BRITISH Ambassador to Slovakia Ric Todd has announced that, from December 18, Slovak citizens wishing to visit, study, or work as au pairs in Britain will no longer need a visa.
Those who want to settle, work, or set up a business in Britain will need a visa until Slovakia's entry into the EU on May 1, 2004.
The visa requirement has been dropped after five years, during which time the Slovak government has, according to some experts, failed to address the reason for which it was introduced - the threat of profit-motivated Roma migration to Britain.
The decision was much welcomed by Slovak representatives.
"It is important that the decision of the British cabinet came before Slovakia's accession to the EU," said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Juraj Tomaga, who said the ministry appreciates the abolition of visas.
Slovakia was the last among the ten countries entering the EU whose citizens needed a visa to enter Britain.
Great Britain put the requirement in place in October 1998, after hundreds of Roma families applied for asylum there.
"Changes in both Slovakia and Great Britain have solved the problems with the abuse of our asylum system, and the visa regime is therefore no longer necessary," said Todd on December 9 at a joint press conference with Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda.
Todd also warned that any attempts to abuse the system will not be tolerated and those who try "will get nothing and will have to go back".
However, it seems not too much has been done on either side to inspire the new step.
"It's not due to any new measures, but the fact is that Slovakia will be joining the EU next year anyway," Wendy Roebuck, second secretary at the political section of the British embassy in Bratislava, told The Slovak Spectator.
"The visa regime was originally imposed because of the problems we have had with people coming and trying to claim asylum without any evidence that they needed it," said Roebuck.
In the past, Slovakia has had similar problems with numerous other countries. Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Belgium also introduced visas after they faced an exodus of Roma asylum seekers from Slovakia.
In November, the Czech cabinet debated the problem of migration of Slovak Roma to the Czech Republic. "There is no avalanche, no stream. But there still is a problem that needs to be solved," Czech PM Vladimír Špidla said.
"We have not experienced the problem for some time now, so I think the feeling was that it is a good time to lift [the visa requirement]," Roebuck added.
"When PM Dzurinda met [British PM] Tony Blair in April, while he was in London to run the marathon, he talked to him about the visa regime and Blair made a promise at that time that he would ask the Home Office to review the situation and, should they find no reason to maintain [the requirement], then he would ask for it to be lifted.
"And that's what has been done. He stuck to his promise," said Roebuck.
In some ways at least, the situation of the Roma has not changed much for the better since 1998, say experts.
"Over the last five years we have naturally made positive progress in addressing this issue," Lucia Najšlová, spokesperson for the government's high appointee for the Roma community, told The Slovak Spectator.
"Some steps are already being taken, some are still being planned. However, problems keep growing at a pace faster than anyone is able to solve them," she said.
Najšlová named several reasons why the Roma were leaving Slovakia for other countries - fear of discrimination, the prospect of a better social situation, and unemployment were among them.
According to media reports, some Roma families are getting ready to take advantage of the new opportunity and leave for the British Isles.
"They are already packing their bags and will most likely go," said Jozef Kočan, mayor of the eastern Slovak village Pavlovec nad Uhom, to the daily Pravda.
Najšlová could not say to what extent a new wave of Roma migration to Britain is a real threat.
"It's difficult to anticipate. As you can imagine, the Roma don't report to us when and where they want to go. Some, and I emphasise that only some, Roma leaders are saying that all Roma will start leaving. However, there is no way for them to know that for a fact.
"It could just be something meant to attract media attention," she said.
While the government is anxious to see Roma stay, Najšlová pointed out that its options are limited.
"What can you do - close the border or go around settlements and tell the Roma not to leave? If you respect human rights, you cannot simply tell the Roma to stay. You have to create conditions that motivate them to stay," she said.
British representatives are not worried about the situation.
"In terms of asylum seekers, we don't anticipate a huge problem at this point. People will always take their chances, but no applications from Slovakia have ever succeeded.
"The closer we get to accession, the less likely it will be as well," said Roebuck.
Both British and Slovak representatives hope the move will have a positive impact on the mutual relations between the two countries.
"It will have a strong influence on the further development of direct contacts and travel," said Tomaga, Foreign Ministry representative.
"We have a very good relationship with Slovakia. We do hope this will improve the relationship even more," said Roebuck.
According to data of the National Bank of Slovakia (NBS), the total volume of British investment in Slovakia as of the end of June was Sk21 billion (€511.88 million), giving it a 6.7 percent share of all foreign investment and making it the sixth largest investor in Slovakia.
After joining the EU in May 2004, Slovaks will not need visas for any of the other 24 member countries of the Union.
15. Dec 2003 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila