Peter

Pellegrini

Prime Minister of Slovakia

Speech made to the Assembly

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Madam President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Mr Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Mr Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, honourable members, ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, it is a great honour for me to address you today. In three days’ time, on 30 June 2018, we shall commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Slovak Republic’s accession to the Council of Europe, the oldest international Organisation on the European continent.

I am delighted to say that I am very familiar with this place, having worked here for several years as a member of the permanent delegation of the Slovak Republic to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I am therefore all the more pleased that I can be here with you again, now as Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic, to share with you the successes that my country has achieved in the past 25 years. I will also be glad to discuss with you outstanding matters and challenges that the Council of Europe and Europe itself face today. The importance of our debate taking place here is clear, because the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is a permanent platform for dialogue at the parliamentary level, inspiring all policies of the Council of Europe. Moreover, the Assembly defends our common values, which are deeply enshrined in the principles of human rights and democracy.

Let me draw your attention to the very purpose for which the Council of Europe was founded – to protect human rights, peace and democracy. We must not lose respect for those values, which now tend to be taken for granted instead of being seen as privileges that we gained when the Council of Europe was founded and that European society continues to benefit from. The Slovak Republic values that privilege. In the course of fulfilling the often challenging obligations arising from our membership of the Council of Europe, we have been able to reach a high level of democracy in a relatively short period of time since our independence in 1993. The Council of Europe helped young European democracies substantially at that time, on occasion even by asking for strict measures to be implemented – as it turns out, we now have more problems with those countries with which the Council of Europe chose to be more lenient.

All Member States should realise that the Council of Europe is not a ‘menu à la carte’ where we only choose what we want. Therefore, we should not merely enjoy the benefits of the membership.

Let us not forget, however, that the new members proved to be a breath of fresh air after the Council of Europe had started to lose momentum, just before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Young blood is simply an asset for every organisation, even though it bears some aspects of wildness. When those new members joined the Council of Europe, it was a win-win situation, and we should strive to maintain such an approach now and in the future.

Slovakia appeared on the map of Europe a quarter of a century ago. Like all young democracies, we had to cope with a fundamental change of circumstances, be they political, economic, social or related to fundamental values. That was not an easy period, for much of what had been considered stable suddenly lost its relevance, and new beacons of stability had yet to be found. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Slovakia also had to do its utmost to build its own statehood – in the full complexity of this word. We had to create our own institutions, and develop our own foreign policy and diplomacy, among other things, as well as engaging in the international community and in various forms of international co-operation. I am deeply honoured to claim that we have succeeded in that mission.

Today, 25 years after independence, I can proudly say that Slovakia is a fully fledged and recognised member of the international community. Slovakia fulfils its commitments and contributes to maintaining peace, stability, security and prosperity in the world. That is also proved by various positions on the international stage, such as the successful Slovak presidency of the Council of Europe in 2007-08 and the Slovak presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2016. The post of President of the General Assembly of the United Nations has been held by the Slovak Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Miroslav Lajčák, for several months. Slovakia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council for 2018 to 2020, following its previous successful involvement in that body in 2008 to 2011. In a few days, literally, Slovakia will succeed Hungary to hold the presidency of the Visegrád Group for the fifth time, and the OSCE chairmanship next year is no doubt one of the major challenges ahead of us. Those examples serve as a testimony to the confidence of the international community in our young democracy and to the firm footing it has established on the international stage through the years.

As I have said, a quarter of a century ago the Council of Europe helped us lay the foundations of our statehood and parliamentary democracy in accordance with the principles of the rule of law and respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights. Today, Slovakia offers the Organisation and its members our own experience and knowledge acquired in the course of transition from a totalitarian to a democratic society. We are actively involved in the process of the Organisation’s creation of norms and standards to strengthen international co-operation and to deal jointly with the challenges present in today’s Europe.

I have mentioned the role of the Council of Europe in increasing the level of democracy on the European continent, but let me highlight the role of its flagship, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. History shows us that no State is perfect when it comes to respecting human rights. Shortcomings related to human rights occur in every country from time to time, and it is necessary to identify them and call for a remedy. States must be relentless in the field of human rights, and must continuously strengthen and improve legislative, institutional and application frameworks for protecting and promoting human rights.

