Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger hails a “new chapter” in his country’s relations with Greece. Heger met Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Athens on Thursday – the first such meeting between the leaders of the two countries in 10 years. In an exclusive interview with Kathimerini, he said that Slovakia “fully supports and will support Greece and Cyprus in response to Turkey’s illegal drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean”. On the issue of migration, Heger insists on the need for “European solutions” and notes that “no one wants a repeat of 2015”. Referring to the upcoming discussions on the reform of the European Union’s fiscal rulebook, he underlined the continued importance of sound public finances. Finally, Heger explains the reasons for the low vaccination rate in Slovakia and why his government has not opted for compulsory vaccination policies.
Bilateral relations have gone through a difficult phase, punctuated by Greece’s financial crisis and the refugee crisis that followed. Is your visit a sign of brighter days ahead? In what areas can we expect closer cooperation between the two countries?
Exactly! I think it’s time to give our relationship a new dynamic after years where our ties had been rather suspended at the highest political level and none of the recent governments cared. The last meeting of prime ministers dates back to 2011 on the sidelines of the European Council. Ten years later, we are in a completely different context. Here I want to salute the difficult structural reforms that Greece has undergone during these years. Perhaps the euro crisis surprised us in Slovakia too soon after we joined the euro zone in 2009. For us, it was a very new and politically difficult period. It’s no secret that the Slovak government collapsed in 2011 due to a Greek bailout program. Then the migration crisis came and the relationship suffered again.
A new approach was brought by Igor Matovic as Prime Minister, who made it clear that Slovakia stands and will stand fully alongside Greece and Cyprus in response to Turkey’s illegal drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. We will always rule on any violation of international law. I want to take this visit to reaffirm this new chapter. This is my first official visit outside the region and Brussels. I want to make sure that we also have partners in the Mediterranean. Our relationship should be based on cooperation in areas relevant to both countries. If we are to achieve climate neutrality, we must do it together and we must also find concrete ways to cooperate. Over the summer we sent an unprecedented team of 75 firefighters with 30 vehicles to tackle the serious fires in Greece. It also leads us to broader cooperation on the climate agenda, where forests, although far from exclusive, will play an important role in achieving our goals. In addition, I also see potential in finding ways to transform the coal regions that we have in common. We can learn from each other and with each other. It is also important to work on new possibilities for tourism and to prepare for the post-pandemic period. Greece is the third most popular holiday destination for Slovaks. We can still do more to create new business opportunities on both sides. I look forward to discussing this in more detail with Prime Minister Mitsotakis.
Slovakia recently signed a letter from eight finance ministers opposing the relaxation of the Stability and Growth Pact. Can the recovery be sustainable and can the investments necessary for the green transition be made without changing the rules – or their interpretation?
Unprecedented budget support has rightly been put in place to fight the Covid-19 crisis; however, its impact on our public finances cannot be ignored. In my opinion, it is important to continue to apply measures that support the economic recovery, for as long as necessary. In this regard, we must bear in mind long-term fiscal sustainability. I would like to stress that the recovery must not be built to the detriment of our future generations. Sound public finances remain one of the essential pillars of EU membership and create additional space for political priorities and future challenges.
The effective and timely implementation of both reform-oriented and investment-oriented recovery and resilience plans is crucial for the future of Slovakia, as well as for other EU Member States, as they represent a major fiscal stimulus for our economies.
Regarding the future of EU fiscal policies, I recognize that the situation is still uncertain, but I believe that there is momentum to resume discussions on SGP reform, which however should not be linked to the deactivation of the general escape clause (ie return to existing EU fiscal rules). The outcome of these deliberations should be a rules-based framework that is predictable, simplified and enforceable. This would encourage growth-friendly policies while preserving the sustainability of public finances.
How concerned are you about rising energy prices? Does the EU have a role to play in cushioning the shock to consumers? Do you think this further complicates the path to a deal on Fit for 55?
Slovakia was the first in our region to subscribe to the objective of climate neutrality by 2050. Not only at European level but also at national level. We see this as an opportunity to protect our planet for future generations. Decarbonization and green recovery are an integral part of our recovery plan. At the same time, from the start of the discussions on the new Fit for 55 package, with higher climate ambitions by 2030, I spoke about the possible social impacts on the most vulnerable – households and small consumers. Slovakia is among the countries with the highest risk of energy poverty, where one-fifth of low-income households spend 25% on energy bills. We must be careful not to lose the support of our fellow citizens for the green transition. The current situation gives us a taste of the unpredictability of the energy market. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is the dramatic increase in the prices of fossil fuels. This time, unlike the gas crisis in 2009, it’s a situation that affects all European countries, so yes, I see a role for the EU. We have to find the right mix of solutions both at national and European level. And we have to do it quickly.
Why are vaccination rates stuck at such low levels in Slovakia? What are you doing to increase them?
Slovakia is one of the EU member states with the lowest proportion of people vaccinated against Covid-19. Despite enormous government efforts, only about 42% of people have been vaccinated with the second dose. There is a strong anti-vax movement in Slovakia, whose strong players are members of the opposition and several doctors. The rapid onset of the third wave shows that the most vulnerable are those who are not vaccinated. It is possible that the devastating consequences of the third wave will increase the interest of the population in vaccination. Society is heavily polarized on vaccination, which is why the government is not considering mandatory vaccinations.
You became Prime Minister following the controversy over Sputnik V. Was it a mistake to approve its use without being sanctioned by the European Medicines Agency? Are the vaccinations with Sputnik now stopped?
Always consider the specific context in which decisions were made. The situation in the country was very dramatic with a very high number of deaths every day. In these circumstances, we think of any solution, even emergency, to stop it. In the end, about 8,000 people chose to be vaccinated with Sputnik V. It was their own choice. I will close by saying that we have learned our lesson. This topic is now closed and, thanks to the EU’s joint supply, we should have enough vaccines registered with the EMA for years to come. If necessary.
Your party was essentially elected on an anti-corruption platform. Has it been difficult, in practice, to eradicate it, to break the networks of collusion between politics, business and organized crime?
The 2020 elections and the emergence of a center-right coalition were also innovative in the fight against corruption. Corruption under Robert Fico controlled the police, the prosecution and the judiciary. A group of untouchables and privileged people have formed. After the 2020 elections, the new government stopped interfering in the work of law enforcement. And the results have arrived. About 26 senior officials of the old regime pleaded guilty. Among them are senior police, secret service, financial administration and justice officials. The special prosecutor, who was supposed to fight corruption, was sentenced to 14 years for corruption. The opposition, made up of representatives of the former government, questions the objectivity of the investigation and seeks to weaken the cohesion of the government through various activities.
I am glad that last week we received strong support for our efforts from the European Parliament rule of law monitoring group visiting Bratislava. Protecting democracy and the rule of law is no easy task. The same goes for journalists to make them feel safe and protected. This is not always the case, even in the most developed countries. Several Member States, including Greece, have their own experience in this area. We have our own trauma caused by the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee in 2018. I welcome a new initiative on the protection of journalists in the EU presented by Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen at the his State of the Union address. I very much hope that our country will play an active role in this process also at EU level.
Do you see a prospect of an EU-wide agreement on the New Pact on Migration? How do you respond to the assertions of countries like Greece and the rest of MED5 that there can be no viable common policy without greater solidarity on the part of states that are not on the front line?
The only way is to find solutions together. Frontline Member States have their own legitimate interests and expectations. And we have ours. But no one wants a repeat of 2015. It’s already a good starting point for the discussions. The ultimate goal for all of us must be to find European solutions. There is no way to manage this at the national level. We will be constructive and support solidarity as a basic principle, going hand in hand with responsibility. We are ready to look for ways to provide assistance on the ground to countries like Greece, which are on the front lines. I am happy that the government was able to agree quickly on a project in the health sector to help migrant centers in Greece, alongside Austria.