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POLITICS - EP ELECTIONS - THE EU SHOULD TAKE MORE TIME TO DISCUSS THE CONSTITUTION, SAYS BEŇOVÁ

Smer for social and economic power

THE OPPOSITION party Smer will take the most seats in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament, if opinion polls are to be trusted.
As many as 5 out of Slovakia's 14 seats in the EP will be taken by representatives of Smer, headed by Robert Fico, Slovakia's most trusted politician, according to a survey of the Statistics Office released on May 20.
However, pre-election prognoses have brought Smer disappointments in the past - before the 2002 general elections, polls indicated that Smer would play a dominant role in the newly formed government but the party finished in the opposition.

THE OPPOSITION party Smer will take the most seats in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament, if opinion polls are to be trusted.

As many as 5 out of Slovakia's 14 seats in the EP will be taken by representatives of Smer, headed by Robert Fico, Slovakia's most trusted politician, according to a survey of the Statistics Office released on May 20.

However, pre-election prognoses have brought Smer disappointments in the past - before the 2002 general elections, polls indicated that Smer would play a dominant role in the newly formed government but the party finished in the opposition.

This April, Smer suffered a further blow when citizens did not support its proposal to hold early elections in a nation-wide referendum.

It will be up to party vice-chairwoman, Monika Beňová, who is the party's top candidate, to break that spell in the June 13 EP elections.

The Slovak Spectator spoke with Beňová about the reforms standing before the union and the leftist future of her party.


The Slovak Spectator (TSS): On the European level, Smer, which has thus far proclaimed to pursue a "third way", will be working with the Party of European Socialists. Will Smer also define itself as a socialist party on the domestic political scene?

Monika Beňová (MB):The Party of European Socialists incorporates the entire spectrum of centre-left parties - there are social democratic parties and much more leftist parties. So it does not include merely socialist parties. It includes socially-oriented parties.

We've been saying for a long time that our party is built around centre-left values. That is documented by the fact that we have three members on our ballot of other non-parliamentary parties that define themselves as belonging to the centre-left.

We have a representative of the Democratic Left Party, of the Social Democratic Party of Slovakia, and of the Green Party. This ballot shows that we will be trying to integrate parties of the left. In this case, the party's orientation is not determined by its name.


TSS: What is your view on the European constitutional treaty?

MB: The constitution doesn't necessarily have to be adapted under the Irish presidency [due to end on June 30]. The significance of this document is such that additional time can only help. So there needs to be no pressure now. It will be better if we wait and make sure all flaws are eliminated and reach all the necessary compromises. I'm no fan of speed.


TSS: So what parts of the draft do you have a problem with?

MB: Actually, I see this draft as a good compromise. Others are more likely to have a problem with it - let's say those who want Christian values or God included in the constitution's preamble. Voting within the EU is another big issue. These are the things that will need to be resolved.


TSS: Are you in favour of a referendum on the EU constitution?

MB: If we take into account the experiences we have with informing citizens, it's safe to say that we won't be able to provide voters with enough information to make a competent decision. It's not a question of underestimating people. Even many politicians don't fully understand what the constitutional treaty is about. The topic would be exploited for political purposes.

I will be basing my judgment on the opinion of constitutional lawyers.


TSS: If they say it is not necessary, will you back holding a vote in parliament only?

MB: Yes.


TSS: What are the main points of your election programme?

MB: The entire election campaign focuses on two key areas. Firstly, we are focusing on how the EU of the future should look. Secondly, it's the predispositions the people representing us in the EU should have.

As far as specific issues go, there is certainly the question of the creation of jobs, of raising living standards, support for increased investment in education, and the fight against terrorism, or rather ,the roots of terrorism.

Further, we favour a strengthening of the European economic and social model. There is a strong backing for the Lisbon strategy [of making EU the world's most competitive economy by 2010] and a reform of the stability pact.

We try to address the reform of the Common Agriculture Policy.

The EU institutions should deal with the union's extensive bureaucracy. We think the EP's role needs to be strengthened, but so does that of the national parliaments.


TSS: Smer says that the EP's powers will grow in the future. In what key areas?

MB: Judging from the talks I've had with representatives of the EC or other institutions, there is a clear tendency to harmonise EU policy, especially in areas such as tax bases, common foreign and defence policy, and social affairs. These are the three key areas in which the harmonisation of national policies will proceed.


TSS: Some representatives of old EU members have demanded that new EU states increase their income tax rates to the levels of their countries, or else prepare to receive less cash from the union. Should tax rates be harmonised?

MB: I'm in favour of harmonising the value-added tax rates. That's something very realistic. Governments can use income taxes as a tool of making the business environment more attractive.

My only worry is that the new member countries will start competing to drop the corporate income tax rates to the lowest levels, and will be using that as the only means of attracting investment.

I think that the income tax bases should be harmonised, and the tax rates should remain in the hands of the individual states.

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