We know there is one objective very high on the Slovak political agenda: to catch up with the other candidate countries during the negotiating process, and especially with your neighbours which started negotiations in in 1998. Given your geographical, political and economic position within Europe we fully understand and support your wish to catch up.
President of the European Commission,
Romano Prodi, in his speech to the
Slovak Parliament, 20 January 2000.)
The decision of the member states of the European Union on 11 December last year to invite Slovakia to begin entry negotiations marked a particular triumph for the country's western-oriented coalition government. It had the effect of expunging a stain from the country's international reputation, namely, the European Commission report of July 1997, which judged that Slovakia alone, of ten applicant countries, failed to meet the political criteria for membership. A catalogue of human rights abusage and democratic deficits, committed by the then government of Vladimír Mečiar, resulted in Slovakia being made to sit at the back of the class in the Balkan B-stream, while its central European neighbours, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, began entry negotiations in 1998. Since it came to power in September of that year, the government headed by Mikuláš Dzurinda has staked everything on being able to catch up with its neighbours in the Visegrad Four, to make the transition from Second to First Wave status.
Central Europe Review last considered Slovakia's developing relationship with the EU in August 1999. (The Cost of Joining the Club by Michael J Kopanič Jr. CER Vol 1, No.7) Since then, the changes have come thick and fast, and priorities have changed. Some problems which once appeared to be major stumbling blocks, such as Austria's criticism of Slovakia's nuclear power programme, now seem to be effectively defused. Other issues, such as the position of the Roma minority in Slovakia, and the precarious position of the governing coalition, are emerging as potential threats to the country's smooth transition to EU membership. Having come so far, the government has more to lose if its plans run awry, and the tension is beginning to show.Making the grade
The invitation to begin entry negotiations was effectively a rubber-stamping of the European Commission's progress report of October 1999, which concluded that Slovakia now fulfilled the political criteria. The document was generous in its praise for the Slovak government: "Slovakia is close to being a functioning market economy thanks to the courageous policy decisions and the impressive reform agenda of the new government." There was specific approval for Slovakia's decision to close down the Soviet-made reactors at the Jaslovské-Bohunice nuclear power plant by 2008. There were also reminders of the need to keep up the pace of reform: "Continued efforts are needed to sustain the stable functioning of the democratic institutions, step up the fight against crime and corruption and to protect minority rights. Particular attention should be paid to improving the situation of the Roma and to fight discriminatory attitudes in society."
Once the go-ahead to begin negotiations was granted at the EU summit in Helsinki in December, the Slovak government's scramble to catch up with its neighbours began in earnest. A crucial decision had been made at Helsinki to consider all applicant countries as being on the same negotiating track. Individual progress along the track was to be decided by each country's ability to fulfill the 31 chapters of the acquis communitaires - the body of EU laws and policies which every applicant country has to adopt before it can become a member. The way was open for Slovakia to catch up with the First Wavers, and the government began to stake a claim to open negotiations on as many of the chapters of the acquis as possible.
More encouragement came in the form of Commission President Romano Prodi's visit to Bratislava on 20 January. Prodi commented to journalists: "It seems as if the number of chapters is more important for the Slovaks than sex." The number of chapters for initial negotiation was set at five. This was bumped up to eight when the final decision was taken by the 15 member states in Brussels on 15 March. On 28 March, Slovakia began accession negotiations on chapters dealing with joint foreign and security policy, external relations, small and medium enterprises, education and training, science, research, cultural and audio-visual policy, competition and statistics.
Whilst Prodi's speech was important for its encouragement of Slovakia's catch-up strategy, it revealed little of the thinking which lay behind the Commission's attitude. A senior Commission official and "Team Leader for Slovakia," Dirk Meganck, was more explicit in a speech he made in Bratislava on 20 March. "Slovakia is so much at the core of Europe that different accession dates for the various Visegrad countries could raise both external border and trade issues, which should ideally be avoided," he commented. With Slovakia left on the outside, the new EU states of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic would find the job of policing the Union's eastern borders greatly extended. More importantly, if Slovakia and the Czech Republic were to join at the same time, it would help prevent major difficulties concerning the customs union between the two states.Czech and Slovak co-operation
When Czechoslovakia split in two in 1993, the new states established a customs union ensuring the free movement of goods and services between them. The system has worked to the benefit of both countries, with their closely interconnected economies. Since the EU cannot allow such an arrangement to exist between a member and a non-member state, the customs union emerged as a major sticking-point in the Czech Republic's accession negotiations ("Czech Republic's Dilemma on European Union Membership" - Global Intelligence Update, 24 June 1999). The fear is that the Czech Republic would enter the EU having suffered severe economic damage. The Czech government appealed for an exemption, but in May 1999 the EU ruled against the incorporation of the customs union into EU law. In effect, the brouhaha has played into the hands of the Slovaks and greatly enhanced their catch-up strategy. Rather than separate these economic Siamese twins, and risk damaging both, it makes sense to encourage Slovakia to join at the same time as the Czech Republic.
