Jan Figel – catching up in Slovakia

Jan Figel“After the split of Czechoslovakia it seemed like the Czechs were going west and the Slovaks east or nowhere.”

When Jan Figel woke up after surgery, his first question was: “What is going on in the United States?” It was 12 September 2001. Just before his narcosis Figel had heard about the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. He had been supposed to travel with the Slovak Prime Minister to Canada, but he seriously injured his backbone during a football game on 9 September, resulting in temporary paralysis.

September 11 changed America and the world. At the same time, another at least equally important transformation was under way, albeit much slower and – at least on the surface – much less dramatic. Post-communist Europe was working hard to secure a place in the European Union and to put an end to half-a-century of isolation from the West.

In Slovakia the changes were particularly significant. Only a few years earlier, in 1997, Figel, then a powerless opposition spokesman on foreign policy and European integration, had to listen to Madeleine Albright calling Slovakia “a black hole in the centre of Europe”. Now, in 2001, as his country’s Deputy Foreign Minister and chief negotiator for EU membership, he was an indispensable political figure – responsible for guiding Slovakia towards achievement of its number-one national objective.

His injury, right in the midst of the accession process, was problematic. Working by laptop from his hospital bed – in pain, having lost 12 kilos, and stuffed into a special support collar – he managed to bridge the 11 weeks of intensive medical treatment and rehabilitation. This did nothing to harm Slovakia’s score. It soon managed to catch up with the other EU candidates, finishing negotiations in a mere 34 months, the fastest of the ten accession countries.

The groundwork had been set a decade earlier, in 1989. That year, the 29 year old Figel, raised in the East Slovakian town of Vranov nad Toplou and trained as an electrical engineer in Kosice, was sent on an exchange visit to an electrics company in East Berlin.

“In October, I [saw] these candle marches in East Germany and everything started to collapse. When I came back to Czechoslovakia it continued, so we felt it was coming, not only in small scale, in one city, but regional, continental! For us this was annus mirabilis – the very miraculous, peaceful fall of a very tough, oppressive and anti-human system.”

Figel became interested in politics and was elected to the Slovak Parliament in June 1992 on the party list of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) in the eastern region around Kosice. After the split of Czechoslovakia in January 1993, Figel became a junior member of the Slovak delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He subsequently rose through the assembly ranks, becoming Chairman of the International Economic Relations Committee. The post helped him develop good contacts with parliamentarians across Europe, including in the Balkans and the former USSR. Back home, however, things were not going well.

“After the split of Czechoslovakia it seemed like Czechs were going west and Slovaks east or nowhere, staying in the middle, in isolation. Of course there were some very readable and visible geopolitical interests, especially from the east: Russia. There is no vacuum in politics and we knew that we would have a very tough time outside of the integration process.”

Figel used the time to catch up on his studies. He spent two semesters abroad, one in Antwerp and one at Georgetown University, for a course in international law and international relations. In 1997, as Slovakia’s post-communist neighbours got the go-ahead to begin negotiations for NATO and EU membership, Bratislava was left in the cold. The European Commission’s opinion on Slovakia had pointed to a long list of deficits in the area of democracy and human rights. For Figel, seeing Slovakia excluded from the EU and NATO enlargement process was a painful experience – and a wake-up call.

“At the Madrid NATO summit, Slovakia was not even mentioned, because in Luxembourg the major result had been a ’10 plus 1 minus 1′ integration formula. ’10’ meant the central European countries, ‘plus 1’ was Turkey, an applicant country, and ‘minus 1’ was Slovakia, the only country out of the 10 not to fulfil the political criteria. It was a big shame to be ‘minus 1’ … So in Madrid, Slovakia was not even mentioned, not even in a footnote. Three were invited. Slovenia, Romania and the Baltic states got a mention. But Slovakia? Non-existent.

I believed that we had to prepare for […] integration, that this was the major answer for this country. It is not just about geopolitics or security, but it’s about values, it’s about belonging, about many sectors of society. I have seen European integration as the answer to many issues.”

It took some time for the Slovak population to come around to Figel’s point of view. Vladimir Meciar remained in power until 1998. As to why Slovaks continued to vote for Meciar throughout the 1990s, Figel stresses two factors:

“First, Meciar was able to use the early period of painful economic transition to convince people that there are was an easier way. He presented himself as the defender and advocate of people’s interests and cultivated the illusion that he could lead them to a better future. The learning process was very important. And people learned the hard way. Over the years, more and more of them could see the empty promises, the unfulfilled expectations. So Meciar, in a way, helped the country educate itself in democracy and to mature rather quickly.

The second factor was the democratic opposition, which was not so strong and not united at the beginning. Then, from the mid-1990s, Meciar forced us to become a real alternative. We convinced the voters that it was possible to defeat and replace Meciar through elections, and then to get the country on the right track, securing us a place in united Europe.”

The elections on 25 and 26 September 1998 led to the ousting of Meciar. The new coalition government under Prime Minster Mikulas Dzurinda put European integration at the very top of its list of priorities. After six years of increasing isolation, Slovakia wanted to catch up with the frontrunners. Figel was appointed Deputy Foreign Minister and chief negotiator.

“Even under Meciar there were some structures established, like the office for the approximation of the acquis or the office of the chief negotiator, and some technical expert groups, but there was no real political work behind [the process]. We really had to remake the whole system and to start from zero, to work hard to get invited to start negotiations and then to work through chapter by chapter.”

At the December 1999 Helsinki Summit, the EU recognised Slovakia’s progress and invited the country to open accession negotiations. At the opening session on 15 February 2000, under the Portuguese Presidency, the atmosphere was “very warm and positive towards us,” Figel recalls. “We felt there was a momentum. The EC genuinely wanted to show that nobody was disadvantaged and the process was open to all the candidate countries.”

Under Jan Figel’s leadership as chief negotiator, Slovakia finished negotiations in time to join the EU together with the first group of candidate countries on 1 May 2004, a mere five and a half years after the ousting of Meciar.

“Integration starts at home, not in Brussels. And at home means that people have to embrace the same principles and values as United Europe in the west … We have to prove by concrete steps, decisions of society, where we belong, what we stand for. This is the major test we have to pass as an independent country … It’s beneficial to do it for ourselves. Europe is not about funds or financial arrangements. It’s about people and values.”

Jan Figel is currently EU Commissioner for Education, Training, and Culture. In the autumn of 2009 he will return to Bratislava to lead the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH).

24 August 2009