CONSUL SPECIAL »

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“CZECHIA IS EUROPE!”
Kristina Larischová didn’t experience the Prague Spring of 1968, but she was there for the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, when Václav Havel was president. In that year, Larischová was completing her high school degree and began studying foreign trade, international politics, and diplomacy at the Prague University of Economics, and finished her graduate engineering degree in 1994. She then worked at the Prague Institute of International Relations, became its deputy director in 1998, and in 2001 was hired as a scientific researcher at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Prague. In 2014, she switched to the Czech Foreign Ministry in Prague, first working as a section leader for analysis and communication, and in 2015 she became the director for the department for public diplomacy. Since August 2017, she’s been acting as the Czech General Consul for Germany’s southern states. She has also written about Europe and German-Czech relationships in more than 40 specialist publications.

Since August 2017, you’ve been the Czech General Consul for Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, and the Saarland – so basically half of the federal republic! Congratulations! How many of your compatriots live in these areas, and what problems do they usually come to you with? What do you want the focus of your work to be during your time in Munich?

Thank you for your congratulations! Regarding the number of Czechs living in southern Germany, we must be satisfied with an estimate. Our citizens are not required to register with our authorities. We know that there are more than 50,000 Czechs working in Germany, and that their numbers are growing. Czech workers are very much in demand here, and half of them work in Bavaria. It’s a feature of Czechs that they don’t like moving for work (even within their own country), therefore if they must, they’ll try to find work in regions nearby. Our typical consular agenda consists of supplying official documents, notarising signatures, and dealing with citizenship issues. We’re also regularly involved with organising elections. Apart from that there’s the occasional emergency – citizens who have been robbed, car accidents, or return procedures. Within this context, I’d like to praise the excellent cooperation with the local authorities – the police, the administration, the courts, and the state representatives. We currently have an honorary consulate in Nuremberg, but many of our clients still have to travel to see us in Munich. Personally, I’d like to improve this situation during my term by establishing a new honorary consulate in Stuttgart.

Czechia and Germany have always had a special relationship, for well-known historical reasons. Do you consider the current relationship strong enough to meet current demands, or is there room for improvement? If so, where could it be improved? And how do you evaluate the relationship between the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel?

The German-Czech relationship is historically at its best right now. But we always have to be aware of the fact that this is not to be taken for granted, and that it took a lot of courage, mutual goodwill, and political capital to get to where we are today. Therefore the excellent relationship between our countries isn’t a sure-fire success, and needs to be continuously attended to. We’ve managed to start the German-Czech Strategic Dialogue in 2015 between our two countries, and to mutually develop it. The Chancellor has met with Prime Minister Andrej Babiš a number of times now, and both respect each other mutually. It’s also helpful that our Prime Minister speaks German fluently. We currently have a government in the process of resigning, and the new coalition needs a member vote of the social democratic base, as was also the case in Germany. If we get a trusting government this will be the prerequisite for a consistent exchange and a desirable sense of “business as usual.”

Andrej Babiš is no Viktor Orbán or Jarosław Kaczynski, but he’s also not known to be a lover of Europe. How will the relationship between Czechia and Europe develop in the next years, in your opinion?

Czechia is Europe! It’s placed in Europe’s heart, and our government is decidedly pro-Europe. Nobody in our government is questioning liberal democracy or the principles of a constitutional state. Our connection to NATO as well as our firm anchoring in the EU remain the most important frame of references for our foreign and European policy. Prime Minister Babiš may be a Eurosceptic, but he’s certainly not anti-Europe. Especially within the context of the Visegrád Group, Czechs are the bridge-builders of Europe, and Germany is one of our most important partners. Czechia is an extremely export-oriented and strongly industrialised country. Our foremost interests, both in terms of security and wealth, are best secured within the EU. Creating new borders and new peripheries within the EU is not within our best interest. Our Prime Minister shares this conviction – after all, he comes from the business world himself!

You’ve also held a speech at the Seliger Community. The Sudeten question is a dark spot in the history of our countries. Do you believe that the problem will disappear with the passage of time, or will it continue to haunt our collective memory? What measures could be taken to minimise or solve the problem?

It’s true that the events of World War Two and the ones immediately following it have become a part of ancient history for many young people. We know that it’s impossible to repair the past trauma on both sides and correct the wrongs that were perpetrated. Therefore it’s important to know the truth about our history, including the unpleasant parts, and warn against the past repeating itself. In order to achieve this, we’ve mutually established some well-functioning institutions – this year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the German-Czech Future Fund. I’m very proud of this, since I’ve been volunteering on its administrative board for many years now. Together, we’ve invested in concrete projects and have had honest conversations about our shared history. In the past two decades, we’ve ensured that our relationship is robuster, closer, and more sustainable, thanks to these institutions and their initiatives.

