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25. 1. 2010 10:01

Interview with Juraj Chmiel, Minister for European Affairs

Leaders Magazine - January 2010; Author: Zuzana Kasáková

“Africa completely changed my philosophy of life”

Juraj Chmiel was born in 1960 in Budapest. He graduated in Oriental and African studies at the Charles University in Prague. In 1984 he started to work at the Institute for Historical Sciences, Slovak Academy of Sciences. Between the years 1992–2007 he was employed at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs focusing on Africa. In the years 1993 and 1994 he worked as UN political specialist in two UN peace operation zones in Somalia (UNOSOM - Kismayo and Belet Weyne). Two years later he became Head of the Czech Representative Office based in Nigeria and in 1999 Exceptional and Plenipotentiary Ambassador for the Czech Republic based in Nigeria, with further accreditation for Benin, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Equatorial Guinea. Between the years 2007–2008 he managed Prime Minister's Defence, Security and Foreign Policy Section. In 2008 he was appointed Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador based in Australia. Since 30, November 2009 he has been The Minister for the European Affairs. Juraj Chmiel speaks English, Hungarian, Russian, and possesses the passive knowledge of German, Swahili and Amharic.

  • What is your experience with EU issues?

I have been working in the state administration since 1992. Most of the time I spent at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs either at the headquarters or abroad; for a while I worked at the Office of Government. Wherever I was, the European Union was a part of my agenda as the Czech Republic’s foreign policy priority. Of course sometimes it was more, sometimes less. In Africa, it was reflected quite a lot, because Africa is a priority continent for the EU. The same was true for Australia, where we prepared and then managed the Czech EU Presidency. I got into very close contact with EU issues when I managed the Prime Minister's Defence, Security and Foreign Policy Section, because the Lisbon Treaty was being prepared at that time. So it is not an unknown area for me. On the other hand it is a great challenge for me. Very important tasks are in front of us.

  • Which tasks?

The first one is the activity inside the Czech Republic. The coordination role is very important here, because since the Lisbon Treaty has come into effect, the pressure for the coordination of domestic politics has been growing. We have to find a consensus at the national level and to enforce it at the European level. The other task is to inform the public about the EU. In cooperation with the Czech Parliament and the Representation of the European Commission to the Czech Republic we have been preparing a series of seminars. One of the main topics would be the Lisbon Treaty. Its implementation is currently our priority. It is a long-term task, because the situation has been constantly developing, particularly in Brussels. Furthermore, we have been participating in the preparations of a 2020 strategy – a follow-up of the Lisbon strategy which expires this year. We have formulated three basic themes on which the new strategy should be based – growth, employment, and competitiveness. Our priority is also the navigation system Galileo, which should at least be comparable to the American system that we are using now. The Czech Republic showed its interest in the seat of the authority that will be in charge of this system.

  • Our advantage is that no European agency has its seat here.

Exactly; it is an unwritten rule that was agreed upon in 2003. However, it is only one of the criteria. The other one is the technological advancement of the country. We fulfil this condition as well. Besides, we have a long tradition in this area. It helps us a lot during lobbying, but it is not easy. There are ten states who are interested and the decision has been postponing. We urged the decision about the seat of Galileo to be taken during the Spanish Presidency. I think that we have a chance, but of course various agreements between states play a role in the process, so it is really early to anticipate it. We are doing all we can to have Galileo in the Czech Republic.

  • The implementation of the Lisbon Treaty is also your priority. What are, in your opinion, the biggest changes the Treaty brings?

I would underline three things – an increased role of the European Parliament in the legislative process, at the same time a greater role of national parliaments in adopting European legislation, and greater emphasis on national coordination in enforcing the interest of member states. These three issues concern the Czech Republic as well. It seems simple, but it is not.

  • How did the Czech EU Presidency proceed in Australia?

