During the EU pre-accession negotiations, Peter Javorcik was part of the negotiating team, wrote the application on his computer, and sat next to chief negotiator JŠn Figel at the accession negotiations. He was responsible for making sure the Slovak side always had all documents and materials ready. He still works for the European Union.

Upon graduating from university, Peter Javorcik went straight into the Foreign Affairs Ministry. In 1992, when it was already clear that Czechoslovakia was falling apart, the Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry was being created. At the time he was 25 years old. "My entire class from the Institute of International Relations of Comenius University - Ivan Korčok and Rastislav Káčer were among my classmates - moved to the ministry and we started working as young diplomats," he recalls.

Today he is the Director General at the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU, the highest position held by a Slovak citizen in its administrative structures, contributing to the EU being able to agree on a common course of action in environmental protection, transport, education and energy.

Katarina Koznikova: How do you remember the day Slovakia joined the EU?

I have a lot of emotions. There is the sense of satisfaction and pride, as I had dedicated ten years to this goal, and it was fruitful. It was also very motivating; and then a good feeling when we succeeded. Slovakia also changed a lot during that ten-year journey. Perhaps the most in its entire history, not only from the point of view of law, but how society functioned overall, because the vision of joining was very motivating.

Officially, the accession began when then prime minister Vladimír Mečiar submitted the application at the 1995 European Council Cannes summit. Were you there?

I have a special relationship with the application. It was my first trip to a European summit. Actually, the application consisted of just two sentences; Slovakia is applying to join the EU, and a referral to the relevant article of the EU legislation. I wrote those sentences on my work computer and I carried the sheet signed by the then prime minister to Cannes in my suitcase.

What was the atmosphere like when you submitted the application? At that time, Slovakia was already receiving démarches in which EU institutions expressed concern about the development in the country.

Jacques Chirac, then French president and chairman of the European Council, did not really want to meet Mečiar personally, who no longer had a good reputation at that time. In the end, the submission did not even take place at a very formal meeting, but in a hotel lobby, and the application was just handed over to the French foreign affairs minister.

This was legal, it did not have to be handed to Chirac himself; but it was already a sign that our path to the union would not be easy.

How did Vladimír Mečiar feel about joining the Union?

He knew that his domestic policy was not compatible with the goal of joining the EU. When Slovakia was not invited to negotiations together with the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary in 1997, it was shocking and sobering. This was a clear sign that Slovakia was lagging behind and its place in the union was not guaranteed. Until then, the Government Office naively believed that if Slovakia's neighbours were invited, it would be as well. As it turned out, Slovakia was not invited. This probably motivated people and explains why the 1998 elections turned out the way they did. Suddenly, the situation in Brussels changed; while receiving Mečiar was crossing the line, receiving then new prime minister Mikuláš Dzurinda was problem-free; and we felt support, both from the EU and from the member countries at the time, for us to catch up very quickly with our neighbours in the integration process.

Was 1997 a shock for you, diplomats and officials?

No, we knew what was going on and that Slovakia wouldn't be invited. We wrote a lot about it and in detail from Brussels, where I was then the first secretary at the Slovak representation to the EU. However, our diplomatic warnings were not sufficient to motivate prime minister Mečiar to change Slovakia's course. The change occurred only after elections.

You mentioned prime minister Dzurinda. Would you be able to pick specific people thanks to which Slovakia is in the union?

At the political level, prime minister Dzurinda and the chief EU accession negotiator Ján Figel, who led the negotiation team. But the entire Slovak government was highly motivated, as was the Slovak parliament. When we told them that specific legislation had to be adopted in order to close a certain element of access, it was given priority and things went incredibly smoothly because the political motivation and will were both there. Then at the expert level, there were dozens of people in all ministries and at the representative office. Positions were prepared and coordinated, necessary legislative changes were made. It was a great team performance.

How was Slovakia perceived in Brussels after the fall of the Mečiar government? Was it four Central European countries again, or three countries plus a problematic one?

Because of Mečiar, Slovakia was in a bad position. After 1998, the situation changed radically, and even Brussels saw it.

At first, the neighbouring countries did not want to be in a position where Slovakia would hold them back, but when they saw its efforts to catch up, they offered their experience and advice so that it could proceed faster. Its interest in joining really brought the countries together.

Accession negotiations are a complex and long process, but why do they take years?

As in any club, you must meet its conditions to enter. When it comes to the EU, this means that you have to transpose European legislation into your own legal system. It started with the single market, continued with areas such as environment, transport, economic competition, then followed sectoral policies. That was our homework. Then there were the negotiations in Brussels. We negotiated transitional periods, or to obtain delays for legislation the conditions of which we knew we would not be able to meet by 2004.

Negotiations on financial matters were difficult, including what Slovakia's contribution to the union would be and how much would it receive for agriculture, regional policy for example. These were complex and long negotiations. We also unexpectedly got stuck here and there, for example, the negotiation on state aid for Slovak Volkswagen was surprisingly extremely sensitive for Spain. There was the threat that a certain part of production from a Seat plant near Barcelona could be moved to Slovakia.

