and the Recovery Fund by Hungary and Poland has badly damaged the reputation of the Visegrad Group.

When I heard president Čaputová talk about the efforts of Slovakia to disassociate itself from the monolith of the Visegrad Group, I immediately agreed with her. I think that this decision would be the right strategic step to make, as I get the impression that Hungary plays the most dominant role in the V4. Poland copies Hungary and the other two countries, Slovakia and Czech Republic, have to arrange themselves if they happen to have any space to do so. 

Slovakia gained a very good reputation after Zuzana Čaputová won the presidential elections last year. Suddenly, Slovakia was seen in a new light. If Slovakia tried to detach itself from the Visegrad Group, it would only be in its favour.

You mentioned the Slovak and Czech veto of the Council´s Conclusion on enlargement. I understand you do not agree with the explanation of these two countries that they are, in principle, in favour of enlargement, but oppose bilateral disagreements being dragged into the process. Do you think that this explanation does not stand? 

It is hard to understand the veto of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, as these two countries have always been in favour of enlargement. That is why I was surprised at first. But this veto stands in the way of enlargement and contributes to the destabilisation of the EU. Therefore, the veto of Bulgaria, as well as the objections of Czech Republic and Slovakia, send out a destructive signal towards the ambition of integrating the Western Balkan region.

We should be very careful here, as only a very small part of the EU population has an idea of the huge amount of pressure that this region has to face from Russia and China. The countries of this region make up the backyard of the EU. We should think of their support on their way to democracy and reforms related to fighting corruption, as our priority.  The enlargement of the EU, which would include the Western Balkans, would only strengthen us. Any other option would weaken and destabilise the EU.

Is the 750 billion Recovery Plan the best way how to support the recovery of the European economies after the pandemic? I suppose that your party had a problem with the fact that the resources for this recovery come from the common debt of the EU.  

We are very critical towards this. Going back, we were against such measures even during the financial crisis of 2009-2010, when the eurozone was being saved. When money is about to be distributed, I always ask where we get it from. We are always suspicious, when new institutions are created to fund our projects.  

On the other hand, the European Union has signed up to the Paris Agreement. Likewise, we recognised the Green Deal and are committed to achieving climate neutrality by 2050. If we want to secure the future of Europe, it is equally important to invest into new technology that gives the young generation a purpose to live on our continent.  

When this Fund was approved, nobody fully realised the situation into which we were about to enter due to the pandemic, which has not even ended yet. Nobody knows, what upcoming development we can expect because of the new mutation of the virus. As a biochemist and engineer of biotechnology, I know how dangerous the mutations can be. A lot of countries and companies rely on the assumption that the new production will start in April or May, but in reality, it can turn out to be completely different. When it comes to this Fund, I am afraid that we will soon find out that we have a problem with raising all the money to pay this debt.

The biggest part of the Recovery Plan is the Recovery and Resilience Facility, which enables the member states to access funds and is based on their national recovery plans. At the moment, these are being handed in to the European Commission for review. Do you trust that countries like Slovakia, or other Visegrad Group members, will use these resources to pursue the best reforms and investments for structural changes? Do you see any risks here?

I am curious to see if the European Commission will manage to oversee this. It is important to strictly control how these financial resources are drawn. Each member states should keep in mind; under what conditions it entered the European Union and what it signed up to. These obligations must be meet. The European Commission should control much more strictly and intensely, where it invests every single euro.

This facility should address the consequences of the pandemic and help to finance two priority areas – Green Deal and digitalisations. When it comes to the Green Deal, or achieving carbon neutrality, one can often hear, from these countries, that their starting point is different and they need more time and financial help to achieve the European targets. Do you consider these demands to be justified?

Yes, they are justified. I tent to point out that although they are part of the European Union, they are still in transition. Their accession to the European Union did not mean that all of them were completely reformed in everything.

We have to realise that some of them are still on the road to new reforms and are occasionally are heading backwards, as demonstrated on the examples of Hungary and Poland. For instance, the lack of independent media and, in the case of Hungary, theatres and universities prove this. The legislation in Poland has been evolving into a state, in which it was before Poland entered the EU. This needs to be criticised, as it clearly signals out that these countries need more time.

Another major topic is digitalisation, which presents a big challenge for this region. What lessons has the pandemic brought forward in Germany, from which the V4 could also learn?

The biggest lesson is that nobody is laughing at us anymore when we highlight the need to invest into digitalisation and optical fibres in relation to telecommunications. Today, I know that several countries in Central Europe are better-off than Germany, as we have been using cooper cables for a long time.

Furthermore, it was possible to see how important the internet is for us, as the internet connection often broke down during the first wave.  

Then some of the public health authorities offices work slowly, as if they were in medieval times. They use fax for communication, which is almost incomprehensible nowadays, when we have emails and various applications for this communication. One cannot understand why these offices are so bureaucratised when they should be the ones communicating most quickly. Similarly, many town halls do not seem to be well equipped.

It is truly important to support digitalisation, as it turned out that many of the companies were not ready to transition to work from home. When I was talking to several company representatives about their findings from the first lockdown, I was told that their employees happened to be painting their fences when they called them during home office. Many people confused home office with holiday. It was necessary to integrate these problems into the company management policy.

Our future strongly depends on new technology, digitalisation, but also artificial intelligence. The pandemic is dangerous for those in the social service institutions, where the elderly and the sick are being looked after. Given the enormous lack of personnel, ff we invest into artificial intelligence, we will be able to help these people.

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