Though the European Commission's progress report delivered by Ambassador van der Linden was positive, it still details four distinct problem areas
The EC, in its report released on November 5, stated that it expects that Slovakia, along with the other EU candidate countries, will be sufficiently prepared in most spheres of the required EU legislation to join the union by May 1, 2004.
The EC remains unhappy about the country's delays in establishing an agricultural payment agency and introducing the Integrated Administration and Control System (IACS) for providing payments from public finances. Slovakia's disregard for EU steel production quotas; the law on retail chains, which is hostile to the free movement of goods and services; and problems with food hygiene standards are also causes for EC concerns.
However, the Slovak government is confident that the shortcomings will fade as Slovakia nears the EU entry date.
"I consider the EC report encouraging because it confirms the progress that we have made," Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda told the media.
According to the PM, Slovakia received high grades in 99 of the 140 evaluated sectors. In 37 sectors, the country partially meets the requirements, and urgent changes are still needed in four sectors.
Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš confirmed that the government has already started work on erasing the deficit.
(For more details, see the interview with the head of the European Commission delegation to Slovakia, Eric van der Linden, on Pg.3)
THE CURRENT progress report is one of the most positive reports that the European Commission (EC) has ever released on Slovakia. However, the EC document still diagnoses sore spots that need to be treated during the coming six months before Slovakia officially steps into the EU, said head of the European Commission delegation to Slovakia, Eric van der Linden, in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Do you share the optimism of the international institutions that have dubbed Slovakia an investor's Elysium and a fully functioning member of the EU house?
Eric van der Linden (EL): When preparing the annual progress report on Slovakia, we [the EC] looked through a magnifying glass at each chapter of the Acquis Communautaire to see how the country was doing, and we saw a relatively optimistic picture. The country has done a lot of work, and progress has undoubtedly been made. This is one of the most positive of the annual progress reports on Slovakia.
TSS: At the end of May, the head of the EC's Directorate General for Regional Policy, Luiz Riera, said that Slovakia was "the least-prepared [candidate] country" in terms of regional development. However, the EC criticism also targeted other spheres.
EL: Today we would not say this. Some, of course, criticised the European Commission for being critical of Slovakia. At that time, the EC criticism was justified. In May 2003, Slovakia and Latvia were the candidates most lagging behind with respect to being prepared for the administration of structural and cohesion funds. The message reached this country. The people rolled up their sleeves and worked hard. Even though there is still a fair amount of work that remains to be done until the actual entry of the country in 2004, I am confident that, if the country keeps its current pace of preparations, things will go in the right direction.
However, we also saw that the PHARE programs to be covered by the financial memoranda for 2000-2001 were prepared at the very last moment. The lesson Slovakia should draw from the delays is that, in the process of drawing the structural and cohesion funds, there needs to be a pipeline of good projects that are prepared in advance.
TSS: On October 3 you signed a financial memorandum for Slovakia's 2003 national program for drawing funding from PHARE.
EL: The memorandum pertains to 33 programs allocating €57.1 million for these projects. Contracting can take place between now and November 2005. I would say that, of the €57 million, about €23 million will go to the strengthening of the institutional capacity of the country, which is clearly geared to facilitating Slovakia's function as a member state. The various projects, on the one hand, pertain to spheres where reforms are considered weak and where more work needs to be done; on the other hand, [they are] aimed to better prepare Slovakia for the use of structural funds. These are the key lines.
TSS: Recently you have stressed that Slovakia still has obligations towards the EU in the sphere of the internal market and the judiciary. Could you make this a little bit more concrete?
EL: Though Slovakia has reached a high level of alignment with the Acquis Communautaire, we still see that there are a number of weaknesses for the internal market, including some technical and legal problems pertaining to the spheres of services, insurance and information technologies, the protection of intellectual property rights, etc. Furthermore, there is the retail chains law the commission is quite unhappy about. As it stands, it is squarely against the EU acquis. This must change.
In the sphere of justice, the present minister [Daniel Lipšic] has been doing a great job, and his intention to reform the judiciary and make it more transparent is evident.
Minister Lipšic will obviously face difficulties. His ministry has prepared quite a few laws to slash corruption but, after being passed, these laws will need to be properly implemented. However, I am pretty confident that a lot of progress will be made in the next few years, including tackling the sore point of the length of court proceedings.
TSS: Corruption and the prevailing problems of the Roma community have been a reason for concern for the EC since Slovakia started entry talks.
EL: The EC report considers the problem of corruption a very complex area. Progress has been made, especially through the establishment of a special prosecutor to combat organised crime. Still, corruption remains a cause for concern, and Slovakia should continue its effort to effectively implement the national program to fight against corruption.
The EC has concluded that despite all the evident efforts, the situation of the Roma minority remains very difficult. A majority of the community is still exposed to social inequalities and discrimination in education, the criminal justice system, and access to public services. The living conditions of the Roma essentially remain far below average.
TSS: Despite having accepted the obligation, the ruling coalition has failed to agree on the form of an anti-discrimination law. The Christian Democrats (KDH) call for the amendment of the existing legislation, while the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) wants to adopt a single law.
EL: We, for legal clarity, prefer one single anti-discrimination law. However, that is not the case right now in all of the 15 present member states. So we cannot impose this demand on Slovakia. If the Slovak authorities prefer to amend all relevant laws and correct them in such a way that discriminatory practices are eliminated, that is fine. But we hope that they do not forget one single law in this process. Otherwise, again the country would not be in compliance with its Treaty obligations.
TSS: Are you satisfied with the current public perception of the EU? Do you think that the Slovak government has done a good job campaigning for EU entry and explaining to citizens the crucial issues linked to the EU?
EL: The Slovak government, like most other governments, could have done a lot more. But then, the governments of the 15 member states also could have done a lot more to explain to the present EU population what the challenges and advantages of the enlargement are.
10. Nov 2003 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová