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Slovakia: Austria Urges Quick Integration Into EU

By Sue Tapply

Vienna, 13 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- One of Austria's top trade delegates says the Austrian economy will lose out if Slovakia fails to win early integration into the European Union.

In comments during a visit to Bratislava, Phillip Marboe said last week that some 1,500 Austrian firms have established themselves across the border in Slovakia, and that the country has become a major target for Austria's eastward expansion.

Marboe said that in view of this, it's vital for Austria that Slovakia be in the first group of eastern European nations to join the EU so that this partnership can continue to grow.

He said the importance of Slovakia to Austrian firms is such that Vienna should use its influence with the EU authorities to consider Slovakia's application more favorably.

Slovakia has signed an association agreement with the EU, but its chances of early full membership are seen to have dimmed because of concern about Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's government. Brussels, like the United states, has warned that unless Meciar shows greater commitment to building democracy, Slovakia's early integration into European structures will be jeopardized.

The sort of thing that the EU is worried about include last year's amendment to the penal code which would have jeopardized freedom of speech, of assembly and of the press. That amendment was only prevented from becoming law by a veto by President Michal Kovac.

Another example is the proposed state-of-emergency law, which the Slovak opposition views as a possible preparation by the Meciar government for limiting basic civic rights.

The EU's Executive Commission is expected to publish later this year its formal opinions on candidate members from Central and Eastern Europe. Most officials in Brussels point to the year 2002 as the earliest possible entry date for new EU members.

In his comments, Marboe appeared unconcerned at the shadows falling across Slovakia's political performance, and at the toughening economic equation it faces. He praised as "very impressive" the way Slovakia has adapted to the new free-market economic conditions, saying Slovakia and Poland have the highest economic growth of all the former eastern bloc countries.

He noted Slovakia's overall trade and balance of payment deficits, but he said there's the possibility of considerable improvement in this area as the year progresses in view of Bratislava's present export offensive.

An RFE/RL correspondent reports that trade between Austria and Slovakia is booming. She says that in the first 10 months of last year Austrian exports grew by 13.6 percent compared with the same period the year before, reaching just over 4,000 million schillings (about $363 million).

The import-export totals between the two are well balanced, with Austrian exports for the full year 1996 expected to be some 5,000 million schillings, for 5,200 million schillings of Slovak imports. This will be the first time the trade total between the two will have exceeded more than 10,000 million schillings.

Austria is one of the top foreign investors in Slovakia, having pumped over $170 million into that country since 1989. One third of Austrian investment is in the banking and service sectors, another third in the trade and transport and the rest in production.