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Slovak minister defends EU presidency compromises

  • Lesay: "You can always have more but it is fine. As a presidency we are happy to have a deal."

Slovakia achieved what it could on financial issues during its six-month EU presidency, its finance state secretary Ivan Lesay said.

"The priorities that we had pretty much correspond to the areas in which we achieved some successes," he told EUobserver on Tuesday (6 December), after Slovakia chaired its last finance ministers council meeting in Brussels.

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The last decision taken by ministers was to approve the extension of the European Commission's flagship investment programme, the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) - better known as the Juncker plan.

Depending on a future agreement with the European Parliament, EFSI will continue until 2020 with the aim of raising €500 billion to help projects and companies in Europe.

Ministers endorsed the extension proposal despite misgivings about the real impact of the plan so far and about the fund's functioning. They were quickly criticised by a one of the parliament's negotiators who said that they "closed their eyes to difficulties".

"You can always have more but it is fine. As a presidency we are happy to have a deal," Lesay said. 

He admitted that before it took over the EU presidency in July, his government shared concerns over "additionality", the principle that the EFSI should only help projects that would not happen without its support.

"We defended the principle of additionality," Lesay said. "We stressed that if the EFSI was a vehicle for investments that would happen anyway it would not make sense."

The Slovak state secretary noted that his country was "happy to learn that additionality was also a priority for many member states" and that they could add provisions on that issue to the commission's original plan.

Lesay said that on tax evasion, another key issue of its presidency, Slovakia also went as far as it could.

EU finance ministers agreed on criteria to establish a black list of tax havens, and member states at lower levels agreed on issues such as corporate tax and administrative cooperation on VAT. The EU also signed tax cooperation agreements with Norway and Monaco.

Lesay insisted the black-list agreement was "a good deal", adding: "It was a very surprising achievement which not many stakeholders expected it would happen."

The criteria for the tax-haven black list did not include minimal corporate tax rates because some countries, like the UK, were opposed.

'Difficult' tax deal

Lesay admitted that the deal "was difficult" because of strong national interests, and that Slovakia had to "make a compromise that is not really the most ambitious."

"The commission and hardliners [who wanted more extensive criteria] were not happy, but that is the price to pay," he noted.

Slovakia took the helm of EU ministers council just days after the UK voted to leave the EU.

Lesay said that "formally there was no impact because the UK is still a member" but that "informally there was some impact" because it added "a sense of uncertainty" to the ministers' work.

Part of the questioning that followed the Brexit vote was about the future of the EMU, the Economic and Monetary Union.

"Right after the referendum, you could see two kinds of reaction," the Slovak state secretary said. "Those who are in favour of deepening [the eurozone] said that their views had been vindicated, those against said that the game was over and that we need to defend what we have."

But during its presidency, Slovakia only steered a discussion that started last year over the Five President's Report - a set of propositions to reform and deepen the eurozone made by the presidents of the European Commission, Central Bank, Council and Parliament, with the Eurogroup president.

'Not naive'

"We have tried to move in the direction of some common economic stabilisation instruments," Lesay explained, adding that there were no discussion on political union or treaty changes.

"We were not naive enough to think that we would achieve some major breakthrough, but it would be naive to think that the eurozone would be able to continue unchanged," he said to summarise his country's approach.

Talks were more on "how that could be handled within the current institutional and legislative framework," he said, "focusing more on investment or creating some instruments focused on unemployment at European level".

Lesay, who is Slovakia's representative in the Euro Working Group - the group that prepares Eurogroup meetings at ministers level - and led the negotiations for the EU 2017 budget, said Slovakia would now be "more free to take the floor".

He said however that his country's priorities would be the same as a simple member state than as the council chair.

"What we will say will not be different to what we said during our EU presidency," he insisted.

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