It should be a common interest of all member States to ensure that the European Court of Human Rights is not confronted with long-term difficulties that have a significantly negative effect on its functioning and effectiveness. I therefore believe that effective implementation of the Convention and full compliance with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights at national level is the most natural path to follow. We learned from application practice in the Slovak Republic just how positively the Strasbourg Court’s case law affects the development and formation of legislation and decision making by judicial authorities, thus increasing the protection of human rights in member States.

I would also like to focus on the work of the European Commission for Democracy through Law – the Venice Commission. That highly respected institution has outstripped the geographic reach of the Council of Europe in terms of its members and importance. The Slovak Republic is grateful for the excellent co-operation and expert assistance provided by the Venice Commission, including its opinion of last year that helped to address the issue of appointing judges to the constitutional court of the Slovak Republic. In recognition of the value of our dialogue with expert bodies, I would also like to highlight the importance of GRECO and Moneyval. The Slovak Republic tries not only to implement the recommendations of monitoring bodies at national level but to help the proper functioning of those bodies.

Let me draw your attention to another two important pillars of this Organisation. The first is the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, who oversees adherence to human rights standards in member States. I am grateful to the former Commissioner, Nils Muižnieks, for his inspiring co-operation with the Slovak authorities, and I look forward to working with the new Commissioner, Dunja Mijatović. The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe is another important anchor of the Organisation. Without democracy at local and regional level, there would not be democracy at national level. The voices of our citizens, who ask for solutions to their everyday problems and demonstrate their active engagement in the life of the country, should be among the priorities of all politicians. I therefore welcome the contribution of the Congress to enhancing democracy and good governance.

The protection of the rights of persons belonging to national minorities is a topic of particular importance for Slovakia. The Council of Europe has done vital work in that regard. I appreciated the event hosted by the Croatian presidency of the Committee of Ministers last week, at which we commemorated the 20th anniversary of two unique Council of Europe legal instruments – the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages – entering into force. Slovakia, with its diverse population in terms of national minorities and ethnic groups, takes full advantage of the expertise and assistance provided by the Advisory Committee and the Committee of Experts in its efforts to improve the protection of persons belonging to national minorities.

I am also thankful to the Council of Europe for helping to improve the social status of the Roma in both Slovakia and Europe, including their social inclusion. Addressing the problems of Roma communities is a long-term priority of the Government of the Slovak Republic, which welcomes any suggestions from the international community that may have a positive impact on that target group. I consider education fundamental to the integration of Roma into majority society and therefore wish to highlight the joint project of the Council of Europe and the European Union on inclusive education for Roma children.

The basic pillar of the rule of law is an independent and properly functioning judiciary. I am glad that the EU justice scoreboard ranked the Slovak Republic much higher in 2018 than in previous years. I appreciate the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice, with which the Slovak Republic works closely and intensively, as a particularly useful Council of Europe tool. One of the results of that co-operation is an in-depth analysis of the state of the Slovak justice system. I believe that the measures proposed by CEPEJ will contribute to further optimisation of the functioning of the justice system in Slovakia. Having a high-quality, efficient, cost-effective and independent justice system will ultimately restore and reinforce our citizens’ confidence.

I appreciate the excellent co-operation between the Council of Europe Development Bank and the Slovak Republic. This month, we organised a joint meeting of the bank – the oldest European multilateral development bank – in Bratislava. During its 20-year membership, Slovakia has made use of both the finances provided by the bank and its experience and values, and we are an active contributor to its funds and social cohesion tools.

Ladies and gentlemen, like other member States, the Slovak Republic needs the Council of Europe in these turbulent times. Populism and extremism are on the rise in Europe and around the world, along with fake news and hate speech. Terrorism, the migration crisis, growing scepticism and the public’s mistrust of institutions undermine the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Multilateralism is threatened by a lack of dialogue and tolerance, an inability to listen to one another and a lack of political will. However, only by taking a joint approach and co-operating will we be able to cope with the challenges that we face.

The Council of Europe is no exception. The political and financial crisis undermines the Organisation’s mandate and ability to act, and impedes its proper functioning. The upcoming 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Council of Europe is therefore an opportunity to self-reflect, to recognise our strengths and weaknesses, and to outline the Council of Europe’s strategic direction, rather than to celebrate. The basic premise of that process is that all member States should realise that the Council of Europe is not an à la carte menu from which we choose only what we want. We should not merely enjoy the benefits of membership. On the contrary, it is necessary to honour and respect the obligations imposed on us by membership of the Council of Europe, and to implement consistently the decisions made by the Organisation in accordance with the rules agreed by all member States. I therefore greatly appreciate the initiative by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to continue the reforms that it so urgently needs.

Secretary General Jagland, on behalf of the Slovak Republic, I am grateful to you for all you have done in favour of the Organisation as a whole. I firmly believe that in the future there will be the political will among all actors to undertake a complex reform of the Organisation that will make the Council of Europe stronger and more clearly defined within the framework of modern multilateral architecture.

Effective multilateralism has been much debated lately – alas, from both an enthusiastic and a sceptical point of view. Promoting effective multilateralism is one of the main pillars of Slovakia’s foreign policy. We apply all aspects of it to the Council of Europe. But let me point out one aspect of effective multilateralism which is so simple that it is often forgotten. The Council of Europe is a type of international organisation that cannot be equally useful for all of its members at the same time. Sometimes a particular State needs it more, and sometimes less. Put differently, the Council of Europe can sometimes offer the State more, and sometimes less. Therefore, a member of an international organisation should approach it not in terms of whether it now meets its short-term expectations or demands, but in terms of whether it serves the whole community of member States from a long-term perspective.

The Council of Europe's mission is to promote and protect human rights in Europe. I find it rather worrying that this mission is undermined in areas affected by armed and frozen conflicts. We cannot accept that the human rights of citizens living in such territories are systematically suppressed. This is the case for Slovakia’s neighbour, Ukraine. I reiterate that Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders have the Slovak Republic’s full support. We appreciate the results of previous reforms in Ukraine, to which the Council of Europe also contributes a great deal through the action plan. At the same time, I stress the need to continue this reform effort, to effectively implement new legislation and to ensure the reforms are sustainable. Slovakia reaffirms its commitment to assist and support Ukraine actively in its reform process, including its gradual progress towards the standards of the European Union.

The unrelenting violence in the eastern part of Ukraine and the frozen conflicts in Georgia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh, in contravention of international law, demonstrate the lack of political will to solve them. At this point, I would like to commend Council of Europe programmes such as the confidence building measures, which we consider to be an important contribution to the peaceful settlement of disputes and the coexistence of the inhabitants of the territories concerned. Europe’s security has been directly linked with the Western Balkans for centuries. It is therefore not a coincidence that the term “Western Balkans” occurs repeatedly in key EU documents, and the enlargement policy is seen as a strategic investment in European security and prosperity.

Seventy years ago, when memories of wartime were present in every corner of our continent, we had a dream. The grand idea at the time was to have a Europe without borders, where people could live freely and happily and where the rule of law was a fundamental imperative. Today we can say that we have come considerably closer to that idea. The European family has become a reality, and 28 countries, including central European countries, sit together at the same table to discuss a wide range of issues and decide on their own future. However, the vision has not yet been accomplished, so Slovakia will continue to support the reform efforts of the Western Balkan region and enhance the credibility of the accession process. We believe that new dynamics of expansion will help the countries in the region to meet the conditions for EU membership. A stable, secure and prosperous Western Balkans is the shared vision not only of the European Union, but of the Council of Europe, which makes a significant contribution to this vision.

Before I conclude my speech, I should draw your attention to something that you have heard here again and again. Corruption is one of the greatest threats to democracy in Europe. It has cast its shadow over this Organisation and many of its member States. I believe that the Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe will find the inner strength to deal with this problem in a dignified manner. Corruption is often referred to as the cancer of society, and we saw during the recent events in my country that none of us is immune to this disease. In the struggle to preserve and restore citizens’ trust in the rule of law, we see independent and functioning institutions, an active civil society and free media as our partners. We envisage the Council of Europe, with its experience and know-how, playing a major role in this process.

