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ERIC VAN DER LINDEN SAYS ROOTS OF SLOVAK-HUNGARIAN CONFLICT WILL "FADE AWAY" AFTER EU ENTRY

EC delegation head: Status Law "not helpful"

THE NEW head of the European Commission delegation to Slovakia, Eric van der Linden, says his personal style is to be "direct". If he has any message to the Slovak government six months before parliamentary elections, it is "to get on with the job and make sure it is finished within the timeframe set in the road map for the accession process."
Coming to Slovakia from his last posting as head of the EC delegation to Slovenia, the Dutch-born van der Linden, 54, is a career diplomat with experience of some of the toughest briefs in the European Union docket (Turkey, Cyprus). He says he fully expects Slovakia to make the cut for 2004 entry to the EU, and intends to take his pro-accession message to the Slovak countryside later this summer.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to van der Linden on March 28.


ERIC van der Linden
photo: TASR

THE NEW head of the European Commission delegation to Slovakia, Eric van der Linden, says his personal style is to be "direct". If he has any message to the Slovak government six months before parliamentary elections, it is "to get on with the job and make sure it is finished within the timeframe set in the road map for the accession process."

Coming to Slovakia from his last posting as head of the EC delegation to Slovenia, the Dutch-born van der Linden, 54, is a career diplomat with experience of some of the toughest briefs in the European Union docket (Turkey, Cyprus). He says he fully expects Slovakia to make the cut for 2004 entry to the EU, and intends to take his pro-accession message to the Slovak countryside later this summer.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to van der Linden on March 28.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Slovakia is doing well in its EU entry negotiations, having completed legislative requirements in 23 out of 29 set areas. Do you see any sources of concern, or is it all plain sailing?

Eric van der Linden (EVDL): There are concerns that we have regarding all candidate countries, such as administrative capacity. It's one thing to adopt legislation, but there's also implementation and enforcement.

TSS: With 42 EU-related laws to be passed by the Slovak parliament before the summer recess, do you expect problems with 'administrative capacity' to deepen?

EVDL: Here we touch on a responsibility shared by the government and the parliament. The government has to make sure the laws reach the parliament on time. I met Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš yesterday [March 27], and he said he would do his best to ensure there was a willingness to be pro-active on this, and that parliamentarians, apart from their understandable concerns linked to September elections, would continue to give priority to EU-acquis related laws. I think that everyone is on the same wavelength on this. Mr Migaš was envisaging lengthening the working day in parliament, and if necessary inserting extraordinary sessions of parliament.

The point is that on October 16 this year, a month earlier than last year, the European Commission will adopt its regular report [on Slovakia]. The input for this report from the government and from this delegation will have to be in Brussels in mid-June. The authorities can still transmit extra information to my headquarters until September 15 at the latest. I don't expect a hell of a lot to be done in September, but I do hope a hell of a lot will be done in May, June and even July.

TSS: The terrorist attacks of September 11 last year helped to accelerate Nato expansion. Have they had a similar impact on EU enlargement?

EVDL: Security concerns have obviously become much more important, but as far as enlargement is concerned, Nato and the EU are two different processes.

The EU has a road-map which has been accepted at the highest level by the European Council. We are now tackling a number of complicated chapters - complicated because they touch the wallet, in the sense that agriculture and regional structural funds together make up about 80 per cent of the EU's budget. It is sensitive for EU countries, where the economy could be better, and also for the candidate countries, who obviously would like to be treated on the same footing as existing member states.

TSS: While Nato and EU expansion may be different processes the two groups have some of the same concerns, such as organised crime and illegal migration in south-central Europe. In this respect has September 11 given added momentum to enlargement?

EVDL: There is still strong support among most of the political parties in EU member states to proceed with enlargement. Certain population groups may not be in favour, and have traditional and in my view totally unfounded fears that wages will go down and jobs will suffer. Perhaps EU member states and the Commission have to do more to explain to the population what enlargement is about. I don't think this has been done sufficiently.

TSS: Nato officials have been outspoken in singling out the HZDS and Vladimír Mečiar as barriers to Alliance entry. Does the European Commission share Nato's concerns about the HZDS and Mečiar? Could Mečiar be a barrier for Slovakia's EU entry?

EVDL: The member states and the Commission share the basic wish that a democratic government follows September elections. We think the higher the voter turnout, the higher the probability that this will materialise. Efforts have to be made, and the member states and the commission do this by supporting NGOs to explain what is at stake. I can only say that in this country the percentage of the population in favour of EU accession is 65 per cent. This is among the highest of the candidate countries. Given that figure, it is my opinion that voters should vote accordingly in September.

