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Deputy PM Hamžík: Every year seems to be the hardest

The coming 12 months will be among the most important so far for Slovakia's European Union integration efforts. Twelve new chapters will be opened this year, and government representatives will have to work hard on controversial chapters to catch up with neighbours The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, all of which had a headstart of more than a year on Slovakia.
The Slovak Spectator spoke with Deputy Prime Minister for Integration Pavol Hamžík on January 2 to get his view on the integration process and what the country has to do this year on the path to EU membership.


Deputy Prime Minister Pavol Hamžík says that a number of difficult chapters on EU accession will be opened this year, includingone of the most controversial, Environment.
photo: Spectator Archives


"We've caught up with them [The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary] to the point that we have a chance to enter the EU together."

Deputy Prime Minister Pavol Hamžík


The coming 12 months will be among the most important so far for Slovakia's European Union integration efforts. Twelve new chapters will be opened this year, and government representatives will have to work hard on controversial chapters to catch up with neighbours The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, all of which had a headstart of more than a year on Slovakia.

The Slovak Spectator spoke with Deputy Prime Minister for Integration Pavol Hamžík on January 2 to get his view on the integration process and what the country has to do this year on the path to EU membership.


The Slovak Spectator (TSS): In what ways was last year successful concerning the entry of Slovakia into the EU?

Pavol Hamžík (PH): I think we achieved very distinct and significant progress, such as in meeting economic criteria and maintaining political criteria, and we have also moved further with legislation. Because this is a process which is in constant development, we face new tasks all the time.

Considering the tasks we set out to accomplish at the beginning of the year 2000, we have not succeded in moving ahead as we expected with public administration and constitutional reform. This failure was partially a result of factors that were outside the control of the coalition, such as the referendum [on early parliamentary elections - ed. note] and other problems, and partially a result of the coalition's inability to achieve a satisfactory agreement on state decentralisation, delegating competencies to, and strengthening, city councils.

There were also drawbacks in securing a sufficient number of people to fulfill the demanding tasks not only in the pre-accession process but also for entry to the EU itself, which is already at our door. In a couple of years we will be members, and we have to enter with a team of some one hundred well-prepared people.

Overall I would evaluate last year as a year of significant progress.


Hamžík remains confident Slovakia can be in the EU by 2004.
photo: TASR


TSS: Do you think that this coming year will be the most difficult and most signigicant so far for entering the EU?

PH: Every year you face what seems to be the toughest. We overcame the difficulties of the previous years [the years of the former government of Vladimír Mečiar 1994-1998] but in 1999 we created the basis for the Helsinki summit decision on starting negotiations and last year we made significant progress in those negotiations.

We fulfilled extremely difficult tasks with the purpose of putting Slovakia among the first candidate countries invited to enter the EU. This year, the result of our final evaluation will show whether we will be among these candidates.

Our starting-point is good. We have a chance and everything is in our hands. Further development of the political climate is certainly important, as well as the ability of the governing coalition to push forward the most important parts of its programme, dealing with further macro-economic stabilisation, creation of a stable legal and corporate environment, bank restructruring and a transparent conclusion to privatisation processes.


TSS: What are the most important legal measures to be adopted this year from the point of view of EU accession?

PH: The most important legal measures will be part of the Evaluation Report [the Slovak government's document which reacts to EU comments on different chapters and sets tasks necessary for EU accession - ed. note ] which will be approved by the government on January 10 and will contain 176 tasks, around 100 of which will be legislative. These 100 tasks will be in accordance with the government's legislative programme.

The most important legislative issue from my perspective is ammending the constitution and approving the version that was presented in its first parliamentary reading [the amendment is due for its third reading in parliament some time in January - ed. note]. It is necessary to approve the law on regional development and the law on the state service. It is also necessary to make significant headway in legislation on the environment.

Stabilising the legal framework is important, as well as efficient enforcement of the law, especially shortening the time taken for courts to make decisons.


TSS: The EU has urged the government several times to realise economically important, but politically sensitive reforms, in healthcare, social welfare, agriculture and education, but none of those reforms has started yet. How much does the absence of these reforms endanger Slovakia's accession to the EU?

