THE EUROPEAN Union has said it expects the Hungarian government to reach an agreement with Bratislava before implementing a contentious new law for ethnic Hungarians living abroad.
Speaking in Brussels on January 9, European Commission (EC) spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori said the EC wants Hungary to reach an agreement with neighbouring states on the status law, giving the clearest indication yet of the Commission's stance on the legislation which has provoked massive political and social debate in Slovakia.
Welcoming a recent agreement between Romania and Hungary on the Hungarian Status Law, Filori insisted that talks on the same legislation move ahead with Slovakia.
"We have always said and say now: We expect and request that the law is implemented through co-ordination with Hungary's neighbours. We welcome the agreement between Romania and Budapest, but we expect and hope that an agreement will also be reached between Hungary and Slovakia. Such an agreement is required," said Filori.
The spokesman's statement came just a day before the far-right Real Slovak Nationalist Party (PSNS) called for the Slovak ambassador to Hungary to be recalled and the Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS) submitted a bill to parliament calling for the application of the law to be rejected.
It also came as Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's proposal to Budapest that the new law, which came into effect as of January 1, not apply in Slovakia, was rejected by the Hungarian government.
The Hungarian Status Law, which gives ethnic Hungarians living in Hungary's neighbouring countries certain rights, including benefit payments from Budapest for those sending their children to Hungarian schools and the right to seek work in Hungary, has divided the coalition cabinet.
While the ethnic Hungarian SMK party has defended the legislation and demanded an agreement between Slovakia and Hungary be reached by the end of this month, many other MPs have labelled the law discriminatory.
Dzurinda has said he cannot agree with the legislation and opposition parties the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS) have attacked the law as challenging Slovak sovereignty.
"This legislation is contrary to the sovereignty of Slovakia, friendly relations and respect for basic human rights and freedoms, because it discriminates against part of the population on an ethnic basis," said Peter Súľovský, deputy chairman of the SNS.
The SNS on January 11 submitted a bill to parliament rejecting the application of the law and banning the application and distribution of Hungarian status cards in Slovakia. The bill also asked for any financial support from Hungary be taxed at 90 per cent.
"This law has no place in a civilised Europe and belongs to the Middle Ages," SNS leader Anna Malíková said when the party's bill was submitted.
However, members of the SMK, part of the ruling five party coalition, say the reactions of some politicians, SNS MPs in particular, have shown a worrying nationalistic tendency.
Deputy Prime Minister for Minorities and Human Rights and member of the SMK, Pál Csáky, said: "I'm not a defender of this law, but what matters to me is that on the basis of an artificial theme, they are dividing Slovak society, completely needlessly delivering a very dangerous dialogue and artificially creating an anti-Hungarian feeling."
Béla Bugár, leader of the SMK and who, along with other members of his party, has applied for a status card, added: "It's an unnecessary creation of a storm in a non-existent cup."
But despite the SMK's defence of the new law Prime Minister Dzurinda has seized on the recent statement from Brussels and attacked Budapest for ignoring Slovak concerns about the legislation.
"Hungary has only inclined towards reaching an agreement on the law since the Venice Commission made clear its stance, which confirmed the legitimate objections of Slovakia," he said.
The Venice Commission, a Council of Europe body, last year said it agreed with Hungary that it can support its minorities abroad, but said the law contradicts the principle of non-discrimination embedded in the EU Agreement. However, the language of the commission's report has been interpreted in different ways in Budapest and Bratislava.
Both Hungary and Slovakia are in accession negotiations with the Union, hoping to be admitted in 2004.
Many of the estimated 500,000 ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia have already expressed an interest in obtaining the status cards entitling them to the privileges. The Hungarian embassy in Bratislava, which is responsible for issuing the cards, had reported significant interest in the status card even before the end of last year and the first information office on the status card opened in Dunajská Streda January 9, with a further 10 expected to be set up across the country. l.
Slovak and Hungarian negotiating teams have said they will continue discussions on the legislation. Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi told Hungarian media January 14 that while he was prepared to continue negotiations he hoped Slovakia would offer concrete proposals rather than strong objections.