Saturday, 26 July 2014

Ambassadors without diplomatic passport - Tomáš Jelínek

Prague Leaders Magazine |
20 June 2014

For a long time I‘ve wanted to write about current Czech-German relations from an informed point of view by the experts involved, rather than their political perspective. It becomes clear that even excellent relations can be improved in many aspects when examined further, despite Czechs regular assurance by politicians that Czech-German relations are excellent.

Tomáš Jelínek is Executive Director of the Czech-German Fund for the Future. This fund helps build bridges between Czechs and Germans. It supports projects that bring people together from both countries, allowing a deeper insight into their common culture and history. The Czech-German Fund for the Future was founded by the Czech-German Declaration, signed on January 21, 1997. Since 1998 that fund has provided approximately 45 million EUR to more than 7500 projects.

Tomáš happens to be my classmate from the Faculty of Social Sciences, but he also studied in Düsseldorf and Erlangen. During his studies, he was a member of the negotiating team in international negotiations on compensating victims during the Nazi era. He is a member of several international bodies and a founder of the Living Memory non-profit organization in Prague.

The first traditional question – how do you perceive today´s world?

What fascinates me about today’s world is its openness and availability. I belong to a generation that still perceived the bipolar division of the world and what limitations life with a lack of freedom brings. That is, why today I even more so see the abundance of offers and options for what and where to study, how and where to live, what to pursue professionally, what to get involved in or simply where to go. At the same time I also realize that this is a privilege that billions of people in the world do not have. The world, of course, remains a place where contradictory values and principles often clash, and where they are often enforced by force or manipulation and not be their free and responsible acceptance.

And how do you perceive the position of the Czech Republic in the world?

I think we are extremely lucky. Just look at Ukraine. That is why we need to nurture our affiliation with the West. By this I do not mean only our relationship with the EU and NATO, but especially the active development of the values that serve as the foundation of Western community. These certainly include a mature political culture and a strong civil society, dialog with our neighbors and knowledge about them, which — by the way — is exactly what the Czech-German Fund for the Future strives for. We cannot afford to declare our experience from the last century as overcome. That would be a sign of intellectual laziness, which I fear somewhat. Searching for shortcuts at any price and emphasizing entertainment and personal comfort is a breeding ground for the flourishing of corruption and the growth of populism.

Czech-German Relations in 2014 – is it still an issue or not? Czech journalist Barbora Prochazkova in her critical article from 2012 mentioned that "the development of cooperation between the Czech Republic and Germany can be observed on the economic, political and socio-cultural levels. The biggest boom was experienced in the economic sphere, political contacts on the contrary in the long-term perspective have been lagging behind. Cultural sphere carries on its shoulders engaged civil society particularly at the border regions where hundreds of bilateral projects are carried out annually. The further we go inland, the less interest about a neighbor exists. And this is true about both sides."

Czech-German relations fortunately still remain an important issue. Having a good relationship, and above all, being on familiar terms with the key player of European, and to a certain extent global, politics and economics is definitely beneficial for the Czechs. It is no longer so painful and delicate, on the contrary, for more and more people it is a place for mutual inspiration, for holding up a mirror, as well as for enrichment and shared profit. Over the last fifteen or twenty years, Czech-German relations have undergone tremendous and positive growth, which continues. Today, almost two years after Bára Procházková‘s article was published, we have unprecedented dynamics in Czech-Bavarian relations in the political sphere, which finally caught up with business and the civil society. Moreover, both sides’ plans are a promise that this was not just a temporary constellation. The high relevance of mutual relations even at the federal level is also confirmed by the policy statements of the new governments in both countries. The Czech Government considers the development of a strategic dialog with Germany as its priority, and the German Government sent a clear signal to the Czech Republic when in the coalition agreement it made a commitment to ensure the future functioning of the Czech-German Fund for the Future beyond 2017.