I would like express my support for the vital role that the Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe play in protecting democracy throughout the pan-European area. Your work and new ideas are essential in the process of overcoming the challenges we face together. This objective can only be achieved through co-operation at parliamentary and governmental levels, as well as through co-operation with civil society and other stakeholders. This vision of mutual respect and tolerance was shared by Alexander Dubček, a prominent Czechoslovak and Slovak political figure in the 20th century, who is known as the face of the Prague Spring and who is a Sakharov prize laureate. I will present his bust as a gift on behalf of the Slovak Republic to the Council of Europe after the end of our discussion.

Thank you for your attention, and I will be pleased to answer questions from the members of the Parliamentary Assembly. It is a great honour to be here with you today. [Applause.]

The PRESIDENT (interpretation)

Prime Minister, thank you for that most interesting address. A substantial number of colleagues wish to ask you questions. I remind colleagues that questions should be limited to 30 seconds, and you are requested to ask questions and not to make speeches. The list of speakers starts with those who will speak on behalf of the political groups.

Mr VAREIKIS (Lithuania), Spokesperson for the Group of the European People’s Party

Prime Minister, I want to ask you about the Visegrád countries, because you will soon have the chairmanship of the Visegrád 4. Unfortunately, the Visegrád countries have recently taken decisions and expressed opinions that are not very similar to those of the majority of European Union countries in Brussels. Does the Visegrád group look to you like an alternative to European integration, or is it simply nice regional co-operation?

Mr Pellegrini, Prime Minister of Slovakia (interpretation)

Slovakia takes over the presidency of the V4 countries on 1 July. Our main ambition is to bring the V4 closer to the European Union, and that means opening up new, positive pro-European topics. We have never thought of the V4 as an alternative to the European space; rather, we have thought of it as an integral part of that space. However, I appreciate that, logically, it may be possible for the V4 countries to achieve a consensus of opinion that represents the entire group. Our presidency’s slogan will be “Dynamic Visegrád for Europe”. We will focus on three pillars: secure Europe, economically strong Europe and innovative solutions. We want to organise many meetings in the V4 plus format. I would like to announce here that in the autumn we are going to have meetings of the V4 plus Germany and the V4 plus France and meetings with some other countries so that we are able to respond to the challenges at hand.

I do not think that in our current situation the V4 countries are an isolated island that would have absolutely different opinions from the rest of Europe. On the contrary, in recent months we have witnessed that in certain specific areas some other countries are moving closer to the opinions of the V4 countries. That is why we believe we are not alone in having these opinions. So I ask you to respect that the V4 countries, including Slovakia, are part of the EU, the Council of Europe and NATO. We all have a full right to listen to the opinions of others but also to raise our own opinions and present our way of seeing the future of Europe.

Lord ANDERSON (United Kingdom), Spokesman for the Socialists, Democrats and Greens Group

Mr Prime Minister, welcome home to the Assembly. We shall treasure the bust of the great Alexander Dubček. You will recall that the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, ECRI, concluded that Slovakia had not addressed the recommendations that it had issued in 2014 on racism and intolerance, including political discourse. What steps have been taken by your government to ensure that the 2019 evaluation report is more positive?

Mr Pellegrini, Prime Minister of Slovakia (interpretation)

Thank you. I am glad to see you as well. I remember you from the times when I was part of the permanent delegation from the Slovak Republic.

In Slovakia we are fully aware of some shortcomings or discrepancies in the areas that you mention, and we are trying to eliminate all the shortcomings that were mentioned in that report. We are co-operating closely with the ECRI secretariat, and we are doing our utmost to see that the evaluation in 2019 is much more positive and the report can state that many of the problems from the past have been eliminated. I assure you that the Slovak Republic is going to do its utmost to correct that. I firmly believe that once we read the 2019 evaluation, we will not have to discuss this again. We are also adopting many measures to eliminate the shortcomings described in the previous report.

Lord RUSSELL (United Kingdom), Spokesperson for the European Conservatives Group

Mr Prime Minister, I congratulate you on your ability to navigate through pronouncing some very difficult words in the English language. Congratulations.

Most democracies have extreme and unpleasant fringe political parties. Do you think the presence in the Slovak Republic of a party described by some as neo-Nazi, the “people’s party” Our Slovakia, headed by Mr Marian Kotleba, currently the third party in the opinion polls, is a sign of a healthy and balanced democracy, or should your friends and allies be concerned? Are you concerned, and how do you explain its level of support?

