Slovenia’s Road Ahead – An interview with Eric van der Linden

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Eric van der Linden arrived in Ljubljana in June
2000, as head of the European Commission Delegation to Slovenia.
The small Alpine nation is considered a frontrunner among EU
candidate countries. The recently released European Commission
report on Slovenia’s progress (available online here as a PDF file)
was also mostly positive.

We sat down to talk with Eric van der Linden
about Slovenia’s road ahead.

Central Europe Review: We often hear about what the
European Union can offer Slovenia in terms of development aid,
security, etc… but what can a small country like Slovenia (pop.
2,000,000) offer the EU?

Eric van der Linden: Slovenia, given its
geographic position, would be an asset for the European Union as
far as developing relations with southeastern Europe, and in
contributing to creating peace, security and stability, which are
necessary to have a really secure, stable Europe.

The Commission issues 13 regular reports on the
progress of candidate countries towards accession. What are your
thoughts on the recent report on Slovenia?

First of all, I think it was the most positive
report that has been written up until now. Enormous and significant
progress has been made in many, many areas, in particular an area
which we had until now underlined, like the backlog in court
cases.

A lot of progress has been made. Progress has
also been made in the important internal market issues, in justice
and home affairs. In fact, I could name practically all the
chapters. There is one area, and I mentioned this also in
Parliament [on 14 November], where more efforts are necessary but
the authorities are aware of this; it concerns regional policy.

Now, as far as the administrative capacity [of
Slovenia] is concerned-there is not a lack of it. In fact, I think
that Slovenia has a better record than most other candidate
countries, but more needs to be done. One thing is to transpose
community legislation into the national legal framework, another is
to implement it and to enforce the implementation. Institutions
have been created, and a lot has been accomplished, but more still
needs to be done.

You visited a high school in Maribor recently. How does the
reaction between generations differ with regard to the EU? And what
was the general response of students?

Well, I was positively surprised by the
questions raised by the students. It is very important to address
the students-be it of the last years of high school or
university-because they are also part of those who have to vote in
a referendum for or against membership.

Eurobarometer [public opinion surveys conducted
on behalf of the European Commission] has shown that the younger
generation is rather skeptical as far as the Euro is concerned. So
I find it of prime importance to speak in high schools and I must
say that the aggressiveness of some of the questions greatly
impressed me.

And what impressed me even more is the degree of
information of the students on EU questions. They clearly listen
carefully to the news. They read and they think. And I believe that
for the future of Europe this is a very healthy development.

What do you tell Slovenes about the soon-to-arrive
Euro?

The main message is that when you are a tourist
and you are traveling between member states you will not undergo
exchange costs anymore. When you get money in a cash-withdrawal
system in Barcelona, you can pay with the same money in Copenhagen
and in Rome, so there is a practical advantage also.

For the business community, it is of course
necessary that they adapt to this as well. And for those Slovene
nationals who have some EU currencies in their portfolio, they have
to know that there are deadlines within which they can change this
money into Euros.

One issue that has come up is national sovereignty and
Slovene feelings of statehood. As we know, Slovenia declared
independence from a federal structure (the former Yugoslavia) just
ten years ago. It is now set to join the EU by 2004. Is identity an
important concern? Should it be?

I understand this concern, because the country
is young and people think that they will go into a gigantic club,
so that their own character is going to be lost. Well, my reply is
simply that Europe is a Europe of diversity. The Danes maintain
their character, the Dutch maintain their character, and so on for
various member states, of course. And there is no risk whatsoever,
in my view, that Slovene identity will be lost.

Now, as far as sovereignty is concerned, clearly
a bit of sovereignty will have to go to Brussels, where the EU will
have its say over various aspects of policy. But this is something
that all candidate countries are well aware of, and most of
them-including Slovenia-have made the constitutional amendments
that will allow for this to take place.

Is it reasonable to assume that Slovenia will make it into
the European Union by 2004? That they will cut their inflation rate
and solve other problems?

In all honesty, I think that the problems that
Slovenia has left to address are probably of a more modest nature
than those which many other candidate countries-within the
remaining time frame-have to address. So there are a number of
outstanding issues. They are well known, and they will be
tackled.

There are two schools of thought about EU expansion, which
can be summed up with the terms “little bang” (a small wave of
initial applicants) and “big bang” (many at once). How does
Slovenia fit into this and what is your opinion about it?

Well, whether there will be a big or a small
bang, Slovenia will be part of the bang.

For more Central Europe Review analyses go to
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