PH: These reforms are certainly important because they change our legal system. These are tasks which cannot be accomplished in a few months, not just from one year to the next. It is necessary to complete the transformation process in these sectors, and to approximate them to standards typical in EU countries.

But at the moment our priority is to realise public sector and consitutional reform and cut expenses in the state sector. These are of considerable importance for entry into the EU.


TSS: Which chapters do you plan to open this year?

PH: They will be the more difficult chapters such as Environment, Agriculture, Unrestricted Movement of People and Goods. In total, we will open 12 chapters this year.


TSS: Which of those chapters will be the easiest and the most difficult?

PH: The most difficult will definitely be the one on the environment, which is difficult both financially and legislatively. It is difficult to find an easy chapter.


TSS: The chapter on the environment has been criticised by both the EU and NGOs. How justified do you think this criticism is?

PH: It's true that legislation is falling behind, and there is a lack of finance to solve problems surounding the environment issue.

There are still two difficult years ahead for solving these problems in which we'll try to get rid of the drawbacks that the EU mentioned a few months ago. Some tasks which the government will approve on the 10th of January in its Evaluation Report will also pertain to the Environment Ministry.


TSS: How important was gaining membership to the Organisation for Economcic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for Slovakia last year in connection with entering the EU?

PH: It was immensively important. It confirmed that we gradually standardised our economic performance, which enabled Slovakia to get into the OECD.


TSS: What is the mood in Brussels on EU enlargement for Slovakia?

PH: Basically the mood is positive. This was confirmed by a recent speech by EU commisioner Gunter Verheugen in which he said that Slovakia and Malta could be examples to other countries from the so-called Helsinki group. We have been catching up with those countries that have been negotiating their membership since the 1997 Luxembourg summit [e.g. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland - ed. note]. But generally speaking, this cannot satisfy us because the tasks we have to fulfill are extremely difficult.

Political development will play an important role in further progress. I suppose that the political climate will not change before the next parliamentary elections in 2002. But a lot will depend on these elections, not only regarding our membership in the EU, but also in NATO.


TSS: How much has Slovakia caught up with The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland?

PH: We've caught up with them to the point that we have a chance to enter the EU together. A decision about the next EU members will be made in the first half of 2002, so we do not have much time. The only chance for us is to unite and move as far as we can.


TSS: When do you expect Slovakia to enter the EU?

PH: There has been an effort made by several EU members to organise the 2004 European Parliament elections so as to include representatives of new member countries.

It means that the decision on who will enter the EU and when they will do so will have to be approved sometime in 2002. January 1, 2004 is the date set by the Slovak government for entering the EU, and I believe that some countries, including Slovakia, will enter the EU in that year.


TSS: A lot of Slovaks, especially young people, support Slovakia's membership into the EU because of its policy of free movement of labour, which would allow them to work almost anywhere inEurope. At the end of last year the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said that there would be a period of several years after admission in which free labour movement would not be possible for new members. How much could such a policy change the opinion of Slovaks on the EU?

PH: We have to take into consideration that there may be a five to seven year period without free labour movement for new member states. Slovakia needs this period. We don't want a massive brain drain and a sudden outflow of skilled labour after we join the EU. Those people have to contribute to the formulation of standard conditions typical for current EU members. They have to realise a responsibility to the country they grew up and were educated in.

I don't think that a period of five to seven years would be an obstacle for these people. Borders won't be closed, so whoever is able find a job abroad will still have a chance to do so. Today, there are opportunities to study abroad but it's necessary for people to return home.

We also cannot expect an exodus of labour after we join the EU. When poorer countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal entered the EU, a few people left, but other foreigners moved to those countries. The movement will be mutual, and is designed to be balanced.


TSS: President Schuster in his New Year's address said that one of few areas in which the coalition and oppositon acted in unison was EU accession. How much did this unity contribute to what Slovakia achieved in its EU accession plans last year and how important will it be for 2001?

PH: It is important mainly for the future. The opposition has been supporting our integration activities and goals. It is important to create an environment, mainly in parliament, in which important EU legislation is approved on time, and with the majority support of deputies.

It is important for this development to proceed also after the 2002 parliamentary elections, so if political change, which as an alternative that has to be considered, takes place, it won't stop or slow down the process.

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