Mr Pellegrini, Prime Minister of Slovakia (interpretation)

Dear MP, this is unfortunately not only a problem for Slovakia. Similar trends are arising in other countries in Europe. We have to be aware of that so that these trends do not continue further. You are right: in Slovakia we have the party that you mentioned and its leader, whose name you pronounced so very well. He has no shame in claiming values that have nothing to do with the values of the Council of Europe. He offers simple solutions. He is just a populist who, through his populism, has gained popularity among some citizens. However, I draw your attention to the fact that this gentleman used to be part of a self-governing region in Slovakia; he stood for election and people voted for him. After four years of us working to explain things, within the last year he failed to win another election and someone else won.

That is a good sign that Slovaks understood that this was not the way forward. They have done everything that they could to elect a democratic candidate, who is now the governor of that self-governing region. We will do the same at the central level to reduce Mr Kotleba’s power and get him out of that space. However, this requires us and the other main political parties to deliver on promises to the people, and we also have to talk about things that people are troubled by today. We have to deliver results. That is the only way that we can fight populism. Unless we are able to deliver results, we create the space for simplified solutions that are used by populists and fascists, whether in Slovakia or elsewhere. This is our responsibility. We have to work, work, work to deliver results and convince people that it is actually worth trusting the main political parties and institutions and defending democratic values.

Mr JØRGENSEN (Denmark), Spokesperson for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe

Prime Minister Pellegrini, four months ago a Slovak journalist, a young man called Ján Kuciak, and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were brutally murdered and killed in their apartment. He had been writing articles about the personal and financial connections between members of the government and the Italian Mafia. We are strongly concerned about the lack of progress in both murder investigations, so I would like you to assure us that you are doing everything possible to solve these crimes. What are you and the Government of Slovakia doing in order to guarantee freedom of the press and the safety of all journalists in Slovakia?

Mr Pellegrini, Prime Minister of Slovakia (interpretation)

First, I remind you that before this tragic event, Slovakia was evaluated as the 17th country in the world in terms of support for journalists and freedom of speech, and many older democracies and States scored worse in that evaluation. I would like to guarantee that the government, under my management, will not enact any measures that would in any way limit or hamper freedom of speech and of journalism in Slovakia. Yes, this was a tragic event. A journalist and his fiancée were murdered, but it is very difficult to prevent such an event. If someone plans a premeditated murder, it is extremely difficult to prevent it, and the State has no means of doing so. However, the government, under my management, really tries to calm down situations in which there are threats to journalists or where journalists themselves feel threatened, and the police are now much more active. Of course, we have no censorship. We do not censor the web or any articles by journalists, so there is considerable freedom of speech and of journalism in Slovakia.

At the moment, we have one of the largest investigation teams working in Slovakia. Even though for me, as prime minister, the priority is to investigate every crime and every murder, we understand that we must pay special attention to this particular crime. If someone somehow wanted to impede the progress of the investigation, that would not be possible. I stress that we want to investigate and to find out who is behind the murder

who ordered it. It could be a matter of weeks but, equally, it could take years. You never know in advance. We have an international investigation team. The Italian police, Europol, the FBI and police from the Netherlands are all involved and we have involved a number of our greatest available experts. I hope that both you and I, and all the citizens of Europe, will learn what the reason for the murder was.

I stress once more that Slovakia continues to be one of the most secure countries in the world and that journalists there have one of the greatest freedoms. Slovakia continues to be a standard democratic country that is proud to be a member of the European Union and of the European continent.

Mr PSYCHOGIOS (Greece), Spokesperson for the Group of the Unified European Left

Welcome, Prime Minister, to our Assembly. As of 12 June 2018, Slovakia had received only 16 refugees out of a total of 902 allocated to the country, which is clearly not compatible with European Union and European Court of Human Rights decisions and Council of Europe resolutions on the implementation of relocation programmes. Bearing in mind that sharing rights and obligations, as you said, as well as common solutions based on solidarity is at the core of European values and principles, how do you comment on that situation?