It was very intensive. From a political point of view, there was a very specific situation there. The former Australian government did not have good relations with the EU, and the new one that came into power, a month before my arrival in Australia, completely changed its approach to the EU. It sought to intensify mutual relations. Many declarations and agreements, including the Framework agreement on cooperation, were signed, and most of them started to be implemented during the Czech Presidency. Also, several commissioners arrived. The main theme was climate change. It was no less intensive from the social standpoint. With the assistance of compatriotic organisations we organised a lot of events that contributed not only to the visibility of the Czech Republic, but also our compatriots living in Australia. One of our biggest events was a concert of classical music in the gardens of the Governor General in Canberra. The strongest experience was when the Smetana’s Vltava (Moldau) was drifting before 5000-6000 people. It was fantastic and got a great response. Generally it is possible to say that the Czech Presidency in Australia was assessed very positively not only by Australians, but also by our compatriots.

  • Between the years 1993–1994 you worked in Somalia. It was a time when the country was buffeted by civil war. Can you tell us about your experience there?

It is a complex experience, the school of life. Everything happened for a long time, but I often have a movie, consisting of different frames, run before my eyes – bodies of Somali people who were blown to pieces by grenades, that were then put together and buried; the resuscitating attempts of Belgian military doctors; the suffering of those who were injured or ill; children dying of cholera; deliveries I assisted, the dead, the intimidation, the attempted assassinations, the attacks against our convoys or positions, the whites of Somali sniper’s eyes. There were long hours and days of fatigue during negotiations with representatives of enemies, Somali men with faraway eyes and who chewed cat the whole day. On the other hand, I also remember the happy eyes of children and their mothers, when they received humanitarian aid, got medical care and were alleviated from pain, or the openings of schools and medical centres. The movie is long and unfortunately not very joyous.

  • You had to fear for your life.

At the moment of the biggest danger there is no time to think about it. And when the peril was averted, I preferred to force out the fears of what could have happened. Several colleagues of mine were injured or killed just several minutes or hours after I had talked to them or shared a small common space. I remember myself trembling with anger, but not fear. However, I had to approach the negotiations with a cool head, free of emotions. What could have happened to me, I came to understand a long time after I left Somalia.

Later you were the ambassador in Nigeria with the accreditation for other countries. Again there were mostly not very politically stable countries with undemocratic regimes. How did you deal with it?

My main task was to represent the trade interests of the Czech Republic. However, it did mean we ignored the political reality of these countries, and did not try to draw the attention to problems that occurred, for example in the area of human rights. In Nigeria I directly witnessed the transformation of the military dictatorship regime to a government consisting of elected representatives of political parties, which occurred by happenstance (the unexpected death of the dictator). What happened afterwards only confirmed my experience from Somalia and some other countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Our model of Western democracy based on elections cannot work everywhere. The elections are, as a matter of fact, only a power game, and how this game is played depends on the type of the society in which the elections take place. In many countries the election campaign means the green light to violence, murders, and it was often that elections brought a country to civil war.

  • What system of the government do you see as the most convenient for those countries?

A certain solution could be found in at least temporarily putting aside the attempts to establish democracy of a Western type, especially in countries that have different social and religious structure and historical development. It would be better to focus on the restoration of the old traditional structures, such as to build power on a hierarchy pyramid of a council of elders, from the lowest level of self-government up to the highest one, the state level. Such a system of government is possible in the 21st century. Also, the system of so-called enlightened dictators was proved, in which leaders who came into power by military takeover administer the country to the satisfaction of the majority of people. However, I do not prefer this system. The basis should be to respect basic human rights, the effort to limit corruption, and to begin the process of handing over the power to a civil administration.

  • Did you have any really curious experience?

I have one experience that should, according to one head of state of an African country, demonstrate the progress that was made. During a meeting one president emphasized with a serious face that I had to tell my president that, unlike his predecessor, he did not eat his opponents.

  • Do you want to come back to Africa sometime?

Africa is something wonderful, something like a drug. I would be very happy to return there not only on business, but also as a tourist.

  • What attracts you there?

It is not easy to answer this question. It is a complexity of perceptions and experience – changing nature, rich cultural and historical heritage, a pinch of adrenalin and risks, the miscellaneous mosaic of people. Africa can give a lot, but also take away. For example my experience in Somalia completely changed my life philosophy. I stopped to worry about pettiness, paltriness, personal attacks – people in various parts of the world have to face much more serious threats than the envy or slanders of our country.

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