News•Business• 16.03.2020 • Interview by Natalie A. Gerhardstein
Ambassador Bärtl standing before a collage of historical images at the Czech embassy in Limpertsberg
The new Czech ambassador to Luxembourg has extensive experience in EU and foreign trade, plays the accordion and has flown planes since the mid-1990s. Delano got to learn more about Ambassador Vladimir Bärtl during an exclusive interview in February.
How has the start in your new role been?
Luxembourg wasn’t entirely new to me. I was traveling here during the Luxembourg presidency [of the EU Council]. Previously, I was responsible for [the] section of foreign trade and the EU at Ministry of Industry and Trade in Prague, and often I was head of the delegation for the Council. I remember the beginning of October 2015: at that time, Étienne Schneider was presiding the Council of Competitivity. I’m a pilot as a hobby, and he kept tell me to come with some ultralight to [Luxembourg’] international airport to see how open general aviation is in Luxembourg. Since the weather was cooperating at that time, I did that. It was unusually stable weather.
Have you managed to fly since taking on your new role?
Not yet, but one of the first things I did [was go] to the airport to fill out the application for Aérosport.
There are some strong historical ties between the two countries—e.g., the Bohemian connection, the Jan Palach square. What are some lesser known links you’d like to promote?
It’s true that within history it was quite interlinked between Bohemia and Luxembourg. It’s a good base to start with, and it’s often used in speeches. What I personally feel very similar is that the size of the country is not about the population or the geographical boundaries, and in Luxembourg foreign policy is done ambitiously and is well planned, then the country has tremendous results. Also having a big neighbour can be an advantage or a disadvantage as well, over the course of history. This is [the case] for us as well. We have Germany in between us--for us now, it’s export partner number one. Throughout history sometimes we were also falling into plans [of other countries].
I think sometimes smaller countries could be underestimated for their economic potential, and this is something I found attractive and part of my decision to come here. Usually when you talk to fellow ambassadors living outside the country, they might see Luxembourg as a place where there are not so many opportunities, and I truly hope to prove the opposite.
What are the current priorities of the local Czech community?
There is a community related to institutions, but also Czechs who have been living here a long time and not related to the institutions, and those are focused a lot on cultural exchange…
With less than one month here, it would be really ambitious to say I know perfectly the Czech community here. [At a recent meeting] the expatriates presented a wide range of activities, starting with the Saturday Czech school, folklore ensemble, theatre, organisation of concerts, participation in the CinÉast film festival and much more…
There are members of the Czech community here organising the dancing and singing with traditional Czech music, and I understand they have a lot of plans. I play accordion, so I might be joining them for some pieces as well.
So we can literally expect to be hearing from you...
I brought my accordion with me from Prague.
What links do you see in terms of business?
The relationships we can cultivate are the so-called new technologies. We are now promoting a slogan in the Czech Republic which is, ‘Czech Republic: the country for the future’. This is related to our excellence in artificial intelligence. We are also very close to space activities [which] is one of Luxembourg’s specialisations as well. The fact that Prague is hosting the European Global Navigation Satelite System Agency Galileo which is going to expand to the European Space Agency from 2021 onwards helps us to bridge efforts not only in between institutions, but also between startups and companies in the Czech Republic and Luxembourg.
I understand you were also personally involved in Galileo.
Yes, when the decision was faced where the Galileo administration centre was to be hosted, I was posted in France at the time and was part of the team to help get it to Prague.
Can you talk about Czech Republic’s perspective at the international level, given current trade wars, shifting geopolitics and so on?
This is really interesting, because financing and safety look separate but are interlinked. We are quite sensitive because of the history and experience we have. On 25 February 1948 we became a Soviet satellite because of the communist putsch, and this was actually a really difficult period from 1948 until 1989, when the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ ended the government of one party and started to emancipate us from Soviet influence. We are quite sensitive about democratic issues. But of course, there’s a completely different landscape right now…
We want to stay an open economy, but at the same time we don’t want to be naïve. This is also the question of investment screening, which is a question of European debate, in the US as well. We want to be open for investors; at the same time we want to understand if the motivation of the potential investor is purely market-driven, or if there is a state hidden behind with some motivations which are not purely economic…
I was responsible for trade policy, and I can say in many aspects we are like-minded with Luxembourg. We understood in trade policy the internal market, openness… in those kinds of things, we felt the same motivations with Luxembourgish experts.
What’s the Czech Republic’s position on the EU budget?
We are among those countries open to discussion, but we have some priorities. Within this is related also our thinking about the costs of it. We are an industrial country traditionally, and if we want to follow the [carbon neutral] goals of 2050 then there’s a path leading to it, and we have to really invest into the transition period within our economy, so we believe that the budget should also be fair towards the regions that are and would be more hit. For example, for renewables, our geographical position is not as favourable as Spain’s… the Czech Republic is landlocked without any access to ocean, and so [that is one of the ways] renewable energy sources are limited. This is also the reason why we want to remain open also for the nuclear energy sources, and this might be one of the differences we have with Luxembourg.
At the same time, the Czech Republic is a country full of innovation…
The slogan ‘Czech Republic: the country for the future’ is very much related to our innovation strategy, which is focused on artificial intelligence but also on energy, nanotechnology and biotechnology. There is the aim to cultivate new technology between the Czech Republic and Luxembourg. We have two projects related to nanotechnology [on 23 April] and biohealth [on 14 May]. There will be an exchange of experts, Czech and Luxembourgish, and the Czech Embassy will organise [those] events with universities, innovation centres, entreprises etc. Of course, if the situation with Covid-19 allows us to take action. And I sincerely hope so; I even perceive that both the fields of nanotechnology and biomedicine are so important in the context of today's situation that the meeting of Czech and Luxembourg experts and the exchange of information on the programmes they are working on can be very beneficial.
At the point when your role finishes, what do you hope to be remembered for?
You touched [at the] beginning on the historical ties we have, and I think it would be really nice as a parallel that we can establish quite regular cooperation in these new, modern technologies, that we are not building [just] on historical relations but we have potential to cooperate together on a modern, innovative way, so young people feel like natural partners within these two nations.
Will there be additional developments in the space sector?
We were one of the early starters to look into new possibilities [in the sector], to sign an MoU for space cooperation. The Czech Republic has a really rich tradition in the airspace industry. The space and aeronautics are really interconnected, so we feel like natural partners within that. The Czech Republic remains one of the few innovative countries with the ability to develop, test and produce aircraft engines… There are companies that are producing parts of aircraft but also part of satellites or materials, hydraulical systems for rockets… When a company has something to do with aircraft, the DNA is to do something with space as well.