SLOVAKS believe in the EU, but ask when.
In the Europe Barometer survey conducted by the Austrian financial house Bank Austria Creditanstalt and released June 19, 40 per cent of the over 1,000 Slovaks interviewed could not answer when they expected their country to join the Union, the highest total among nine countries in central and southern Europe vying for membership.
About 20 per cent said that Slovakia was likely to become an EU member between 2006 and 2009, and 19 per cent in 2010 and later. The Slovak government has set 2004 as the target date for entry in a membership wave the EU has said may include 10 countries.
The survey, which was carried out in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, reported the opinions of 1,000 individuals and 80 top business managers in each country.
Analysts said that the Slovak figures reflected the uncertainty of the country's citizens about entering the EU as planned in 2004, a development which is seen as depending on whether the upcoming parliamentary elections return former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar and his HZDS party to power.
Under Mečiar's rule, Slovakia was dropped from the first round of entry negotiations with the EU in 1997, because of what the Union regarded as anti-democratic behaviour by his government of nationalists and populists.
However, political opinion polls have ranked Mečiar's HZDS virtually throughout the 1990s as the most popular party in the country, now with between 28 and 30 per cent support of the population, over twice that of its nearest rival.
"The EU has warned several times that the return of Vladimír Mečiar and the HZDS to government could hamper Slovakia's gaining EU membership in 2004. People have noticed these warnings, and believe that such a scenario could take place after the elections," said Marek Jakoby, an analyst with the Mesa 10 think tank in Bratislava.
While the Europe Barometer poll showed uncertainty over the country's EU entry chances, other surveys have shown Slovaks expect joining the EU to do far more for their living standards than any government to emerge from September elections.
"The majority of the population agrees with entering the EU, they just don't know what elections will bring and feel quite uncertain about them," Jakoby said.
While a year ago around 60 per cent of Slovaks were in favour of EU entry, polls now show around 70 per cent support for membership, the highest level in EU candidate countries.
According to Iveta Radičová, a sociologist with Comenius University in Bratislava, besides uncertainty about the election results, many people are not able to say when they see Slovakia entering the EU because of the almost 20 per cent unemployment rate and corruption. The Union has been especially critical of the latter.
"They understand that these issues have to be solved before entering the EU. But if asked about when Slovakia will join the EU, I wouldn't be able to answer either because I just don't know how these issues will be solved and what we will see happening here after September elections," Radičová said.
While the population is taking a wait-and-see approach to early accession to the EU, Slovak managers are much more optimistic. Almost 70 per cent of managers interviewed for the Europe Barometer survey envisaged Slovakia joining the EU by 2006, while 28 per cent believed Slovakia would become a member in 2004.
"These managers are also aware of the uncertainty connected with elections, but they take a more pragmatic view and want Slovakia to become an EU member as early as possible because it would give them new possibilities for doing business," Radičová said.
Based on the survey, 91 per cent of Slovak managers expect that the Slovak economy will play a more important role in the global context than it now does after joining the EU, the highest figure in all nine countries polled.
"Managers clearly expect greater co-operation with international companies, as well as greater involvement by these companies in Slovak firms after entering the EU," Jakoby said.
Compared to Slovak managers, only 69 per cent of managers in Poland, 68 per cent in the Czech Republic and 58 per cent in Hungary expected the role of their economies to increase in importance.
"These countries, thanks to their larger inflow of foreign investments compared to Slovakia, are already involved in international business and economic co-operation," Jakoby said.