But what I would not agree with is the assertion that the interest in cooperation with the Germans is strongest in the border region. We at the Czech-German Fund for the Future are most often approached by people from both capital cities who come to us with their ideas, but there is also a large number of people from Brno and Hamburg. Of course a dense network of contacts works primarily between border federal states and Czech regions, but inhabitants — for example — of North Rhine Westphalia, the South Moravian and Central Bohemian regions and Hessen also have considerable interest in cooperation.

To what extent influences the lack of interest in our largest neighbor declining knowledge of German in the Czech Republic? When I attended the Czech-German educational program Czech German Young Professional Leaders, I was surprised that the program was in English.

We have not noticed diminished interest in cooperation with the Germans. On the contrary, last year a record number of citizens from both countries in the fifteen years of our existence approached us with their project. But otherwise of course I do think that the decreasing number of children learning German is a problem. Although it appears that hopefully there are better days ahead. Two years ago we declared support of interest in our neighbor’s language as our topic of the year. In parallel, the German and Austrian embassies and both cultural institutes initiated a campaign called “Šprechtíme” (We speak German), and last year a second foreign language was introduced as compulsory in Czech schools, which certainly works in favor of German. This is not about competing against English, but rather about what other foreign language to learn. In this respect, the largest number of arguments speaks for German.

In terms of our program focused on young Czech and German leaders from business, NGOs, government, politics and media, we planned it from the beginning as English language not because we could not get enough candidates, but because we wanted to pull a new important target group into Czech-German exchange. Young German speaking professionals already usually have a deep knowledge of the neighboring country, and they are also well networked with their German counterparts. It’s not that they are not interested in the program, but from our perspective it does not make much sense. We are interested mainly in people without a clear Czech-German background who will get significant added value from our program, and thanks to whom Czech-German relations will also gain advocates in important positions.

You have been appointed at the age of 30 as the director of the Czech-German Fund for the Future. Have you ever perceived your young age was a disadvantage?

A young age may be a disadvantage if it’s combined with low self-reflection and the unwillingness to work harder on certain things. But because I believe that neither of these was a problem for me, I never complained about my age. On the contrary, my affiliation with the young generation was more of an advantage in my work focused on overcoming tragic historical chapters of Czech-German relations as well as in the development of cooperation oriented towards the future.

You have been involved at the Czech-German Fund for the Future since 2000. How do you perceive 15 years of your involvement?

This work still has a huge allure for me. In the early years it was a great opportunity to capitalize on my focus on German speaking countries. As a member of the negotiating team, I had the opportunity to participate in the last major international negotiation on the consequences of World War II and then do everything possible to ensure that as many of the nearly 90,000 Czech victims of Nazi persecution and forced labor lived to see their compensation. The fact that the compensation was performed successfully strengthened not only the confidence in the Fund’s work, but especially the confidence in the fact that both sides are taking reconciliation seriously. Then, when I moved to the Fund’s management, the focus of my work also shifted and I was able to primarily work on the development of relations between Czechs and Germans in the areas of youth and education, culture and science, cooperation of non-profit organizations and the restoration of landmarks and monuments in the Czech borderland. It is work that remains extremely fulfilling. Feeling so much positive energy that thousands of Czechs and Germans invest in joint projects and seeing the results of their work is truly encouraging. On the other hand I also believe that our effort for a friendly approach to everyone who approaches us with an idea for an interesting project is encouraging for them. Work in the Fund is not routine for me even after so many years. Our annual topic of the year, which gives an impulse to dozens of projects and motivates people on both sides of the border to work together on current problems, also contributes to this. This year it will be about a joint engagement in drug prevention. We are also, for example, preparing together with our German partners a large international exhibition about forced labor under the Nazis. It will be presented in the Belvedere at Prague Castle this summer. I am also looking forward to this year’s anniversary conference of the Czech-German Discussion Forum in Litoměřice, as well as to the fact that the entire application submission process will be made more pleasant thanks to its migration to an online system.