TSS: If the HZDS were to form the next government, would that make it more difficult for Slovakia to join the EU on schedule?

EVDL: Perhaps it would not facilitate matters, but I think at this stage it is too early to go into political speculation. We first have to work hard in the way that I mentioned in getting as high a voter turnout as possible, and then we'll see what the outcome of elections is. There is also obviously a key role for the president of the republic [in deciding which party to award the mandate to form a government - ed. note].

TSS: Why is the EU so much less direct than Nato when it comes to Mečiar and the HZDS?

EVDL: We don't make direct judgements on parties and personalities. We look globally at candidate countries to see if democratic principles are respected or not. We obviously also have our own opinion on recent contemporary [Slovak] history.

TSS: How much money does the Commission have to spend on NGOs in getting out the Slovak vote?

EVDL: We have just over 100,000 euros for this, and then we have our information centres in various places in the country. We will all go on a tour, and I will go into debates with people. I will certainly not make complicated, academic, lengthy speeches but I would like to consider a few key points, solicit reactions from the public and try to get into a debate. I've done this before when I was posted elsewhere.

TSS: What would those 'few key points' in your message be?

EVDL: I would first ask the question, "What's in the EU for you? What's of interest to you?" I would come up with a few points that in my opinion indicate it would be better for the economy and the people of Slovakia to join the EU. For example, given the disparity in revenue between its regions, this country would have access to significant funds. Provided the appropriate institutions exist and operate, these funds could be large enough to improve the economic situation and to improve the attractiveness of the central and eastern Slovak regions for investors, hence creating more jobs and raising living standards.

TSS: Do you think the people you will be talking to on this tour of Slovakia yet have a clear idea of what will happen to the country once it joins the EU?

EVDL: We try, and so does the Slovak government, to explain what the impact will be. But in all honesty, we are not going hand-in-hand singing into paradise. There are advantages and drawbacks. Some prices may rise, but on the other hand this may allow Slovak industry to become more competitive.

TSS: Will Slovaks be equal citizens when they join the EU, or will they face delays in the full freedom of movement?

EVDL: After a short while people will definitely be able to travel and work elsewhere. But the enlargement process obviously also has to take into account the concerns of citizens in member states, even if these are psychological rather than having an economic impact. At the end of the day we need their support also. It's a process of compromise, but that's life in the EU.

TSS: The EC always takes an optimistic view of things, while more and more Slovaks think the Dzurinda government has been a disastrous one. Many people criticise the government because of what they see as broken promises and bad faith. Take the ombudsman election for example, where a coalition deal was broken in a secret parliamentary vote to allow an opposition candidate to win...

EVDL: To be honest I don't think you can blame that on the government and certainly not on the prime minister. An ombudsman has been elected, and if perhaps the outcome is not exactly what was expected, now the decision has been taken, let's see what the outcome will be. Let's judge the man on his works rather than on his past.

TSS: The EU has recently been cast in the role of a parent trying to separate two squabbling children, Slovakia and Hungary, and to sort out who started the fight over the world war two Beneš Decrees and the Status Law passed last year by Budapest. Which country is more at fault for worsening relations?

EVDL: If you go back to the past you must be dead careful you don't end up in the nineteenth century, when borders were entirely different. The Commission considers that dialogue between the two countries is the only reasonable way to solve this issue.

TSS: Will Hungary be allowed to keep its Status Law for Hungarians living abroad after EU enlargement?

EVDL: As long as the law obeys the community acquis and does not entail discriminatory aspects, it can be kept.

TSS: The law is in force now. Does it contain discriminatory aspects?

EVDL: In this respect I can only repeat that as far as its application outside Hungarian territory is concerned, we share the concerns of the Venice Committee, and that among the parties concerned a solution should be found by looking at how to minimise the impact in neighbouring countries.

TSS: Does that mean it's discriminatory or not?

EVDL: I can't pinpoint this or another particular aspect as necessarily discriminatory. It depends on the way it is done, and on the territory where it applies.

TSS: So, based on the way it is being done and where it is being applied, is it discriminatory?

EVDL: Perhaps the Status Law is not helpful in boosting good relations between neighbouring countries, in particular two future members of the European Union.

But in any case, on membership in the EU the internal borders disappear, and a lot of what led to this law also fades away.

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