London, 28 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Slovakia's Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan says his country wants to be transferred into the so-called "first tier" of Central and East European countries that have already embarked on accession talks with the European Union.
His message in London yesterday was that the Slovak government elected four months ago represents a complete break from the era of former prime minister Vladimir Meciar. He said Slovakia is now determined to build a fully democratic state, thus meeting the political criteria for EU membership.
The EU has opened substantive membership talks with five Central and East European countries --Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia-- with a view to them joining the union sometime early next century.
But the EU's Executive Commission, worried about the democratic failings of the Meciar regime, ruled two years ago that Slovakia would have to wait because of its failure to meet democratic political criteria.
Speaking to the Royal Institute of International Affairs last night, Kukan used the metaphor of a train leaving a station to describe the dilemma in which the new Slovak Center-Right coalition government finds itself.
"The train heading to the final station --integrated Europe-- which had such a promising start, and in the departure hall of which Slovakia stood side by side with its neighbors, was slowed down by the previous political leadership in Slovakia."
But Kukan said that the Slovak Republic "can catch up on ... and that finally she will be one of the first associated countries from Eastern and Central Europe to join the EU."
Kukan, a professional diplomat, pledged his government was determined to do everything necessary to achieve the goal of early EU membership. In last September's elections, he said, Slovak citizens showed that they wanted to live in what he called a "state respecting democratic principles, in a prosperous and socially fair society... They see the future of Slovakia in the EU, and not in international isolation."
Kukan also said the new government has identified what he described as "obstacles on our path" to the EU, and wants to remove them. He noted that it has already taken important steps in areas such as democratization and minority-rights protection.
Kukan pointed out that, despite some difficulties in economic and financial areas, the strength of the Slovak economy is at least comparable with those of other candidate EU members. He noted that Slovakia's gross domestic product, compared on a per capita basis, was 41 percent of the EU average in 1996 (according to European Commission data). It thus ranked behind Slovenia (59 percent) and the Czech Republic (55 percent), but ahead of Hungary (37 percent) and Poland (31 percent), as well as all other area candidate countries.
Two months ago, the European Commission's annual evaluation report on Slovakia dashed Bratislava's hopes of being elevated to the first tier of Eastern countries seeking EU accession. The Commission did not recommend expanding the group of five, plus Cyprus.
Kukan said the report, coming so soon after the September elections, could not reflect the changes in his country, and "was more or less evaluating the activity of the previous government." But he noted that the European Parliament, in a resolution last month, had recognized Slovakia's new progress in meeting the EU's accession criteria, recommending that it should be included in the first-tier group of candidates.
The Parliament's resolution called on the European Commission, in it words, to "reassess the situation in Slovakia" so that a decision to begin substantive negotiations could be taken before the end of the present German presidency of the EU on June 30.
Kukan said the transfer of Slovakia into the first-tier group would help stabilize relations in the area, and lead to "the removal of the unequal positions" of various Central European countries. He said the level of preparedness for EU accession of Slovakia, now readmitted to the area's Visegrad Group, is comparable to that of the other members, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. He added that it was desirable from a historical and political perspective to accept all four Central European nations into the Union at the same time or at least in parallel.
Kukan also made a strong plea for Slovakia's entry into the NATO military alliance, saying he believes that the decision on initiating accession talks with his country will be taken in the course of this year. Otherwise, he said, the Slovak people will be very disappointed.
"We do believe that our country was only temporarily delayed in the process of EU and NATO enlargement. Slovak society has long been growing on the same historic roots and shares the same civilization values as our western, northern or southern neighbors. We would appreciate if our partners in NATO and the EU, including the UK, recognized as soon as possible the positive changes in the domestic and foreign policy of the Slovak Republic, and reviewed their standpoint in relation to our integration ambitions."
Among those in the audience last night was visiting Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan who, like Kukan, had talks in London yesterday with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.