Interviews

Martin Smolek: There Isn’t Much Time to Wind Down

Published: 20. 4. 2021
Author: Karel Černý
Photo: Photo archives of Martin Smolek
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There are people who have got less work or maybe none at all due to the coronavirus pandemic, and then are people whose workload has increased in these times. One of them is the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Martin Smolek. He attends the crisis meetings on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; last year he dealt with the repatriation of Czechs; now he’s dealing with everything connected to traveling, cross - border workers, vaccination passports, potential transport of patients abroad, border controls…

Given the above, I assume you are experiencing a very hectic period…

I like to say with exaggeration that there was a two-hour quiet period after we completed the repatriations last spring. Right after came the task entrusted to most of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs in Europe, that was to coordinate the gradual easing of travelling measures. In addition, I am a member of the Central Crisis Staff, where a number of points related to foreign issues are addressed, from foreign aid to the supply of vaccines from abroad. The Central Crisis Staff meets three times a week, and we also have regular weekly online meetings with colleagues from the Ministries of Interior and Health to attend to issues related to traveling abroad and from abroad, travel agency associations, the aforementioned negotiations with other countries about various problems related to the pandemic are taking place, and so on. Of course, in parallel we attend to the standard legal and consular agenda. So there isn’t much time to wind down.

How difficult was it to get Czechs stranded abroad home last spring?

The repatriation of citizens in the spring of last year was undoubtedly the largest logistics event in the history of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. None of us, naturally, had experience with events of this magnitude. We had to act fast, constantly improvise, and adjust plans. I remember being on about 150 phone calls a day at that time. Many of us were working round the clock, in the morning we dealt with repatriation from distant destinations in the eastern hemisphere, in the evening in the western. Everything was complicated by the fact that the same situation was being handled by all European countries, so it was not possible to rely on the usual mechanisms of crisis cooperation between the member states of the European Union. Each state naturally tried to help first and foremost its own citizens. In addition, member states were starting to close their borders. The transport of Czech citizens from distant destinations by means of repatriation flights belonging to a country other than one neighboring Czechia was not really possible, as it was very difficult to even pass through the territory of the countries by road. Nevertheless, we managed to arrange repatriation flights organized by the ministry for several hundred citizens of neighboring countries, as well as to place several hundred Czech citizens on repatriation flights managed by other countries.

How common and complicated are negotiations with other countries on the movement of people across borders?

The intensity of negotiations depends on the current pandemic situation. For example, in the summer of last year, we held negotiations with a number of popular tourist destinations to enable Czech citizens to have at least part of their summer holiday abroad. We negotiated about this every day with several countries, with many repeatedly, and many details needed to be fine-tuned. Now during the third wave, we are focusing on ensuring movement across borders, especially for cross - border workers and students, with neighbouring countries.

Does the COVID pandemic generally change relations between countries?

To some extent, the pandemic has undoubtedly changed relations between countries, and it will keep on changing them, but in my opinion it is more related to the post-COVID transformation of society as a whole, not specifically to foreign relations as such.

Do emotions play a role during negotiations, or are they completely factual? Were the negotiations about cross - border workers more demanding?

Certain emotions did appear in the negotiations, in particular with the onset of the second wave in the autumn of last year. The situation began to develop very unevenly in various countries in Europe, and people also understood that the pandemic was far from over, as we had all hoped in the summer months. But such emotionally tense behaviour was minimal. The vast majority of negotiations are conducted in an entirely factual manner, understanding the complexity of the situation and the basic reason why all restrictive measures are taken. The protection of public health therefore has a clear priority in all our negotiations. As for cross - border workers, the most complex negotiations are being done with Germany. It is about their federal organization, and thus the division of jurisdiction between the federal level and the individual federal states. On the other hand, we have been having a very constructive dialogue with 

Germany for several months now. We meet online practically every week both with the federal ministries and at the same time with the representatives of Bavaria and Saxony. In this way, we have succeeded in resolving a number of practical problems that arise with restricting free movement between our countries.

Are you a supporter of the so-called vaccination passport and restrictions on the movement of people to other countries should they not have it? Maybe even at the cost that it may take a long time before there is a really high vaccination coverage in Czechia…

First of all, it is necessary to emphasize that the so called vaccination or COVID passport, or according to the current proposal at the EU level, the Digital Green Certificate, is only a temporary solution. The free movement of people still applies as one of the EU's fundamental freedoms. The proposal for a COVID passport aims to provide clearer rules for restrictions adopted in order to protect public health, and thus contribute to gradual restoration of the free movement of people, as we knew it from before the pandemic. Such a solution makes sense. On the other hand, the COVID passport should not become an instrument of discrimination in any way. Therefore, the current proposal of the European Commission envisages issuing a similar certificate not only for vaccination, but also for tests and for antibodies gained by going through the illness, so that there are alternatives for people who have not yet been able to get vaccinated, or do not want to be vaccinated.

CV BOX

JUDr. Martin Smolek, Ph.D., LL.M. (born 26th February, 1976 in České Budějovice) is a deputy minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the Management of the Legal and Consular Section.

He is a graduate of the School of Law, Charles University in Prague. From 2001 to 2004, he did his postgraduate studies in Public Law 2 while also studying Community Law, International Law and Environmental Law, and also studying at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Humboldt University in Berlin.

After an internship at the European Commission in 2000, he worked for two years at the Ministry of the Environment in the Department of Approximation of Law. He has been at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 2002, and has been the Government's Representative for representing the Czech Republic before the Court of Justice of the EU since 2008.

He is married and has two daughters, Barbora (13) and Magdalena (8), and a son Jakub (5). He enjoys running, horseback riding and mountain hiking.

#He speaks English, German, French and Polish.

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