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EC report both carrot and stick for Slovakia

Slovak government ministers have expressed cautious pleasure with the findings of the European Commission's annual report on EU candidate countries. Following the release of the document November 8, the officials said that despite shortcomings fingered by the EC, Slovakia stood a strong chance of catching up to its neighbours in the admission process to the European Union.
While the report noted that advances had been made in some branches - most notably in Slovakia's economy - the commission was heavily critical of faults in three key areas: the judicial system, public administration reform and minority policy, especially affecting the Roma.

Slovak government ministers have expressed cautious pleasure with the findings of the European Commission's annual report on EU candidate countries. Following the release of the document November 8, the officials said that despite shortcomings fingered by the EC, Slovakia stood a strong chance of catching up to its neighbours in the admission process to the European Union.

While the report noted that advances had been made in some branches - most notably in Slovakia's economy - the commission was heavily critical of faults in three key areas: the judicial system, public administration reform and minority policy, especially affecting the Roma. It also warned that the planned budget deficit for 2001 of 37 billion crowns - 3.8% of GDP - would be very hard to keep.

Senior government figures have admitted that at a time when the government is entering a "critical" stage in its move towards EU member status, disagreement within the coalition is stalling what the EC has identified as impressive accession progress.

"The report was fair and constructive, but what will be really important is the report one year from now. That will show us exactly what progress we are making," Deputy Prime Minister for Integration Pavol Hamžík told The Slovak Spectator November 13. "A further decentralisation of public administration and the adoption of constitutional amendments are a priority for the government, but we have to see real progress. The implementation of this new legislation will be vitally important [to EU accession]."

After the release of the EC report, Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda called for greater cooperation between coalition politicians in moving forward with reforms, adding that the nation's interests should be placed above party politics. "The report is a challenge for politicians to stop politicking. Such reforms as [amendments to] the constitution, public administration reform, and approval of the state budget for 2001 should not be a means for pursuing narrow party, or even personal, interests," he said.

"For those coalition members who for two years have not had any major concerns other than to destroy the SDK [the Slovak Democratic Coalition, the Prime Minister's own party], I implore them to look for more cohesion, because [without this] we may lose our chance of entering the EU," he added.

Sticking points

The most serious coalition divisions have arisen between the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) and the reformed communist Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ). The Hungarians are insisting that land nationalised under the communists but later not claimed by its former owners be handed over to the control of municipalities. But although this land transfer was included in the government's official 1998 programme declaration, the SDĽ has since refused to honour the promise, leading the Hungarians to retaliate by dragging their feet on public administration reform, and threatening not to support constitutional reform.

Even where disunity does not reign, the government has been knocked for lack of progress. The EC and many other independent western organisations have been critical of the continuing lack of transparency in the Slovak judicial system, while Deputy Prime Minister for Human Rights Pál Csáky said recently that the EC had been right to scold the government's dismal performance in solving problems with Slovakia's 500,000-strong Romany community.

However, the government said after the release of the report that it was planning to put its nose to the grindstone to assure that progress would be made on all issues.

"Getting a consensus [on public administration and judicial reform] is not going to be a smooth process," said Deputy Foreign Minister Ján Figeľ, Slovakia's chief negotiator with the EU. He told The Slovak Spectator that while coalition consensus on judicial reform was likely to be reached easily, public administration reform would prove more difficult, but eventually would also end in success.

"All [coalition] parties have to realise that compromises must be made, for the good of individual parties and also for the good of Slovakia itself," said Figeľ. "These [reforms] will need a large degree of political goodwill to get through. Parties have to realise that political goodwill is also political wisdom."

Both Hamžík and Figeľ explained that the government had implemented many new programmes for Romany integration at a social and educational level, and had expanded cooperation with Romany NGOs and political leaders. However, Hamžík said that much work remained, and that while the EU could help to a certain extent, the coalition "must bear the responsibility of dealing with this problem".

"The Roma have to try to help themselves, but we must accept that the solution to this problem lies with the government. We have to put more money into this area next year," said Hamžík, adding that the finances for more integration projects and closer cooperation with Romany groups and communities would come largely from the government budget, with the EU providing partial funding for projects.

Analysts, meanwhile, said that the report had highlighted the effect the coalition's failures to reach consensus on many issues was having on closing EU accession 'chapters'. EU admission is contingent on the fulfilment of a 80,000-page document called the acquis communautaire, which contains 29 'chapters' setting out legislative requirements for different areas such as environment, economy and so on.

"The EC was right to identify these three key issues," said Vladimír Bilčík of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA). "Two crucial laws on public administration reform and constitutional amendments have not been passed. These are vital and it is questionable that the government can reach agreement on these."

Bilčík added that the passage of laws in other areas such as the environment might also prove difficult, and that Slovakia's government coalition would clearly have to learn to work more closely if it was to have a hope of getting into the EU. "The efforts of all the ministries need to be concerted," he said. "The EU laws involve every ministry and it is also the job of Deputy Prime Minister Hamžík to put pressure on all these ministries to do their jobs and pass these laws."

Hamžík conceded the point, but said he sometimes felt "schizophrenic" in his job, understanding as he did both the needs of the government and the concerns of individual coalition parties.

Catching up

The report came just as Slovakia closed its tenth chapter on EU accession, confirming the progress that many of the country's top politicians, as well as Guenter Verheugen, EC Commissioner for Enlargement, claimed had been made. Poland, widely considered one of the front-runners for accession, has so far closed only 11 chapters despite beginning negotiations 18 months ahead of Slovakia.

Of the 12 countries in accession negotiations the 'first wave' group of nations, including Slovakia's neighbours Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, are likely to join at the same time in either 2004 or 2005, depending on the speed of enlargement ratification by existing EU member states.

Hamžík has taken heart from encouraging comments made by Commissioner Verheugen over the date of EU entry for Slovakia and its central European neighbours. According to the commissioner, Slovakia, which is now in the 'second wave' group of candidate states, could still close accession negotiations by the end of 2002 and join along with its neighbours two years later - something Deputy Foreign Minister Figeľ was cautiously optimistic about.

"I think we can catch up with our neighbours and join in 2002, but it will be hard," he said. "It's feasible, but it's going to take a lot of work."

Hamžík added: "We're trying our best to catch up. There are no problems that we can foresee with particular accession chapters that our neighbours wouldn't have as well. But the next six months will be critical for us. We have to push forward."

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