When it comes to the issue of refugees, Czechia and Germany have pretty opposing positions. Why does Czechia refuse to accept refugees and dismiss German refugee policy?

Accepting immigrants on the basis of an EU quota is not only considered problematic in my country. It has been proven that migrant quotas simply don’t work. Those who have been accepted in our country have immediately travelled on to Germany or Scandinavia. Czechia thinks it might be better to provide financial or technical aid in countries of origins in order to prevent refugees in the first place – and my country occupies the top position among the Visegrád states when it comes to this. Due to their painful history during the 20th century (after the Nazis they were incorporated into the Soviet bloc), Czechs are sceptical of any sort of dictation. The fact that a question as sensitive as the acceptance of refugees should be determined by the interior ministers of other EU states is a source of frustration for all Visegrád countries. We have to be careful: if countries are not treated at eye-level by other EU partners, then anti-European populists could quickly take advantage of that.

You are a member of the administrative board of the German-Czech Future Fund and you speak fluent German. Why are you so interested in German-Czech relationships? Do you have a particular affinity for Germany?

I come from Southern Bohemia. In the south, you quickly develop an affinity to the German language. Many of us used to follow the Austrian TV before the “Velvet Revolution” in order to know what was really happening in the world. When I was a child, my grandmother often spoke in German to me, which I used to dislike. She was born in 1902, and never properly learned Czech. She lived through both wars and then through the long periods of communist rule. It was a hard life. Thankfully she was able to see the revolution happen. Such family history awakened my interest in the history and politics of unrestful central Europe.

After the so-called “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, it took 22 years until a Minister President of Bavaria, namely Horst Seehofer, paid a state visit to Czechia. In 2014, the representation of the free state of Bavaria was opened in Prague. Is it possible to speak of normal political relationships between Czechia and Bavaria, who are immediate neighbours, or is there room for improvement?

The relationship hasn’t just reached political normality, it’s even developed into a neighbourly friendship. The language barrier is usually the only true obstacle. Of course there is room for improvement – apart from the language issues that are in need of improvement, we’re also missing a necessary speed train connection between Prague and Munich. Economically speaking, we’re doing very well: More than 80 percent of Czech exports go into the EU, and Germany definitely is the most important trading partner and contributes to 30 percent of our total foreign trade sales. The economic connection between Czechia and Germany is enormous, and the free state of Bavaria in Germany is definitely taking the lead in this. With a total revenue of 20.1 billion Euro, the Czech-Bavarian trade generates almost a quarter of all Czech-German foreign trade! With Bavaria, we obtain a trade surplus of which we’re really proud. It’s also remarkable that Czechia regularly achieves the first place for trade and investment among all mid-and eastern European countries in the regular economic evaluations made by the German-Czech industrial and trade chamber.

You’ve worked for a long time as a scientific researcher at the Institute for International Relations in Prague and have dealt with German foreign and European policy. What do you appreciate about Germany, and what would you want to improve?

Germany is a very colourful and pretty country with a cultural diversity that’s fascinating. For a foreigner, German federalism is something that takes some time to be understood. I enjoy Germany’s highly developed culture of compromise, tolerance, and a general understanding for the legitimate interests of others. The consensus-oriented policies promote continuity and predictability, which is very valuable in our complex world. Germany is becoming more aware of its importance in the world community, and that’s a good thing. What would I improve about Germany? I’m currently a guest in your country and have been received very kindly everywhere I go. As a guest and a diplomat, it’s hard to criticise. And by the way: It’s absolutely not true that the Germans don’t have a sense of humour!

Now a personal question: With your workload, how do you manage to balance your job, your free time, friendships, and family?

I am a Sunday child. I’ve always been very lucky: I’ve had a harmonious family life, a job I enjoy, great coworkers, and good and interesting friends whose presence gives me strength. A lot of the things I enjoy today are due to the fact that I was still young enough when the Iron Curtain fell. Just because of that fact I consider myself a lucky person.

INTERVIEW Dr. Helmut Schmidt

Pictures: 1 = Jakub Sejkora – unsplash.com | 2, 3, 5, 6 = Dr. Helmut Schmidt | 4 = Michael Santifaller