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Safe and Slovak

November 24th, 2012

With Deputy Prime Minister Robert Kalinak

While the budget talks were taking place (and ultimately going nowhere) in Brussels I was in Bratislava, visiting government ministers, NGOs, volunteers and professionals in civil protection. It’s perhaps all too easy to get worn down and made to feel a bit desperate by the grinding negotiation processes of our institutions.

That’s why it’s all the more important to get out and go and see the real fruits of our Union in member states, to remind ourselves what we have achieved together.

I love Slovakia. I love its can-do attitude and energy. When the call went out for humanitarian assistance for Syria, Slovakia was among the very first to respond – like it always has done: in Pakistan, Haiti … name the emergency and you’ll find Slovakia contributed to the relief effort. In a recent Eurobarometer poll 90 % of Slovakians said the support our humanitarian work – above the already impressive average of 88%.

I met the wonderful people who run the non-professional fire-fighting unit, who laid on a demonstration of their equipment ably assisted by schoolchildren from the town of Trnava. Rut Erdélyiova, liaison officer for this voluntary fire brigade, explained: “Everything you see here was created in two and a half years.

“They gave us rusting tanks and we converted them into life-saving vehicles. We bring kids in and teach them the basics of disaster response such as evacuation procedures and First Aid.”

With just 25 staff they manage to provide a 24-hour service. Rut told me about how they went to the assistance of their neighbours in the Czech Republic when a large fire got beyond their means to tackle on their own.

This captures for me the essence of our Union. Slovakia has a model for us all in civil protection: a core team of professionals supported by an army of volunteers. The country’s dynamic, young Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Robert Kalinak was generous with his time and resources and assuring me – as did his fellow Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign minister Miroslav Lajčák in an earlier meeting – that what is needed now is not less but more Europe, more and closer cooperation in many fields.

I couldn’t help reflecting – as we approach the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo next month – how much Europe has changed. I grew up behind the Iron Curtain. I remember the days when to have even imagined the progress we have made in building mutual respect, prosperity and security across our continent was truly seen as belonging to the world of dreams.

So a reality check: when the tough business of putting one brick on top of another sometimes gets too much, pause to think how far we’ve come together and what a miracle all this once seemed. And one more thing: if I ever get stuck on the tenth floor of a building engulfed in fire I just hope that it happens to me in Slovakia!

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