Amcham: Please explain the sequences of information that made you aware of the emerging Covid crisis in Luxembourg?
Ambassador Bärtl: I believe it was the same for everyone in 2020; first we followed the news from China, then Italy, it was purely a matter of time before the 1st COVID-19 infection was reported in Luxembourg. Soon after, a press release was published by the Government, followed by establishing the “Pandemic” crisis unit under the chairmanship of the Minister of Health. On March 16th, if I’m not mistaken, schools closed. By then we all knew something very serious was happening.
It should be mentioned that I arrived in GDL in early February 2020, just a few weeks before the whole world was brought to its knees…
What were your first actions in response to this crisis as both the Czech Ambassador and as a person?
Very quickly, operational communication was established between the headquarters and other Czech Embassies, so to varying degrees, we all dealt with similar issues: to ensure the repatriation of Czech citizens, to find protective equipment for Embassy staff including their family members and to regularly monitor the development of the pandemic in the host country.
I decided not to close the Embassy because, especially during that period, the need for consular services was greater than ever. At the same time, I started to consider ways to help locally here in Luxembourg. I contacted Mr. Christian Simons, who was coordinating “Cellule logistique”, to offer support with one-off hot meals for all those who were working to build the field hospital in the Luxembourg. I also contacted Ms. Sasha Baillie and her team at LuxInnovation, they identified Luxembourg companies to which I introduced Czech nanotextile masks, in case they wanted to produce it themselves.
After a massive wave of solidarity within the Facebook group “3D Print – Let’s Fight Corona Luxembourg”, where nearly 19,000 protective shields were printed (with almost 90% of them being the Czech Prusa design), I had the possibility to obtain the data necessary to create another protective equipment: the RP95-3D Protective Half-Mask. The mask could be printed on special 3D printers and met the same degree of protection as the FFP3 respirator thanks to its certified external filter. By coordinating with the scientists and developers of this product (Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics Czech Technical University in Prague) we were able to provide to our Luxembourgish partners free downloadable data at a time when supplies from Asia were complicated, thus ensuring crisis self-sufficiency.
And in my personal life? I’m sure you remember it too; each of us was faced with new challenges and the need to multitask. I decided to volunteer with the Luxembourg Red Cross and became a blood donor; and tried – as almost everyone – to balance work activities all while assisting my children at home with distance learning.
The positive thing about that period was that we had the chance to explore the natural beauties of the Duchy of Luxembourg- there was a lot to see!
What is the size of the CZECH community in Luxembourg and what information interactions did you have with Czech companies and citizens within Luxembourg in these early days of the medical crisis?
The number of Czech expatriates is estimated to be around 2000 people. Even before the pandemic, we have been keeping the Czech community, as well as our Luxembourgish partners, informed through the Embassy’s website and social networks.
What information guidance did you receive from your government in Prague and from the Luxembourg government and how did you communicate that to support your constituency of Czech Companies and resident citizens?
All essential data provided by both Czech and Luxembourgish governments are communicated via direct links to the institutions responsible for adopting the Protective Measures – for example, setting the conditions for entry into the Czech Republic or Luxembourg and other current regulations. I believe this is the only way to convey complete and up-to-date data.
How did the situation evolve and what is the current covid situation status of Czech citizens and companies in Luxembourg?
The situation is still changing, and although vaccination programmes continue in both countries, the virus does not seem to want to give up any time soon. After the past nearly 2 years, citizens, businesses and institutions have understood that they need to continue adapting in face of the current crisis.
What have you and your staff learned and how have you changed your leadership and management approaches as a result of coming through this crisis?
We are a small team at the Embassy, so adapting processes was not that challenging. The most frustrating thing for the Embassy and our partners in Luxembourg is that every time the light at the end of the tunnel appears and we restart preparing events that have already been postponed 2-3 times, the inexorable viral pendulum returns and we have to postpone the event again…
When will the Czech Republic assume the EU Presidency and what actions have been involved for your Embassy and your country to prepare for this assumption of this important responsibility?
The Czech Republic will hold its second EU Presidency (CZ PRES) in the second half of this year after FR PRES, which has already started; we are sincerely wishing a success to our French colleagues.
Our preparations started three years ago; now we are working intensely and mainly focusing on two levels – priorities and logistics. At the beginning of last year, the line ministries started the process of mapping their sectoral agendas in each and every Council formation in order to identify preliminary agendas of CZ PRES that result from presented (or planned) initiatives by the European Commission and that will end up on the table during the CZ PRES. This process also served as the basis for discussions with French and Swedish partners for the preparation of the trio programme that was adopted before the end of last year. At the organizational and logistical level, we are working towards preparing events that will take place in the Czech Republic during the Presidency.
Bilateral embassies usually communicate the Presidency’s priorities through Heads of Mission meetings, where host country partners, European Commission experts, etc. are mainly invited. The situation of our Embassy here will be somewhat specific, because CZ PRES will be another important layer to the year-long programme celebrating the 100th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. I can already reveal that we are very much looking forward to the inauguration of Václav Havel Street in Luxembourg and we are also intensively negotiating the possibility of the Czech Republic to be represented as a focus country in the 15th edition of the excellent CinEast film festival.
Please list and explain in an order of priority the objectives and goals which your country wishes to deal with during your EU Presidency?
Czech Parliamentary elections were held in October; then we were in the process of forming the new government, therefore Czech political priorities will be defined at a later stage, which – I think- is the right thing to do. In any case, priorities should reflect our long-term positions, as well as those promoted within the EU; such as the internal market, economic convergence, open and ambitious trade policy, security, enlargement, etc. Our priorities are also very much affected by legislation negotiated by preceding presidencies as well as the working programme of the European Commission for this year. Of course, the current situation once again proves that it is extremely important to be flexible and prepared for all kinds of unpredictable events.
Since the Czech Republic has joined the EU, please explain the benefits your country has derived as a result of this membership and have there been any hardships adjusting to EU regulations?
From the very beginning, the whole process of joining the EU was closely connected with the concepts of the “1989 revolution”, “Back to Europe,” and “Anti-communism euphoria”. It is obvious that our membership within the EU has had a positive impact on many levels (economic, social, political, etc.). It has brought investments, transformed the economic market, opened opportunities, and secured guarantees when it comes to education, traveling, work, the protection of human rights, and safety in general. The process of joining the EU was not easy, the Czech Republic (together with other acceding countries) needed to learn how to act as a Member state and enable political cooperation with the EU, all while facing the lack of recognition and understanding of internal EU processes. During the accession process, there were concerns arising due to the administrative capacity, lack of expertise, and, to some extent, resources requiring further development in terms of institutional framework.
Please identify any policy issues of disagreement which exist between the Czech Republic and the EU or with any of the other individual EU countries?
When it comes to overcoming disagreements or finding allies within the EU, the V4 (although not quite homogeneous bloc) is traditionally convenient for raising central and eastern European voices in the wider EU. The Czech Republic (as well as Slovakia) is nevertheless often seeking alternative alliances in the EU beyond the V4 format, especially with western allies (Germany, France) or Nordic and Baltic countries. Ad hoc coalitions of like-minded Member states emerge based on concrete topics (e.g. internal market, nuclear energy, trade etc.). In some areas, it is quite clear that the Czech Republic could be viewed as a less valuable partner due to the fact that we are not yet a member of the Eurozone and it can decrease its potential relevance to other member states.
An example of division concerns one of the Czech Republic’s traditional foreign policy priorities – its relationship with the Western Balkans and the effort to assist in their transition to democracy and strengthening ties with the EU. At the Western Balkans summit in Brdo last year, EU leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the enlargement process. Nevertheless, several EU members held up this enlargement process due to concerns about the structure and weakness of the institutions of those less-developed states. The Czech Republic, on the contrary, is one of the countries trying to accelerate the stagnating process.
The Czech Republic likewise is a member of NATO. Please explain your governments level of satisfaction and any areas of concern which your country has with the NATO alliance?
