BY ENTERING the European Union, Slovakia has an unprecedented chance to become an equal member of the Western world, both economically and politically.
For decades that part of the globe has been synonymous with prosperity. All that it will take for EU enlargement to succeed is that Europe stays the course it has taken in its post-World War II history.
But the EU is not, and has never been, only about the economy or Europe's strong position in the world. It has primarily been designed to serve one aim - ensuring peace in Europe. The absence of tensions between European countries now seems so natural that many have forgotten about this task of the union, or take it for granted.
Yet it was not too long ago that animosities between European countries, combined with their new military capabilities, sparked two of the most destructive wars in human history. What followed were not years of peace but decades more of war - the cold war, which came to a definite conclusion only at the end of the 1980s.
But one does not have to go too far back in history to see in the example of the former Yugoslavia that armed conflict in Europe is not necessarily a matter of the past. The distance between Bratislava and Belgrade is strikingly short - only 450 kilometres, or 280 miles.
While the EU is in no way a military, or even a truly political organisation, its contribution to peace and stability in Europe is unparalleled.
There is no better way to ensure harmony between nations than to let them share a common currency, enabling them to do business and work on a unified market, support the exchange of young people, and, perhaps most of all, make sure the poor regions don't stay too far behind.
That is exactly what the EU has been doing.
Now this area of stability has expanded to cover 25 nations. All there is left to do is use the tested recipe once again. This stability is one of the greatest opportunities connected to joining the union.
A part of that stability is the opportunity for each country to help shape Europe. From now on, no major decision can be made within the EU without Slovakia's consent, as long as it chooses to retain this right. For a country of Slovakia's size, that is an unequalled historic prospect. Used to being a subject of history whose fate has been decided by major powers, the country will now be able to shake off much of its political helplessness.
With stability and a respectable role in international relations comes economic growth. In this respect, the EU greatly helped Slovakia long before the country formally became a member and not only by funding major development programmes.
The invitation to join the EU was also a clear sign to foreign investors that it was safe to invest in Slovakia. While the country has in part itself to thank for attracting cash from abroad by passing some reform measures, such as the flat 19 percent tax rate, EU entry was a most decisive factor.
But life should get better for local entrepreneurs too. Today, restrictions on mutual trade between countries of the union and customs fees are a matter of the past. Slovaks are free to do business on the joint European market.
Membership has not only eradicated the last of formal limitations on trade, it should also boost the confidence of consumers in other EU member states and outside in the quality of products and services offered by Slovak firms. After all, "made in Slovakia" now means "made in the EU".
Foreign investment will also create new opportunities for local sub-contractors. Moreover, labour continues to be cheap in Slovakia. The average hourly wage in Slovakia is currently around ?2. It is around ?17 in neighbouring Austria, according to the daily Pravda.
It is true that certain regions remain depressed. But Slovak ministries are already reporting that they don't have enough people to process the large number of requests for EU funds, which means regional leaders are well aware of the opportunities they present.
As regards domestic politics, the EU has already done a great deal for Slovakia's future. The EU repeatedly made it clear that a return to an authoritarian style of politics, represented by former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, would put a stop to Slovakia's integration. This pressure mobilised voters and ensured that pro-reform forces won parliamentary elections in 1998 and 2002 and that Rudolf Schuster won the 1999 presidential elections, keeping Mečiar from regaining a hold on the country. Although the EU will not have much direct say over Slovak domestic politics in the future, it is certain to have a decisive impact on them.
If Slovaks use the opportunities offered by the EU and membership brings stability, economic growth, and regional development, the voice of populism and extremism, still very much present in today's politics, will be muted.
After years of turbulent transformation, the prospect of stability and gradual growth offered by the EU is the best thing Slovakia could have hoped for at this moment in history.
3. May 2004 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila