Slovakia: Catching Up

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Slovakia: Catching Up

A TOL interview with Slovakia’s chief negotiator
with the EU on the final stages of the membership talks and what
remains to be done.

In 1997, Slovakia was left behind when the
European Union invited Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary,
Slovenia, and Estonia to start talks on joining the EU. The EU was
unwilling to invite Slovakia as long as former Prime Minister
Vladimir Meciar was running the country. Western leaders widely
criticized Meciar for his authoritarian governing style and his
failure to implement reforms.

Slovakia did eventually get a chance to start
membership negotiations after the coalition government of Prime
Minister Mikulas Dzurinda came to power in 1998. Although it
started the talks two years later than its neighbors, Slovakia
managed to quickly catch up to the front-running candidates for EU
membership.

Today, the country has closed 26 of the 30
chapters in the membership talks, which are based on the EU’s
acquis communautaire. The country is well on track to completing
the talks by the end of this year and joining the EU in 2004, along
with the other leading candidate countries. Similarly, Slovakia is
a leading candidate to be invited to join NATO at the alliance’s
summit this November in the Czech capital Prague.

One potential hurdle could emerge from the
country’s September parliamentary elections. With Meciar’s party
leading in the polls, various Western officials have suggested that
Slovakia might not be invited to join NATO or the EU if he forms
the next government.

As the country prepares for the homestretch in
the accession process, TOL’s Barbora Tancerova spoke with Jan
Figel, Slovakia’s chief negotiator in the talks with the EU, about
the progress that has been made, the problems ahead, and the
importance of the September elections.

TOL: Slovakia is often referred to in European
Union circles as the perfect example of the so-called catch-up
policy. Not only has this country managed to catch up with the
other candidate countries that started the membership negotiations
much earlier, but in some cases it has even overtaken them. What is
behind this success?

Jan Figel: There are various reasons for the
current success, and it is too early to make a final assessment. We
are in the third part of a process that began in February 2000,
when Slovakia started the accession negotiations. We started this
so-called chapter business in March 2000. Up to today, we have
closed 26 chapters, which means 26 chapters in 26 months–a
symbolic result.

First of all, [this success] is a result of
domestic endeavor. It is a combination of activities in the
transposition of [EU] legislation, the building of new
institutions, and generally in taking our fate firmly into our own
hands and putting the EU agenda at the top of the political
priorities in Slovakia. That is a precondition for every
country–to focus on priorities.

Second, we adopted a realistic and motivating
strategy. Right after the EU’s Helsinki summit in December 1999, we
decided on the areas where we wanted to [negotiate] transitional
periods [for implementing EU standards] and on our road map. It was
all about opening the negotiations as soon as possible; opening
half of the chapters in 2000, opening all of them by 2001, and
closing all of the chapters by the end of 2002, with the [target]
date of accession set as January 2004. Let me remind you that
Hungary’s [original target date] was 2002, the Czech Republic’s was
2003. Our road map became the European one, which is good because
we do not need to reconsider it, but just to fulfill it together
with the EU.

Third, we were able to make use of the very open
and friendly relations in the region, and consult especially with
our Visegrad neighbors [Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary] on
all the sensitive iss ues of the negotiation process. They have
been on the road [of EU negotiations] since March 1998; two years
ahead of us. And it was very wise to learn from their experience,
avoid their mistakes, and make use of their good experiences.
[…]

TOL: The opposition in Slovakia has occasionally
criticized the speed of the negotiations. They argue that, in
certain cases, Slovakia should have taken a firmer position, not
accepted the EU’s suggestions on certain matters so quickly, and
put up a tougher fight for the country’s national interests. What
is your opinion? Are the results that have been achieved by
Slovakia in the negotiations comparable to those achieved by other
candidate countries?

Figel: The Slovak results are fully comparable,
[and] I would say even better than those of neighboring countries.
But it depends on the sensitivities and priorities of each country.
It is for each country to decide on its own priorities in the
negotiations.

We did not drop some of our requests as our
neighboring countries did in early 2000. In the five main areas of
the talks that are now behind us–the free movement of capital, the
provision of services, energy, environment, and taxation–we
achieved everything we wanted to achieve. […]

We have always focused on the content of the
result, not on the speed. […] And I would like to stress that the
European accession process is neither a beauty contest, nor a race,
nor a competition. It is a complex process, and the quality and
timing of the negotiations is what matters.

TOL: The agriculture chapter will be one of the
most difficult aspects of the EU negotiations. The European
Commission has proposed that the new member states would only
receive 25 percent of the agricultural subsidies, known as direct
payments, that current member states receive in their first year of
EU membership. It has also said that those payments should
gradually increase and reach 100 percent after 10 years. What is
Slovakia’s position on direct payments? Is Slovakia satisfied with
the quotas that the EU is offering it on agricultural
production?

Figel: Until last week, the union was not ready
to negotiate, because there was no consensus on direct payments
among the 15 current member states. Now, a consensus has been
established. It is very limited because it states that the new
members will be eligible for the policy of direct payments, which
is part of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). That is a
positive signal, but just a first signal. The modalities of the
EU’s proposal on direct payments in terms of their volume and
timing will be decided by the union and negotiated with us later in
the autumn. Nevertheless, we will start formal negotiations soon.
First of all, we will focus on commodities and quotas, and then on
the financial aspect. […]

In quotas and commodities we will focus on some
areas where we need to achieve serious changes. Those areas are
especially connected with the [EU’s proposed] quotas on milk,
sheep, and isoglucosis, which is important for the production of
soft drinks in Slovakia. Those are areas where we believe Slovakia
can produce more, especially for our own consumption. We are not
threatening the union by expanding our exports. Slovakia has until
now suffered from the gradual expansion of the trade deficit in
agrofood commodities, and we cannot afford to allow this policy to
continue.

We are not only asking for equal money in terms
of the direct payments, as sort of the only issue, we are also
asking for equal treatment on the single market. […]

TOL: The EU is keeping a close eye on the
Slovak-Ukrainian border, which will become an external EU border
after Slovakia accedes to the union. What measures have been taken
on this border so far in order to prevent illegal migration? And
what impact have any such measures had on Slovak-Ukrainian
relations?

Figel: We already started to implem ent many
important changes on this border two years ago: We established a
visa regime with Ukraine, and Ukraine reciprocated with the same
measure. The same applies to Belarus and Russia. We want to adopt
the Schengen policy by 2004. […]

Part of the policy is connected with the
Ukrainian border because it will be an external border of the
union. And, to date, the results have been quite remarkable. For
example, the inflow of illegal immigrants into Slovakia is now
significantly higher through our southern border with Hungary [than
the eastern border with Ukraine]. This is not an excuse or a
positive signal, but it shows that the Ukrainian border is more
problematic for illegal migrants to pass through. I have invited my
colleagues from the Visegrad countries and Ukraine to [the eastern
Slovak city of] Kosice for an 8-9 July meeting to discuss our
cooperation on the Schengen regime. The Schengen policy calls for
more cooperation between countries, and without closer cooperation
within Visegrad and with our eastern neighbors, we will face many
difficult problems.

TOL: The support of Slovak citizens for EU
membership is rather high, higher than in neighboring countries.
Still, the country’s economic situation is not very satisfactory.
Unemployment remains very high. A significant number of people are
afraid that membership in the EU will make the situation even
worse. How would you respond to such concerns?

Figel: I think that the response to those
concerns should be based on serious preparations at home. The EU is
an opportunity–especially for those who are ready to use such new
opportunities for the national or regional benefit. There are many
good examples in the countries that have joined the EU in the past.
They did not lose, but they gained: faster economic growth and the
chance to play an equal role in EU institutions and common
policies. This could be the case for Slovakia as well. […]

I cannot imagine any reasonable alternative to
joining the EU along with our neighbors. Until now, no country that
joined the EU has seen its unemployment rate go up; rather, the
opposite has happened. Those Spaniards who had left their country
for Germany returned home after Spain joined the EU; not only did
the people who left Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s for better
opportunities return, but many immigrants from Eastern Europe would
like to live and work in Ireland today. I think that the history of
the EU is the best proof that we need not be concerned about
accession, but rather, encouraged and well prepared for it.

TOL: Let’s turn to a political question. NATO
officials openly say that the possible return of [former Prime
Minister] Vladimir Meciar to power after the elections this
September would not be acceptable for them, and that Slovakia could
have problems gaining membership in the alliance in such a case.
What is the EU’s attitude toward Meciar?

Figel: The European Union is perhaps not so
explicit about Mr. Meciar, but its position is more or less in line
with that of NATO. We have received messages from EU Enlargement
Commissioner [Gunter] Verheugen, as well as from some leaders of EU
states, and they were very critical toward the previous government
[of Meciar]. I do not think that Germany, the United Kingdom,
Belgium, and others, which are members of both NATO and the EU,
will have two opinions on one policy. We can see that both NATO and
the EU are value-oriented organizations based on the protection of
human right, pluralistic democracy, a free media and human dignity,
and a free-market economy. Twice in the past, Slovakia has heard
the word “no”: at the July 1997 NATO summit in Madrid and at the
December 1997 EU summit in Luxembourg. I think that we now have a
good opportunity to hear the word “yes” at the November NATO summit
in Prague and at the December EU summit in Copenhagen.

TOL: Slovakia is only three months away from
parliamentary elections, and the results could be cruci al for the
completion of the EU accession process. Could Slovakia still lose
this historical opportunity?

Figel: Elections are a part of democracy. In
Slovakia’s case, we should not question our orientation but confirm
it. That confirmation means continuity in the basic orientation of
the country concerning values, geopolitics, and Euro-Atlantic
structures. I think that there is a potential for a repetition of
the outcome of the 1998 elections. The de jure winner and the de
facto winner [of the elections] might be different because it is
not enough to finish first, it is important to have a majority [of
the seats in parliament]. Perhaps a broader coalition of democratic
and credible parties might find the answer. […]

TOL: In the EU these days, one can hear voices
saying enlargement should be postponed. Are there any political
forces in Slovakia that could use this reluctance on the part of
the EU to call for the accession process to be slowed down or even
stopped altogether?

Figel: Until now, we have avoided any misuse of
EU topics or any attempts to turn EU integration into a dilemma.
The fact that support for EU accession is at an average of 70
percent [in public opinion polls] is a solid base for domestic
reforms, for a future referendum [on EU membership], and also for
the perception of Europe in Slovakia. It would be very negative for
Slovakia itself to damage this consensus, this majority for the EU.
I think we have an opportunity to maintain this level of support
until September and even after the September elections, which again
will be very important for the final stage of the negotiations.
[…]

TOL: Slovakia is viewed abroad as a strongly
religious country. Eighty-five percent of its citizens say they
belong to a church, most of them to the Catholic Church. How does
cooperation between church and state work with regard to the EU
integration process?  

Figel: The church in Slovakia enjoys high
credibility. The church and army are first in terms of people’s
trust. Generally in Slovakia, there is a lack of trust in
institutions. This is not good for the government and for the
parliament, but it is a very important message for the churches.
They should not be passive–so they will not be misunderstood–but
active and clear in describing the responsibilities of the people,
both at home and also among other nations. I think that the Slovak
religious denominations see European integration first of all as an
opportunity for more peace and stability in Europe and more
positive development among nations. It will be a new opportunity
for the continent, which served as a cradle for two world wars,
totalitarian regimes, and ideologies that deprived people of their
dignity and freedom. The churches should contribute to the
discussion and toward more unity. And unity in Europe will bring
more humanism and unity to the world outside Europe.

TOL: In Poland, the church and state
representatives signed an agreement committing them to supporting
the country’s European integration efforts. Is a similar step
planned in Slovakia?

Figel: I do not think that such an agreement is
the way for Slovakia. The churches have representatives in the
national convention and take part in the discussions. The Catholic
bishops are preparing a pastoral letter for September this year on
the topic of European integration, which might bring more
encouragement for this issue.

TOL: Slovakia is the only candidate country that
has adopted a special declaration on sovereignty in ethical and
cultural questions. Parliament adopted the declaration earlier this
year. What is the aim of this declaration? What reactions did you
meet with abroad? At home, the declaration was criticized as
promoting Slovakia as a conservative country.

Figel: The aim of this declaration was to raise
a voice in the debate on the future of the EU in time for the next
intergovernmental conference on reforming the common institutions
of the EU. The Slovak parliament expressed its wish to keep the
jurisdiction over ethical and cultural issues at the national
level, meaning to maintain the current division of powers. That is
very important because our identity is part of our heritage; it is
just as important for Eastern Europe as it is for Western Europe.
[…]

There are trends in Europe that speak about more
integration, more common policies, more federation for Europe. But
I believe that the union should remain a sui generis community–a
very special case, which is neither the United States of Europe nor
just bunch of states with one market, a sort of common marketplace,
but a community of nations. It must be a community of states and
nations that share common values and principles important for their
domestic and continental interests. Until now, it has been so, and
that is why the union has been successful.

Barbora Tancerova is TOL’s correspondent in
Slovakia.

To read more about the candidate countries,
please visit

Transitions Online.  

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