Slovak officials dedicated to bringing the country into the European Union (EU) fold last week presented a report on their country's accomplishments towards EU membership that, they said, made Slovakia a strong candidate for joining the alliance in 2004.
"We are optimistic about Slovakia's entry to the EU. We want to be in the first group of countries and are doing our best to achieve this goal," Deputy Prime Minister for Integration Pavol Hamžík told The Slovak Spectator on July 4. "We think 2004 is an optimistic but still a very realistic year for Slovakia to become an EU member."
But integration observers further removed from the process said that Slovakia had done the easy work first, and that many difficult areas of negotiation with the EU - such as environmental law and agricultural policy - lay ahead. Furthermore, intangibles such as political change or the speed with which parliament passed the necessary laws could lead to many unforseen hitches along the way.
"The most difficult tasks lie ahead of us," said Vladimír Bilčík, a research fellow at the independent Slovak Foreign Policy Association. "We still have, among others, energy, monetary union, and of course the traditionally most complicated subjects of environment and agriculture."
At last week's EU summit in the Spanish town Feira, the 'second wave' countries aspiring for EU membership [Malta, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria] were given confirmation that the union would evaluate each country's accession credentials individually, thus enabling countries which had not begun EU talks under the 'first wave' of invitations [extended in 1998 to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus] to catch up to the front-runners.
So far, Slovakia has 'closed' six out of the 30 total chapters in the acquis communautaire, an 80,000 page book of laws that candidate countries must obey in order to qualify for admission. The completed chapters are education, small and medium-sized businesses, scientific research, defence policy, foreign relations and statistics.
Officials claim that if the country keeps up this pace, Slovakia may evantually catch up to neighbouring Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, despite the fact it was not officially invited to begin negotiations until December 1999.
To this end, cabinet has agreed to open 15 chapters by the end of 2000 and the remaining nine by December 2001. "I think that by the end of 2000 Slovakia can achieve the current status of law approximation of those countries which started negotiations two years ago," said Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan.
Analysts and international institutions have praised the pace of reforms started by the current regime, which had to repair bridges with the EU that were burned under the previous authoritarian government led by Vladimír Mečiar.
"Banking sector problems are being addressed, privatisation of strategic companies is underway and the authorities are following responsible fiscal monetary policies. Keeping this going is vital," read a study published by the Dutch bank ING Barings in March under the title EU Enlargement and Convergence.
However, the ING Barings study estimated that Slovakia stood little chances of being admitted before 2005 at the earliest.
"The year 2004 is less realistic simply because administratively it will not be possible to finish all tasks by January 1, 2004," said Ján Tóth, senior analyst with ING Barings in Bratislava. "The state administration [bureaucracy] does not have sufficient capacity, and the staff working on integration projects is, mildly put, unproductive," he added.
Hamžík himself confirmed that EU working groups at individual ministries were understaffed, and that ministries had a hard time attracting competent specialists to speed up integration projects because they could not afford to pay them a competitive salary. "We have had problems at the Environment Ministry, where projects have been stagnating, but also at other ministries," he said. "We very much realise the necessity of better financial rewards for qualified people."
The tardiness of parliament in passing the necessary laws once they are prepared by bureaucrats has also been faulted. Twelve more laws remain to be passed by the legislature before November 2000 if Slovakia is to meet the annual legislative targets it has agreed with Brussels - a tall task given that parliament will be in recess until September.
"Parliament is behind the plan, and the delays are caused both by MPs and by poor human resources - a lack of qualified people at the ministries," said Bilčík.
However, according to observers, a lack of qualified and motivated civil servants was only one threat to Slovakia's joining the EU in the near future.
"Politics remain a key threat to Slovakia's entry," stated ING Barings' Tóth. "Mečiar is still head of the most popular party [Movement for Democratic Slovakia - HZDS] in Slovakia, and if he were to return to power, perhaps after the 2002 elections, this could cause significant problems."
But although political analysts agree that Mečiar's return to power would dramatically complicate Slovakia's integration efforts and might even mean an end to the country's aspirations, they say that this scenario is not realistic.
"I don't think Mečiar will ever see himself back in government," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, political scientist and president of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs. "At the moment there is no significant political party which would agree to form a government with him."