Cooperation between the Slovak and Czech governments has deepened, often in highly practical areas. For instance, on 18 April they signed an agreement to work together on the translation of the acquis - a massive document of around 80,000 pages. The similarity of the Czech and Slovak languages allows both governments to save time and the duplication of effort by exchanging their working translations.
Meanwhile, the Slovak government continues its race to close as many chapters as possible. Recent reports suggest that at least five will be closed after the first round of negotiations on 25 May. According to Slovakia's chief negotiator with the EU, Ján Figeľ, they hope to open negotiations on 15 of the chapters by the end of the year. Figeľ insists that the gap between Slovakia and the countries that began negotiations two years ago is narrowing. "The real gap is now less than one and a half years," he claims. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that less troublesome subjects have been chosen for negotiation in the early part of the accession process. Some of the apparent progress may be a case of Slovakia racing through the easier stages of the process to catch up with those enmired in more "difficult" chapters of the acquis.Problems at home?
Breathless optimism notwithstanding, Slovakia's relations with individual EU member states have been put under severe strain by the continued flight of Slovak Roma to countries in the West. Belgium and Luxemburg are the latest countries to introduce visas for Slovak citizens in an attempt to dissuade potential asylum-seekers. Seven EU member states now insist that Slovak visitors apply for visas. Ján Figeľ now tetchily claims that Slovakia is paying the price for Western countries' imperfect asylum laws. The government's fear is that the imposition of visa regimes is reinforcing Slovakia's Second Wave status, closer in spirit to Bulgaria or Romania than to its Visegrad neighbours. Figeľ has also warned that the imposition of visas could help to ferment anti-Roma feeling in Slovakia.
Disharmony in Slovakia's governing coalition has also emerged as an issue affecting the country's EU prospects. Recent weeks have seen the leader of one of the main coalition partners, the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL), vote against Premier Mikuláš Dzurinda in a parliamentary vote of confidence. The SDL has made numerous calls for a cabinet reshuffle and the renegotiation of the coalition agreement. The EU's Enlargement Commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, commented on the disarray in the government ranks, during a meeting with Pavol Hamžík, Slovakia's Deputy Premier for Integration in Brussels on 17 April. According to Hamžík, Verheugen said the objective of EU membership could only be achieved if internal stability was ensured. On 25 April Dzurinda met with ambassadors from the EU countries in a bid to provide that reassurance. "I said that I firmly believed that the current government, the current governing coalition, would go on governing despite the upheavals we witnessed of late," he told reporters. The fact that Dzurinda felt compelled to call such a meeting must give rise to concern.
Meanwhile, the senior opposition party, ex-Premier Vladimír Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), is campaigning for early elections (the next election is not due until 2002). It claims to have collected enough signatures to trigger a referendum on the subject. Although opinion polls suggest that most Slovaks are opposed to the idea of early elections, the very mention of Mečiar's name raises hackles in Brussels. The European Parliament's Rapporteur for Slovakia, Jan Marinus Wiersma, warned that elections now could add years to the accession process, "If you stop in the middle, it would not only mean halting the reforms, but also a slow-down in EU entry negotiations." More ominously, he added: "We have had bad experiences with ex-Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar and we do not want them to be repeated".
Slovakia's relations with the EU have blossomed, since the Dzurinda government came to power, and its catch-up strategy now shows signs of bearing fruit. There are unresolved problems at home which threaten a smooth transition to membership - principally, the position of Roma in Slovak society and continued instability in the governing coalition. Nevertheless, Slovakia can realistically hope to lay claim to a place in the First Wave. The vital question remains whether the 15 member states are prepared to make the sacrifices required to allow for eastward expansion.
Robin Sheeran, 4 May 2000
- "Czech Republic's Dilemma on European Union Membership" - Global Intelligence Update. 24 June 1999.
- President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, speech to the Slovak Parliament, 20 January 2000.
- The Cost of Joining the Club - Michael J Kopanic Jr, Central Europe Review, Vol 1, No 7.