Fico flexes anti-EU muscles as campaign approaches

ROBERT Fico, a popular politician regarded as a possible king-maker after September elections, has said that were he to form part of the new government in the fall, he might toughen Slovakia's stance towards entry negotiations with the European Union.
"If we [Fico's non-parliamentary Smer party] get into the government after elections and if it's up to me, Mr [EU Commissioner for Enlargement Günter] Verheugen will be meeting with a politician of a different sort than [Prime Minister Mikuláš] Dzurinda. Any government with Smer in it will be fundamentally stronger and will defend Slovak national interests," he said during an April 29 visit to Brussels.
Slovakia opened entry talks with the EU in early 2000, and now has completed requirements in 24 of 29 dossiers the Union prescribes for applicants.

ROBERT Fico, a popular politician regarded as a possible king-maker after September elections, has said that were he to form part of the new government in the fall, he might toughen Slovakia's stance towards entry negotiations with the European Union.

"If we [Fico's non-parliamentary Smer party] get into the government after elections and if it's up to me, Mr [EU Commissioner for Enlargement Günter] Verheugen will be meeting with a politician of a different sort than [Prime Minister Mikuláš] Dzurinda. Any government with Smer in it will be fundamentally stronger and will defend Slovak national interests," he said during an April 29 visit to Brussels.

Slovakia opened entry talks with the EU in early 2000, and now has completed requirements in 24 of 29 dossiers the Union prescribes for applicants.

With the parliament likely to meet a summer deadline to have the remaining legislation approved, Slovakia appears on track to formally sign an EU entry treaty in early 2003 prior to full membership on January 1, 2004.

Fico, however, repeated his tough EU stance in an April 30 televised debate with Dzurinda and opposition HZDS party vice-chair Vojtech Tkáč, and added he found it "difficult to imagine" working with Dzurinda in a future government, since the Dzurinda cabinet had been guilty of "economic treason" since coming to power in 1998.

Political observers said that while the official election campaign is still several months away, Fico's Smer appeared to have launched its appeal to voters through widespread billboard advertising and sharpened political statements. They added that Fico's behaviour following elections was likely to be more moderate than he now suggested.

"These muscular statements are just attempts to win voters," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the IVO think tank. "He has several times said such things in the past about the EU and its policy towards Slovakia, and he has never been a 'euro-optimist'. But I think you'll see that if he becomes a member of the next government he too will try to make all possible speed in entry negotiations.

"That said, I think the European Union may be displeased by Fico's statements, by his promise to create problems during entry negotiations. Such words just show how much of a populist politician he is," said Mesežnikov.

Dzurinda was also critical of Fico, accusing the 37-year-old lawyer of "weaving between the ruling coalition and the HZDS."

Smer, running at between 16 and 18 per cent in the polls, is a strong second behind the HZDS of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. While the HZDS is widely expected to win elections, western diplomats have raised objections to a cabinet containing Mečiar, and it is now thought unlikely that the HZDS leader will be able to form a government following the vote.

Mesežnikov said that because of the likely strong election showing by the HZDS, Fico would probably be forced to work with Dzurinda and other politicians he now criticised in order to form a government acceptable to the West.

The Smer leader's statements last week contrasted with more moderate comments he made for Reuters that Smer would not join Mečiar in government or act in any way that might threaten membership in the EU and Nato.

"After the elections... we will ask Nato and the EU for the last time, what is [their] standpoint. If it will endanger Slovakia's ambitions, then Smer must seek other solutions, because we want to join both Nato and the EU, and we will not do anything which could endanger that," he said.

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