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EU: Slovaks Push For Membership

The European Union is set to overhaul its enlargement process, and one of the countries determined to benefit from this is Slovakia. As correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports, Slovakia has made strides since embracing thorough reform only within the last year.

Prague, 23 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With a new reform-minded Executive Commission finally installed in Brussels, the process of enlarging the European Union looks set to undergo profound changes.

The new commission, headed by former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, held its first session at the weekend (Saturday), just a few days after Prodi called for a new vision of Europe. Prodi said what's needed is a comprehensive strategy that would cover the next 25 years. Such a strategy should set out the steps by which the EU's membership eventually will be doubled.

As a first practical move, he said the EU's upcoming Helsinki summit in December should seriously consider setting firm dates for the first wave of enlargement. That would cover front-running candidates like Poland, Hungary, Estonia, and Slovenia, which have already opened accession negotiations with Brussels.

Although Prodi did not refer to it in that particular speech, there is another important change to the enlargement process under consideration. Ambassador Antii Satuli of the current Finnish EU presidency said recently that support is growing for all 10 of the Eastern candidates to be offered concrete negotiations for EU membership. That would cover Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Romania, which so far have not been invited to negotiate. The Helsinki summit is expected to decide on that matter also.

Among the second group, one country is generally seen as having made the most strenuous efforts to prove its readiness for negotiations -- Slovakia. For years, Slovakia was cold-shouldered by Brussels, because of shortcomings in its democratization and economic reform under former prime minister Vladimir Meciar. But that changed with a bang a year ago, when the reformist government of Premier Mikulas Dzurinda took over.

Jan Kuderjavy is the head of the Slovak Foreign Ministry's EU Integration Section. He told RFE/RL he is optimistic about Slovakia's chances at the upcoming summit.

"We expect the decision in Helsinki should be positive as far as the invitation to Slovakia to open negotiations is concerned."

Typical of Slovakia's new "press-ahead" style, Kuderjavy explained that Slovakia wants its negotiations to cover a much broader front than was the case with the other candidates. He says the Slovaks aim to be ready by December for immediate talks on 15 of the EU's 29 chapter headings. That compares with an average of seven chapters tackled initially by "star" candidates like Poland and Hungary. And Kuderjavy says the planning does not stop there.

"Our negotiating teams are preparing for the negotiations. We are putting together the positions of the Slovak Republic on all 29 chapters, and step by step from our standpoint, I think more and more chapters could be opened. So we do not see real problems."

On democratization, Slovakia's progress can best be measured against a report made this week (Sept. 21) to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. The report, compiled in part by Latvian rapporteur Juris Sinka, analyzes how well Bratislava has been honoring its commitments as a Council of Europe member.

The report says there has been a clear change in Slovakia's image in the past year. It says that the new government has done much to remedy shortcomings in democracy. It praises, among other things, the constitutional reform allowing direct election of the president, the increased representation of the opposition on parliamentary committees, the freedom of the media, and improvements in the independence of the judiciary.

The report also sees considerable improvements with regard to Slovakia's minority populations, the largest of which is Hungarian. As rapporteur Sinka puts it:

"With regard to national minorities, I would like to remind the august audience that the Slovak Republic has some time ago ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of Minorities, and the new government has taken further steps for the protection of minorities."

These steps include the establishment of a parliamentary committee on minorities, and a new law on the use of minority languages in official communications.

There has also been progress on the difficult issue of the Roma population. A new post of government commissioner for Roma affairs has been created.

In conclusion, the Council of Europe report says further progress needs to be made in Slovakia, but that the country must be congratulated on what it has accomplished so far.