DESPITE some objections to Slovakia's progress in the EU accession process and concerns over the situation of the Roma here, the central European country is among the best prepared new members, according to insiders.
The European Parliament (EP) adapted on March 11 the last in a series of monitoring reports on the EU candidate states. Slovakia is set to join the union in May 2004 along with the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Malta, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
The document highlights the country's pro-reform steps in judiciary and public administration and its good economic performance, but it also warns that more needs to be done about the problems of the Roma community, corruption, and the drawing of EU finances.
"Slovakia is definitely in the first division of candidate countries, but much still remains to be done," conservative British MEP Charles Tannock told The Slovak Spectator.
"You need to put the final touches to the payment systems for the Common Agricultural Policy, you need to invest further in environmental projects implementing the high standards expected by the EU acquis, and carry on fighting endemic corruption and misadministration in your country," he added.
"The setting up of a payment agency for agricultural funds is crucial in order for EU finances to find their way to those for whom they are intended, and the report warns that, "a failure to have the agency up and running at the time of accession could greatly harm Slovak farmers."
The institution, which is expected to have over 500 employees working in central Bratislava and in 36 regional offices, has existed on paper since the end of last year. Pressure from the EU at that time forced the local administration to pass relevant legislation. The task now is to get it up and running.
Problems with such an agency have troubled numerous other acceding countries, including Hungary and Poland.
Corruption has long been a prime source of concern. In its monitoring report the EP welcomed the fact that recently introduced legislation has led to a number of high-profile cases and at the same time it, "looks forward to the speedy adoption of the laws on illegally acquired property and on conflicts of interest".
Both measures were already in parliament earlier this year, but Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic, whose office authored the proposals, decided to withdraw the drafts from the legislature after members of parliament approved some major amendments.
After those changes, the laws would not be "effective and [would not] make people believe again in the political system and the people who represent it," said Lipšic in parliament. It remains to be seen if, and when, both laws are approved.
The deliberations on the report made headlines in Slovakia after MEPs for the Green Party suggested that it should call for the European Commission to continue to monitor the situation of the Slovak Roma and the government's actions towards the community even after the country enters the European club.
The Greens also indicated that police and military forces might have violated the rights of some Roma when they were called in to deal with anti-government demonstrations and looting by the minority last month.
"The problems will not end with EU accession," said Austrian MEP Mercedes Echerer at a press conference.
However, not all MEPs seemed convinced by their colleagues' arguments and the provision did not make it into the final version of the monitoring report.
"I personally never agreed with some of the most strident critics in the EP that the Roma problem was only due to Slovak discriminatory policy and I strongly believe that the Roma community must also work hard to improve its integration into the mainstream Slovak society," said MEP Tannock.
In the end, the report called on the government to "take appropriate measures so as to improve the economic and social living conditions of the Roma quickly and on a sustainable basis and to fight against their social exclusion... and discrimination in general."
EU institutions have repeatedly warned Slovakia that it has to do more to prepare for the drawing of EU finances, a message that has once again appeared in the last monitoring document.
The report points out that there are problems with structural and cohesion funds, "in particular in the area of task allocation and coordination of institutional structures at central and regional levels, and in the area of financial management and control," while also reminding the Slovak government that failure to reach the necessary standards would "force the Commission to retain funds destined for Slovakia."
The recently approved report, which was published in November 2003, has received a mild reaction from government officials.
"It's a document that we need to, have to, and want to deal with, but we shouldn't overestimate its importance," Deputy PM for European Integration Pál Csáky told journalists, adding that it offers an objective look at the situation Slovakia is in months before EU entry.
But the EP did not only offer criticism. The country was praised for its "steadily improving macro-economic performance", and for its forthcoming attitude towards the Hungarian minority, reflected in the recent foundation of the Hungarian-language János Selye University in Komárno.
"You are definitely in the top five [among acceding countries] and have made very fast progress in catching up with neighbouring Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic," said Tannock.
"Your government is also ahead of many current member states in its deregulatory and competitiveness agenda," he added.
22. Mar 2004 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila