PRESIDENT Rudolf Schuster (right) shakes hands with the head of the EC's Slovakia delegation, Eric van der Linden.
In its 2002 report, which is also a five-year summary of progress towards accession, issued October 9, the Commission predicted that Slovakia and nine other candidate countries will have fulfilled the EU's accession criteria and "will be ready for membership from the beginning of 2004".
The Commission said it expected Slovakia to rectify identified problem areas such as the judiciary, corruption and issues surrounding the country's Roma minority.
"When I read the report, it became clear to me that we're in," Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Mária Kadlecíková told The Slovak Spectator.
"Of course there are areas we need to work hard on, and we will do our best to finish the work started, but the report told me that the EU wants us to become a member," she said.
"It is an overwhelmingly positive report, the best we received so far," she added.
The EC report praised Slovakia for the steps the country has taken to increase the independence of the judiciary. It urged that new institutions, such as the self-ruling Judicial Council, "be used to the full, so as to guarantee the judiciary's professional impartiality and political neutrality".
The report also highlighted the commission's long-standing concern about perceived corruption at many levels of society.
"Corruption remains a cause for serious concern," stated the report.
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's new cabinet has pledged to improve law enforcement, an area the EC also criticized, and to prepare anti-corruption legislation such as a new conflict of interests law.
Dzurinda's outgoing cabinet introduced anti-corruption measures such as the free access to information law, put the country's business register on the Internet, and created a more transparent system of granting state licenses to private businesses.
Senior figures involved in Slovakia's EU negotiations said these measures had been vital to the country's development.
"Effectively fighting corruption is ultimately in our own interests," said Slovakia's chief EU negotiator, Ján Figeľ.
Another cause for concern for the EC is the situation of Slovakia's estimated 400,000-strong Roma minority, believed to have higher rates of unemployment and lower standards of education than other groups in Slovak society. Some Roma claim they are victims of discrimination and, in some cases, systematic persecution.
The EC praised the strengthening of the Office of the Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Affairs - a position created in 1999 to address the community's problems - but it stressed that more needs to be done.
"These efforts must be continued and reinforced as a matter of priority, to effectively combat discrimination and improve the living conditions of the Roma community," the report said.
The EC also said that health care and pension system reforms were "essential", and that Slovakia needed to adopt "urgent measures" to reduce the fiscal and current-account deficits.
In addition, the country's nearly 20 per cent unemployment rate requires "a whole range of structural reforms, including the elimination of disincentive effects in the social protection system and a more flexible labor legislation," stated the report.
However, overall the country was categorized as a functioning market economy, indicating that the EC believes Slovakia's private sector is prepared for competition in the EU's free market.
"The continuation of its current reform path should enable the Slovak Republic to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union," said the report.
Slovakia still needs to complete changes in three out of 30 EU legislative areas, called chapters, before it can officially conclude its pre-entry talks. That is expected to happen before an EU summit in Copenhagen in December, at which invitations to join are expected to be extended.
The EC said that in the period leading up to accession, it would issue warning letters to governments of the 10 candidate states if it believed they were lagging in implementing necessary economic reforms or failing to fulfill pre-accession commitments.
Figeľ said that entry into the EU would be one of the most important events in the country's recent history.
"It will be a historic moment for the country," he said.