Our government appreciates having a place at the table together with 30 allies, whose accumulated GDP is more than half of the global GDP.
To us, NATO means security, a critical precondition for prosperity and not the other way around. Our only concern is the quality of the transatlantic link and despite the increased defence spending among European countries and in Canada, US security guarantees for Europe are crucial. We need the US to remain interested in European security and Europe investing more into military capabilities. We all benefit from good NATO – EU cooperation.
NATO must remain at the edge of technological innovation in order to address threats in Space and Cyberspace. The traditional role of NATO is to protect 1 billion people from current threats like assertive Russia or terrorism. We need to be ready to protect our values and the rules-based world order amidst the global power balance of the 21st Century, which will no doubt be influenced by the rise of China.
Please assess Luxembourg’s attractiveness as a business location for Czech companies. What are Luxembourg’s perceived Strengths and Weaknesses.
I believe that Luxembourg has a lot to offer not only to Czech companies. In my previous role as Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade and EU, I had the chance to learn about a number of European and overseas economies and business ecosystems. There are several positive elements here: a strategic geographical location with well-established air, road, rail and waterway infrastructure, which gives quick access to neighbouring markets and makes the country a competitive logistics hub. In addition, there is quite a rich multicultural and cosmopolitan environment, attracting talents and brains not only from neighbouring countries. All in all, its economic stability, flexible and attractive legal framework, easy access to decision makers and long-term growth possibilities make the GDL an interesting place to establish business.
It is no secret, that the Grand Duchy became a wealthy and prosperous state thanks to a robust financial sector on which it still depends. Diversifying the economy is taking place with limited progress so far.
There are a few practical weaknesses – obtaining a building permit or registering property usually takes time; however, I feel that the administration is trying to address these shortcomings. During the pandemic, another systemic risk in the Luxembourg economy emerged: neighbouring countries, where many Luxembourg’s cross-border workers come from, initiated various degrees of lockdowns to combat the virus surge, which has made the functioning of some local sectors here vulnerable.
To conclude this question positively, one admirable feature of this country is the ability of Luxembourgers to agree on national long-term priorities (e.g., focus on niches) and then stick to them; I find that impressive and inspiring. Another charm of Luxembourgers is their ability to distil the best from their neighbours; the combination of German organisation and French “joie de vivre” creates a pleasantly balanced environment.
As a private pilot, tell our readers your observations about Luxembourg from the perspective of a pilot flying over this small country in the heart of Europe?
It is true that I am a member of the local aero club here in Luxembourg, as I was during my previous postings in Canada and France. In addition to the opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of the host country, club life gives you the chance to meet new people, not only officials and diplomats.
Back in the day when I headed the Foreign Trade and EU section at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, I used to enjoy flying to the Councils on board Czech sport aircrafts or ULs (Zlin or Fascination). I flew this way to Farnborough, Tallinn, Luxembourg, Innsbruck, Helsinki… My very first journey was from Prague to Luxembourg during LU PRES in 2015. I must say that in addition to the positive impressions I had already experienced with Luxembourgish colleagues in multilateral forums, this trip influenced my later decision to come work at our bilateral Embassy.
Although neighboring countries offer many interesting destinations easily accessible by air, I have found many beautiful spots in GDL that I enjoy watching as the seasons change, with my Czech compatriots, Luxembourgish partners and members of the diplomatic corps on board.
The only thing I lack here is the possibility to hangar a Czech aircraft; I have been on the waiting list for a hangar place since December 2020 already. Perhaps it will happen on celebrating the 100th anniversary of Czech-Luxembourg diplomatic relations this year! 🙂
Dear Mr. Ambassador, please use this opportunity to pass along whatever additional advice and opinions you would wish to share with our readers.
Thank you for the opportunity to address the readers of your newsletter. I would like to wish them and you Happy New Year, good health, good reading, lots of humour and the ability to distinguish important things from those unimportant.
Amcham would like to thank Ambassador Bärtl for this interview