Mr Pellegrini, Prime Minister of Slovakia (interpretation)

Slovakia has standard legislation relating to asylum procedures, which must be, and is, in compliance with European law. The small number of refugees that you mentioned is probably the result of the fact that even though Slovakia is an amazing and prosperous country, migrants do not choose it as their destination country. They do not wish to spend the rest of their lives in Slovakia. To use that number as a proxy for the level of solidarity would be incorrect. Slovakia has been involved in many other activities through which we show our solidarity. I refer to things such as helping Syrian Christians. We have brought entire families to Slovakia, some of whom have chosen to stay while others returned to Syria when the situation calmed down. We help our neighbours in technical, financial and human terms. We have also offered the use of our asylum facilities, and we helped our Austrian colleagues by taking care of 200 asylum seekers whom Austria was unable to house at the time. Slovakia is a country that shows solidary but we have our own idea of how to do that. I do not think that solidarity should be measured only in terms of how many asylum seekers we accept or how many come to our country.

Ms GAMBARO (Italy), Spokesperson for the Free Democrats Group

Prime Minister, Slovakia is taking over the presidency of the Visegrád Group. What will one of your priorities be, given that the experiences of the V4 countries and the enlargement policy are crucial for the Western Balkan countries in the process of European Union accession? The integration of the Western Balkan countries represents not only an economic but an important political and security interest, both for them and the entire European Union.

Mr Pellegrini, Prime Minister of Slovakia (interpretation)

I would like to confirm that the presidency under the leadership of the Slovak Republic will include the continuation of the integration of the countries of the Western Balkans. We firmly believe that these countries’ future should be within the European Union, as that would show them the way to prosperity and to a shared future. However, we, the V4 countries, must outline a clear vision for the Western Balkan countries and show them what they have to do to become a member, because unless we do that we risk the citizens of those countries ceasing to believe in that dream. They might not want to suffer the sometimes painful reforms, unless they felt they would bring them tangible results. That is why, in the summit in Sofia, the V4 countries stated very clearly that we do not believe it to be correct to exclude the year 2025 from the originally proposed document

the document was adopted without that date. If a country complies with all the criteria requested in the individual chapters, they should receive from the European Union the clear answer that yes, they can become a fully-fledged member of the organisation. I cannot agree with some countries that are sending signals towards the Western Balkans that, for example, the European Union has enough struggles and problems of its own, without further enlargement. We cannot afford to speak to the Western Balkan countries like that, which is why the V4 countries will continue to promote the integration of the Western Balkan countries into the EU.

The PRESIDENT (interpretation)

We will now take questions in groups of three, with the prime minister responding to three questions at a time. I call Ms Duranton.

Ms DURANTON (France) (interpretation)

Mr Jørgensen has already asked my question, so I have already had an answer.

Ms SCHOU (Norway)

Over the past two months, an alarming number of reporters have been dismissed from RTVS, the Slovak Republic’s TV and radio broadcaster. Some left of their own accord, but many of them have spoken out against undue political influence over their outlet’s news reporting. Prime minister, how do you assess the current situation, which has alarmed many civil society organisations?

Mr HAJDUKOVIĆ (Croatia)

Prime minister, you said in your speech that you will continue to encourage Western Balkan countries in their reforms and preparation for EU membership and that you will continue to promote the European way. However, the question at the moment should be about whether the Union is ready for them, not the other way around, and as you said, if there is no clear European perspective, they will look for other perspectives. What specific things will you do? You say that you will promote things, but that is too general. What steps will you take as a member country to support the Western Balkans into the EU?

Mr HOWELL (United Kingdom)

Slovakia recently faced a corruption scandal involving tax and promissory notes. Is that an isolated example, or is the problem widespread?

Mr Pellegrini, Prime Minister of Slovakia (interpretation)

As for the situation in Slovak TV and radio, I am sure that the Slovak TV team who are with me were happy to hear the question. The broadcaster is a public organisation paid for by the citizens themselves, and the State only subsidises when necessary. That is how the organisation’s independence is guaranteed. Political rulings have no control over public TV and radio, although the head of the broadcaster is voted for in the parliament. The organisation has thousands of employees and, as you mentioned, perhaps a dozen of them have left or were let go, so there will be no impact on the running of the TV and radio. Those who have stayed have said that no one has prevented them from publishing whatever they want – there was no censorship. The situation is stable, and the broadcaster continues to be the most credible news outlet.

