A report on Slovakia released by the European Comission (EC) on October 13 gave a giant boost to the country's aim of being one of the first central and eastern European nations to join the European Union.
The EC recommended that all 15 EU member countries invite Slovakia to open entry negotiation talks, the first time in Slovakia's history that such a strong endorsement has come from a European Union executive body.
"I want to thank the Slovak government for the democratic developments since last year's parliamentary election," said Walter Rochel, the head of the EC Delegation to Slovakia, at a press conference on October 14. According to Rochel, Slovakia now fully complies with the 'Copenhagen criteria' - the crucial political requirements for EU membership.
In terms of economy, Rochel said that Slovakia was "close" to having a market economy, and would soon be able to compete on the EU internal market.
But Rochel had words of criticism for the slow progress the Slovak government had made in implementing the 'Acquis Communitaire' - a massive list of EU economic, legislative and administrative rules that member countries must follow. "We can see some progress in [import] certificates and the social benefits system. But Slovakia has to focus more on environment and civil law," Rochel said.
Slovak officials accepted the EC judgement with barely-concealed delight. "It's a good report about Slovakia and a good report for Slovakia," said Deputy Foreign Minister Ján Figeľ in an interview with The Slovak Spectator on October 13. "It means success because this government did what [former Prime Minister] Mečiar's cabinet wasn't able to do. It's a challenge in that the EC report showed us the areas in which we have to work harder. And it's an opportunity, because now we know what we have to do, if we want to join the family of European nations," Figeľ said.
The question now on everyone's minds is whether the EC report will translate into a decision at the EU summit in Helsinki to invite Slovakia to begin accession negotiations.
The EC is the top executive body of the European Union, and performs a role similar to that of a national government in dealing with the day-to-day agenda of the union. But its proposals for fundamental changes in EU policy - such as enlargement of the union - have to be approved by the elected heads of all EU states. Thus, the EC's recommendation that Slovakia be admitted to entry talks has to be approved by the heads of all 15 EU member states at the upcoming December Helsinki Summit.
According to Rochel, if Slovakia gets a unanimous thumbs-up in December, negotiation talks between the EC and Slovakia could be opened in February or March next year.
However, several thorny issues between Slovakia and EU member countries - principally the status of Slovak Roma and the closure of the Bohunice nuclear power plant - could result in one or more vetos being used against Slovakia in Helsinki.
Rochel himself comes from Austria, whose officials have already said that they won't support the opening of negotiation talks with Slovakia until Slovakia shuts down two Soviet-made reactors at Bohunice before 2002. The Slovak government has so far defied the wishes of its neighbour, vowing not to close the aging plant completely until 2008.
Rochel, as an EC representative, was obviously not allowed to push his views as an Austrian. In responding to questions at the news conference he insisted on reading the text of the EC report, which officially welcomes the Slovak decision to shut down the Bohunice reactors in stages from 2006-2008.
The Roma issue may not prove such a problem at Helsinki. Rochel was careful to stress that Roma minority issues were problematic across the entire central European region. "We recognise this problem, but we also clearly say it won't block the EU enlargement process," he said.
Responding to a question from The Slovak Spectator on the concrete improvements on Roma issues the EC would like to see in Slovakia, Rochel said that Commissin would pay close attention to the solving of the issue, and would provide Slovakia with PHARE funds to fight Roma problems.
Ivo Samson, a political analyst with the SFPA foreign policy thinktank, said that the EU's original plan for accession - dividing would-be members between a front-runner group of six countries and another pack of six nations which would lag behind - has now been scrapped.
The EU invited the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Cyprus and Estonia to begin entry talks in 1997. Slovakia, Bulgaria, Rumania, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta were told they would have to wait until the EU judged they were ready to begin accession talks.
Samson said he expected the union to open the door at Helsinki to all six countries which have not yet been invited to begin EU membership negotiations, abolishing the division between front-runners and laggards. Each country would then be admitted to the EU when it was judged to have fulfilled the criteria set - an admission policy known as "individual track."
Figel said that while entry negotiations with the six new countries might indeed begin at different times, he expected Slovakia to be among the first of the latecomer countries to take a seat at the EU negotiation table. "The Slovak government wishes to be very close to the EU or even inside it during the mandate of current European Comission Chairman Romano Prodi. And that lasts until 2005," Figeľ said.