As politicians rally support for EU entry in Slovakia, new candidates line up to join the union
At a summit of 40 European leaders in Athens on April 16, the heads of state of 10 EU candidate countries, including Slovakia, signed EU accession treaties. If all current members and candidate countries approve their accession, the new members will accede to the union on May 1, 2004.
"Just as others displayed solidarity with us throughout the years, it is time for us to show solidarity with other countries that desire to join a similar world to the one Slovakia is joining now," Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda told the press on April 18.
Dzurinda's position is in line with that of European leaders.
"Drawing a line under enlargement now would be both a missed opportunity for the EU and a cruel blow for those countries in the Balkans and elsewhere, for whom the prospect of EU membership is an important incentive for reform, renewal, democracy, and stability," said Greek foreign minister and president-in-office of the European Council, George Papandreou, in a statement released after the signing of the accession treaties in Athens.
The next round of enlargement is expected to take place some four years from now.
"We are negotiating with the Romanians and the Bulgarians and they aim to be ready by 2007, so we should be ready by that time too. However, they may not fulfil their plan to be ready by 2007," said Onno Simons, counsellor with the Delegation of the European Commission in Slovakia.
"The Croats have also asked to become members and they think they can be ready by 2007, but negotiations with the Croats haven't started yet. Croatia may well already be on the way to be prepared, so they might make it," said Simons.
These three countries are Slovakia's favourites as new EU candidates.
"[The top candidates] definitely include Bulgaria and Romania. These are countries that started talks when we did after the Helsinki summit in 1999 and so far have not concluded them. They should be able to do so in the course of the next few years," said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Boris Gandel.
"In recent years Croatia has been moving ahead fast and I think it will try to get into the EU. We think Croatia has what it takes to become an EU member and it's only up to its leaders and the union to negotiate in such a manner that will lead to an invitation for Croatia," Gandel added.
Potential candidates of the next round say they appreciate Slovakia's expressions of support.
"Romania attaches great importance to the bilateral consultations with Slovakia on the EU accession issues. Consultations between experts, sharing of documentation and views, as well as the positive stand of Slovakia on the future enlargement represent significant support, in keeping with the spirit of solidarity for a united Europe," said Radu Ionescu, first secretary at the Romanian embassy in Slovakia.
"We dare to say that the active support of Slovakia for the integration of Romania into the European Union, where our country belongs, is the logical result of the excellent cooperation between our countries through the centuries while at the same time a contribution from Slovakia to the unity and prosperity of Europe," said Ionescu.
As yet, there is not a great deal Slovakia can do to ensure the accession of other countries.
"Slovakia is still just a candidate and not a member state ... but we can express political support," said Gandel.
Many observers say the list of top candidates would not be complete without Turkey, although several questions hang over that country's accession talks.
"We have agreed with the Turks that in 2004 we will look at their situation again and see whether they fulfil the criteria for starting negotiations. One of the things we will be looking at will be whether the influence of the military on the government has diminished, whether the human-rights situation and rights of minorities are all right, and whether the economy is in a healthy state," said Simons.
Insiders admit that the case of Turkey is not similar to that of central and eastern European states.
"[Turkey] is naturally in a different position to the smaller countries. It's a big country, it's an important country, and its integration may prove to be a greater challenge than the integration of smaller countries," said Simons.
Slovakia has expressed its support for the inclusion of Turkey in any future round of EU enlargement, provided accession requirements are met.
"As far as Turkey is concerned, we support its entry if it meets all criteria," said Gandel.
In addition, Slovakia says it would like to play an intermediary role between the EU and Ukraine, which also hopes to have closer relations with the union in the near future.
"It's certainly in Slovakia's interest to keep the phone lines with Ukraine open. And not only the phone lines," said Simons.
Government officials believe they will be able to assist their eastern neighbour when the time comes.
"Slovakia, as an immediate neighbour and a country that has good relations with Ukraine, is definitely prepared to bring Kiev closer to Brussels," said Gandel.
But the future of that relationship may also be in the hands of others.
"A lot will depend on Ukraine, and on whether it will act and behave in a way that will allow us to intensify relations with the country," said Simons.
The EU, whose foundations were laid in the 1950s, has already gone through four rounds of enlargement, the most recent in 1995 when Sweden, Austria, and Finland joined. The enlargement currently underway is being seen as the union's biggest challenge yet.
"It is unprecedented in scope and diversity, we are increasing our population by 105 million people and expanding the size of Europe by 34 percent," said Papandreou.
Any later rounds could be held up by a number of sticking points.
"These could be on our side too, but it's safe to say that we aim to be ready [for more new members] by 2007," said Simons.
28. Apr 2003 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila