When it comes to knocking on doors in the South’s industrial hubs, it helps to know something about making cars.
By that measure, Slovakia, the central European nation of nearly 6 million people, has credibility to spare.
Flush with investment from German, French and Korean automakers like Volkswagen (Audi, Porsche), Groupe PSA and Kia, the country is the world’s largest auto manufacturer per capita and the ninth largest car exporter to the U.S. The sector accounts for about 12 percent of Slovakia’s total economic output.
Atlanta, meanwhile, sits at the heart the South’s automotive belt, anchored by some of the same foreign brands, which have invested billions in plants serving the U.S. market or headquarters running regional operations.
During an inaugural “exploratory mission” to Atlanta, Slovak Ambassador Ivan Korčok quickly found common ground with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp over the looming transition to electric vehicles and its significance for their respective workforces.
“He’s a businessman, and I’m coming back with a good feeling of his readiness to support and to welcome us when one day we come with a delegation,” said Mr. Korčok , who served earlier in his career as his country’s envoy to Germany, Slovakia’s top investor by far.
Honoured to be received today in Atlanta by the Governor of Georgia Brian Kemp @GovKemp. Many thanks for his readiness to support business opportunities between #Georgia and #Slovakia. pic.twitter.com/gzF7a8WGHF
— Ivan Korcok (@IvanKorcok) February 27, 2020
Mr. Kemp, who visited Germany in January, took time in Stuttgart to visit the plant making Porsche’s high-end electric Taycan sports car. The governor also announced from Germany the first Korean supplier for a $1.7 billion battery in Jackson County by SK Innovation, which also has a plant in Hungary, bordering Slovakia to the South.
Near the Slovak capital of Bratislava, local battery developer InoBat is working with the U.S. firm Wildcat Discovery Technologies on a $111 million first-stage battery plant that will focus on customizing production to the needs of auto makers, Mr. Korčok said.
The most valuable aspect of that project, the ambassador added, is the research-and-development component. Slovakia is facing a tech-industry shortfall of 11,000 workers, a major threat in a competitive region of Europe where the key attraction for investors from the U.S. and beyond is a skilled workforce.
“You have many investors in Slovakia doing great business serving their clients globally from Slovakia. It is AT&T, it is Dell, it is IBM, and they are signaling to us that there is a shortage of skilled labor force, but they want to stay,” he said.
The ambassador would like to explore the possibility for faculty exchanges with Georgia universities or trade missions that would expose Slovak innovators to the local ecosystem.
“We are behind the curve, basically, because at the moment when you prepare a student, the technological progress in the market is so fast they already have difficulties to find workers,” he said.
It’s even becoming a political challenge for the country, as leaders are criticized for bringing in jobs that are then filled by immigrants.
Slovakia is set to host a contentious general election Feb. 29, where upstart parties have emerged to challenge the embattled Smer party. This week brought the second anniversary of a contract killing of journalists investigating corruption; the deaths have led to political fallout and set the stage for change.
For his part, Mr. Korvok stressed that the rule of law is a non-negotiable for his country, both for its own sake but also because it’s so important to business confidence.
“We need to explain to our people that rule of law and an independent judiciary, which is part of it — this is not a theoretical concept,” he said. “This is not something that politicians want just because it’s nice and modern. This is a question of prosperity.”
Trade Tensions, Defense Ties
The visit comes as Slovakia has steadily invested in its ties with the U.S., most recently through the purchase of 14 of the latest-generation F-16 fighter jets as part of a modernization that would replace Soviet-made planes.
The ambassador said the move was controversial given the 1.6 billion cost — which amounts to about three times its national defense budget. (Looking out the window from the chamber conference room downtown he was flabbergasted that Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium had cost about the same amount.)
“It’s two of our annual military budgets that we are spending in order to fund jobs here in Wilmington [N.C.] You can imagine it’s a subject of a controversy.”
But Mr. Korčok believes that the Trump administration has provided a wake-up call to Europe about the need to carry its weight in the indispensable North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“It was a very clear and tough way President Trump was insisting on us spending more, and I think he successfully has convinced Europeans to deliver on that,” Mr. Korčok said, pointing to planned expenditures in the coming years.
Specifically, Mr. Trump has been critical of NATO members’ failure to spend an agreed-upon 2 percent of their GDP on defense, a threshold Mr. Korčok said his nation would hit by 2024.
The chief negotiator of Slovakia’s accession to NATO, the ambassador agreed with the principle that Europe should do more for its own defense, a rallying cry by leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron in light of recent disagreements with the U.S. But Mr. Korčok said a more active European security posture shouldn’t affect defense ties with the U.S.
“It is reality as well that the European Union has to be able to do more when it comes to its foreign policy outreach or projection, and you cannot do that without having military capability. Nevertheless, Slovakia’s position is very clear: It must not be at the expense of transatlantic bond and NATO,” he said.
Mr. Korčok said his country is eyeing a normalized relationship with Russia, but that its incursion into a part of eastern Ukraine that lies just a few hundred kilometers from Slovakia’s eastern border remains a “clear breach of law, aggression against an independent country.”
To get on the same page on this and other issues like the Iran nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA, the U.S. and Europe need a deeper commitment to clear, strategic communication.
“Only by that can we get closer and step by step have a common vision of what’s going on in the world. I believe this is the minimum — which costs us nothing, by the way.”
On trade as well, Mr. Korčok said he would prefer the U.S. to have picked a less confrontational approach with Europe, using greater transatlantic collaboration as leverage to push other actors in the global economy to behave better. Tariffs among friends, he said, aren’t the way to go.
“Instead, we should stick together and face challenges elsewhere in the world,” he said.
Mr. Korčok hopes this visit will be the start of a long-term relationship with Georgia and the South.
The ambassador, who has been in his post since 2018, said he realized a “void” in the country’s outreach in the South after the economic official at the embassy returned from a European Union trade councilors conclave in Atlanta last year.
After his visit, Mr. Korčok is coming away so impressed he said Slovakia would consider putting an honorary consul in the city and ramping up cultural programming that will help introduce his country in a way a government official never could.
“If you let somebody perform here in a theater, you are creating emotions, and people remember those emotions. My experience is that culture nowadays is an economic factor.”
If nothing else, he promised to return in 2026 should Atlanta win its bid to host one of that year’s World Cup matches.
Before he left the Metro Atlanta Chamber for Washington, Vice President of Global Commerce John Woodward gave Mr. Korčok an Atlanta Falcons scarf for one of his sons who loves American football in general and the Atlanta team in particular.