Turning to the question about tax fraud, Slovakia has implemented a tremendous number of measures to combat such fraud, especially with regard to VAT. The new legislation included some technical measures that eliminate the possibility of missing trader fraud and carousel fraud, because many parasites were draining the system. We can also see an effect in our finances, because many more millions of euros are flowing into our budget than before. I am happy that we are successful in this fight, and many neighbouring countries are adopting similar measures because they have proven to be so efficient.

I want to say one thing in response to the question about the Western Balkans. We should support Croatia, along with Bulgaria and Romania, to become a member of the Schengen zone, because Croatia is technically ready. From a strategic point of view, it would be more convenient if our southern external border was further south, because that would help us to tackle the challenges we face. We support Croatia’s ambition, and what I said about the Western Balkans also applies to Croatia. If a country complies with the requirements, it should not be prevented from becoming a member.

Mr GHILETCHI (Republic of Moldova)

Prime minister, I thank you and your country for supporting the Republic of Moldova in the UN General Assembly when a resolution was passed concerning the presence of Russian troops in our territory. You mentioned Transnistria in your speech, so what do you think can be done to get the Russian Federation to implement its international obligations to withdraw their military presence from the territory of the Republic of Moldova?

Mr FOURNIER (France) (interpretation)

Several NGOs, including Amnesty International, are denouncing the discrimination and police violence to which the Roma are being subjected in the Slovak Republic. How is the Slovak Government reacting to that situation?

Mr HUNKO (Germany) (interpretation)

My question is about the Russian sanctions. At the meeting this week, it is likely that the EU Council will extend those sanctions. Voices in my country that want the sanctions to end are getting increasingly loud. What is your position? What is the debate in the Slovak Republic?

Mr Pellegrini, Prime Minister of Slovakia (interpretation)

I thank the MP from Moldova for his words, and I can again confirm Slovakia’s willingness to continue helping Moldova in its process towards Europe and the European Union. The answer to the question is very complex, but I can assure you that we will always prefer peace organisations and dialogue, which is the only way to resolve such long-term issues. Accepting more pressure could only worsen the situation. That is why I believe that in the Council of Europe, and in other organisations, we should influence countries and try to resolve issues through diplomatic means.

Slovakia has a Roma community who live in their own specific way, and in some areas there are Roma settlements where the Roma are concentrated. If any crimes are committed and there are any perpetrators, we must act regardless of whether that crime was committed by a Slovak, German or Roma. I understand that some communities are concerned if we also fight crime there, but in terms of combating crime, we cannot distinguish between the Roma and other communities. I do not feel, and no statistics can show, that we are especially hostile towards the Roma, or that repression is higher than with any other community. Sometimes, something happens on one occasion, and it is then discussed for a year or two or three, but on the contrary, I assure the Assembly that we are taking a number of measures to incorporate the Roma community into the majority of the population, focusing especially on children. We take children out of the vicious circle and away from an environment in which they have such a low stimulus, so that they can get an education and later on a good paid job. Nothing critical is happening in Slovakia but, as I said, if a crime is committed, we will act regardless of whether the perpetrator is Roma or non-Roma.

The third question was about sanctions against Russia. Slovakia has been saying for a long time that sanctions have not brought any positive effects, and nothing has improved in relations between Russia and the European Union. Indeed on the contrary, we have seen some political and economic damage, and some companies lost their markets because they cannot trade with Russia. We have not seen a positive outcome from sanctions, which is why we believe that they are to the detriment of the situation, rather than bringing a positive value. We believe it worthwhile to reconsider whether to return to a constructive dialogue with Russia, rather than prolonging sanctions that are meaningless and damaging to the economies of our countries and of Russia.

The PRESIDENT

We must now conclude the questions to Mr Pellegrini.

Dear Prime Minister, thank you very much for your most interesting speech. I particularly appreciated what you said about the impossibility of so-called à la carte membership, and about the importance of the effective implementation of conventions, and full respect for the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. I wish the Slovak Republic another 25 years of successful membership in our Organisation.