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IN THEIR FIRST MEETING, SLOVAK AND CZECH LEADERS FIND COMMON GROUND AGAINST EU

Fico and Topolánek agree: Schengen must not be postponed

DURING THEIR first official meeting, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and Czech leader Mirek Topolánek found common ground in opposing a planned delay by the European Union of the date on which their countries will join the EU's border-free travel area, the Schengen Zone.

DURING THEIR first official meeting, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and Czech leader Mirek Topolánek found common ground in opposing a planned delay by the European Union of the date on which their countries will join the EU's border-free travel area, the Schengen Zone.

Fico and Topolánek agreed in Bratislava on September 14 to insist that the EU stick to the original deadline of October 1, 2007.

"No reason exists for this deadline to be postponed," Fico said at a joint press conference. "We don't see any reason, we're either equal members of the European Union or we're not."

"We will strongly object to any delay. The problem is not on our side," said Topolánek.

Their statements echoed criticism of the EU decision throughout the 10 countries that joined the EU in May 2004. The passport-free travel zone, currently in place in Western Europe, will now only be extended to the newcomers in early 2009, 18 months later than originally scheduled.

Slovak Foreign Minister Ján Kubiš, speaking on September 13, said he would be taking the matter up with his Central European counterparts at the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York.

Representatives of the EU's interior ministries, meeting in Brussels on September 7, pushed back the expansion timetable because the EU is not ready to integrate national systems with its central information system. Diplomats said technical problems had occurred in setting up an EU office in Strasbourg to operate new security and surveillance technology.

The changed date still has to be approved by the European Commission and the EU's Justice and Interior Affairs Council - a process which could last until the end of the year.

Schengen accession is seen as a key goal in the "new EU" states, as it would ease international transport and confirm their status as full members. Until they join, they must keep in place security checks at all their borders, including those with the older EU nations, until their reforms to meet EU norms are approved.

The Schengen zone was established by treaty in 1985. It currently unites 15 member states: Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden.


Maastricht worries


Fico and Topolánek also found fault with another EU integration criterion - the Maastricht economic criteria that countries are required to meet before they can adopt the euro.

The national leaders said the criteria are unjust towards new EU member countries, whose economies are growing so fast that they find it difficult to meet the low inflation requirement.

"I regard the Maastricht criteria as inappropriate for new member countries," said Fico, although he repeated the intentions of the Slovak government of adopting the euro on schedule on January 1, 2009.

The men also expressed common support for the decision of the European Commission to invite Bulgaria and Romania to join the EU by January 1, 2007.

Fico, a socialist, said the fact that the right-wing Topolánek had picked Slovakia as the destination of his first official visit since being confirmed as PM on September 4 showed that the two countries, former federal partners in the old Czechoslovakia, still enjoyed an unusually close relationship.

"I believe we will preserve this tradition no matter who becomes Czech prime minister," he said.

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