Slovakia warning over risks of referendum on enlargement

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Series Details Vol.7, No.25, 21.6.01, p2
Publication Date 21/06/2001
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Date: 21/06/01

By David Cronin

Asking voters whether they support the Union's eastward expansion could have disastrous results, Slovakia's chief negotiator with the EU has warned.

In an interview with European Voice, state secretary for European integration Jàn Figel said he was relieved that Austria's senior government party, the Christian Democrats, has ruled out holding a referendum on enlargement. This is despite calls by its coalition partners, Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party, to put the issue to a vote.

If it had gone ahead, it seems likely that Austria would have voted no: a recent Eurobarometer survey found that 50 of Austrians oppose welcoming the ex-communist countries of central and eastern Europe into the Union's fold and observers believe that figure to be steadily rising.

Referring to Ireland's vote against the Nice Treaty, Figel said: "Referendums are very sensitive tools of democracy. "It can be difficult to exclude enlargement questions from other issues on the domestic political scene. Sometimes crises can be a catalyst to subsequent steps but I wouldn't like to see other question marks around the future of enlargement. "That would be like having too much salt in a meal. "

The centre-right politician nonetheless described the declaration from last weekend's Göteborg summit on the "irreversible" nature of enlargement as "satisfactory for the candidates and quite ambitious for the Union".

Due to EU concerns over the legacy of corruption bequeathed by the country's despotic ex-Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, Slovakia only started its accession talks in February 2000, almost three years behind the Czech Republic.

But Slovakia has swiftly caught up with its neighbour. Seventeen of the 30 thematic 'chapters' on which the talks are based have been closed in Bratislava's case - including those on the free movement of goods, foreign policy, company and employment law - leaving it only slightly behind Prague.

Figel said he was confident that Slovakia will be a Union member in time for its voters to elect MEPs in the 2004 European election. He admitted, though, that the European Commission's decision to temporarily freeze Union aid to his country two months ago over corruption reports had been a significant setback.

The scandal led to the resignation of Roland Toth, then director of the Slovak foreign-aid department, over allegations he had embezzled up to €40 million. "There are very important lessons to be drawn from this matter, which has received a lot of attention in both the public and in parliament. We will surely learn from that," said Figelo.

Reforms are being made to the country's judicial system in response to the controversy, including giving its Supreme Court the power to examine how Union aid is spent.

The dossier is also under examination by the Union's anti-fraud office, OLAF.

Interview with Slovakia's chief negotiator with the EU, Ján Figel.

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