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EU-SPONSORED DEBATE IN BRATISLAVA PROBES EXPECTATIONS OF MEMBERSHIP

Slovaks want equality in Europe

SLOVAKS want to live in a Europe that has a clean environment, that supports its young families and seniors, and that treats migrants fairly.
This was the outcome of a series of debates on key issues affecting the EU among randomly selected Slovak citizens at the Barónka hotel in Bratislava from February 24-25.

SLOVAKS want to live in a Europe that has a clean environment, that supports its young families and seniors, and that treats migrants fairly.

This was the outcome of a series of debates on key issues affecting the EU among randomly selected Slovak citizens at the Barónka hotel in Bratislava from February 24-25.

The debates were part of the European Citizens' Consultations, a Europe-wide project launched by the European Commission to get citizens more involved in governing the sprawling union. The meetings, which in this country were organized by an NGO called the Partners for Democratic Change Slovakia, will have taken place in each of the EU's 27 member countries by the end of March.

The debates concern three topics: Energy and Environment, Family and Social Affairs, and Migration and the Global Role of Europe Within this Area. The themes were chosen by 200 EU citizens (eight from each member state) at a Brussels meeting in October 2006, and aim to find a vision of Europe in 2020.

Forty-five Slovaks took part in the late February event representing both sexes and every Slovak region, age group, and social and income background.

While the Slovak groups framed different goals in each area, the call for social equality within Europe, and for social and economic differences to be erased between member countries, was part of each debate.

German Ambassador Jochen Trebesch, who was part of a VIP group attending the event, said that the expectations of Slovaks arose from the fact that their standard of living was still only about half the EU average, as measured by GDP per capita.

"There is an obvious difference connected with the gap in average income, which here is around €7,000 a year, while it is much higher in Germany," he said. "That gives people different attitudes towards the European Community, whether in terms of expectations or of needs. We [in Germany] have achieved many things in the past, and now we are working more on refined questions, whereas here there is great interest in social policy and structural funds to overcome the differences in development between the west and the east of the country."

The VIP group monitoring the event also included the ambassadors of four other EU countries, representatives of the embassies of Romania and Turkey, Slovak MEPs Monika Flašíková-Beňová (SMER) and Zita Pleštincová (SDKÚ), MP Ivan Štefanec (SDKÚ), and Slovakia's European Commissioner Ján Figeľ.

Asked why only two of Slovakia's nine MEPs had been present at the event, Flašíková-Beňová told The Slovak Spectator: "Maybe because the weather turned quite cold today". She added that MEPs should consider such events as part of their mandates, as the results of the debates are expected to be promoted in the European Parliament by the MEPs of each country.

The European Citizens' Consultation Project will end in May when a summary of all the discussions is submitted to the European Commission.

Asked whether he believed that the outcome of the debates would really have any impact on EU policy, the German ambassador said: "There are many shortcomings [in communication between Brussels and EU citizens], and no one has any illusions on this score. But Europe also has a history of success. This [past success] offers a model for the future in ensuring that European countries are better able to prosper in a far more competitive world."

Flašíková-Beňová said she believed that Europe needs to listen to its citizens: "The European Union sometimes makes decisions that should be preceded by a wider discussion," she said, mentioning the example of the EU Constitution, which was rejected by French and Dutch citizens in referenda in 2004.

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