Five countries want in CEFTA; Romania is first

JASNÁ - While there were five full-fledged member countries at the fourth annual conference of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) held September 13-14, an equal number of observers stood by, lobbying for their place at the table. That's because both CEFTA members and the observer countries view this loose trade organization of former East Bloc countries as a sort of proving ground to a bigger membership prize - the European Union (EU). "CEFTA is our chance to show that we are able to cooperate," said Jozef Šucha, spokesman for the Slovak Ministry of Economy, after the summit ended. "It is a sort of training ground for EU membership."

JASNÁ - While there were five full-fledged member countries at the fourth annual conference of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) held September 13-14, an equal number of observers stood by, lobbying for their place at the table.

That's because both CEFTA members and the observer countries view this loose trade organization of former East Bloc countries as a sort of proving ground to a bigger membership prize - the European Union (EU). "CEFTA is our chance to show that we are able to cooperate," said Jozef Šucha, spokesman for the Slovak Ministry of Economy, after the summit ended. "It is a sort of training ground for EU membership."

"CEFTA is a sort of training for European membership," parroted Ion Mihai Roshka, spokesman for Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Vacariu. "Romania wants to belong to CEFTA to prepare itself for EU membership.'' After Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, Romania is to become the sixth group member. Romania concluded bilateral discussions with Slovakia and the Czech Republic in Jasná; negotiations are in the final stages with Hungary, Poland and Slovenia.

Bilateral agreements with CEFTA members, an association agreement with the EU and membership in either the World Trade Organization on (WTO) or the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) are the fundamental conditions for CEFTA membership.

Former Soviet countries Ukraine and Lithuania both recently announced they were interested in membership, clearly hoping CEFTA will open the door to the EU.

"CEFTA is sort of a school for joining the European Union, not only for Ukraine, but for all [post-communist] countries,'' said Dmytro Pavlychko, Ukrainian ambassador to Slovakia. "Ukraine wants to be equal to the West. But that cannot happen without us becoming equal with our closest neighbors. For us, CEFTA means a road to Europe.''

For Lithuania, membership will be "historically and politically very important," said Vilius Kavaliauskas, spokesman for Lithuanian Prime Minister Mindaugas Stankevichius. "CEFTA membership is symbolic for Lithuania - we will become members of the same family.''

Bulgarian Prime Minister Zhan Videnov, whose country is expecting to become a WTO member in the next several weeks, hopes Bulgaria will follow Romania next year. "All the CEFTA members want to change from the planned economy of the Comecon type to European standards," Videnov said. "Within an organization of former communist countries, it will be easier to solve this riddle."

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