The chief Slovak negotiator for accession was Ján Figel whose reputation was that of a very calm diplomat, in contrast to the chief Czech and Polish negotiators who were said to be rather aggressive in negotiations.

I was with Ján Figel at all negotiations and it's true that each negotiator has their own style. It's hard to say which is more advantageous. But with a calm negotiation focused on priorities just as Ján Figel led, one may achieve more than when you try to negotiate everything, even the less important issues. When you argue with facts and have everything you want backed up, it will carry more weight than an aggressive style. The latter may spur a not very positive counter-reaction.

Do you still remember what the very last negotiation was about?

Yes. At the last meeting, we concluded the geographical indication for the Slovak part of the Tokaj wine region. It was a very controversial topic. The commission tends to have a geographical indication in only one country and was not in favour of the Tokaj indication being in two. We argued with historical facts and eventually succeeded; the Slovak part of Tokaj has its own European geographical indication.

Owing to accession, in which legislation did Slovakia make the biggest leap?

In matters of environmental protection. For example, Slovakia had to adopt legislation in regards to air and water protection. This meant a generational leap for the better. At the same time, it was very sensitive; for example, Slovakia was given long transitional periods to which funds and finances were connected in order to build a sewage system.

In the end, Slovakia caught up with its neighbours in negotiations, which was no small feat. What was the strongest point of the Slovak negotiation team?

The coordination both within the team and with individual ministries worked very well. We knew how to work as one and the partial interests of individual ministers did not play a role. We hanged together during the negotiations. We really wanted to catch up with the countries that had a two-year head start in the negotiations. As such, we had to be very efficient and very quick.

Were there concerns about the enlargement of the union? Firstly, it was the largest expansion to date as 10 countries joined in 2004; and these were relatively different countries. Many of them, including Slovakia, were countries of the former communist bloc.

What I saw both in the institutions and among the older member states was that for them it was recompense for the artificial post-war division of Europe; that things got back on track and that the region containing Slovakia and its neighbours had always been a part of Europe. The 40-year period between the end of the war and 1989 was perceived as an anomaly, and the year 2004 as confirmation that it was right that we were back together.

Were there countries that were either more or less sceptical about Slovakia?

Of course, the then 15 members held a diverse spectrum of positions. Britain and the Nordic countries were stronger supporters, Germany was somewhere in the middle, Austria, as a neighbouring country, was concerned about the free movement of persons and was confronted with the practical consequences of an open market. Politically, Austria was supportive, but was wary of some concrete impacts resulting from the accession of new members.

What about southern European countries? Until Slovakia's accession, they were the largest recipients of financial aid from the EU.

There was an impact on the budget, that was why the budget negotiations were difficult. However, I must say that the political will to make Europe united again prevailed. And I don't remember Spain, Portugal, Greece or Ireland - strong recipients of funds at the time - having fundamental reservations about our entry. No one ever said that they were against Slovakia's accession. The sense of political responsibility prevailed over practical consequences.

How fragile is EU membership? Would you have guessed that Great Britain would leave?

When Slovakia joined and in the first years certainly not. No one would have at the time. The referendum in Britain came as a shock. Suddenly, we faced the difficult task of managing the exit of a large country. It was also a wake-up call for the union that membership is not a given. And it also served as an example that EU membership is not something to be trifled with. Then prime minister David Cameron did so, used it as part of an internal political struggle, and he himself did not want the exit yet the opposite happened.

In this regard, it's also a message for our politicians who are playing with fire. Britain survived its exit, but Slovakia is not in the same position, the consequences of its exit would be much more difficult.

What would Slovakia's legislation look like today if we had not joined the union?

In many ways, Slovakia would adopt union standards anyway, because I assume that Slovak companies would have liked to operate on the European market. Under business and economic pressure Slovakia would adopt a large part of the standards.

Speaking of which, do you feel that Slovakia values its EU membership?

Recently, less and less. I get the impression that the relationship with the EU is often relegated to the funds we receive. Perhaps it was a mistake that the amount the union provides us with was the most communicated issue at the beginning. The benefits that the internal market provides Slovak companies or students' opportunity to study under the same conditions have not been so well communicated. The broader political fellowship, the sense that Slovakia belongs to an EU with common values, is weakening. Perhaps it's also related to the fact that politics based on values is slowly disappearing from the Slovak political scene.

How do you feel about it?

I don't believe that there will be a day that Slovakia's exit will be the main topic. But I feel sorry when someone toys with the issue irresponsibly. We must strive to be a part of the union, but not just any part; not to be someone's Trojan horse or a slightly odd member who doesn't quite belong to the family.

Ex-prime minister Eduard Heger quite often spoke about our experience being useful to Ukraine in joining the EU. What does the pre-accession process look like now?

The process has changed a lot from 20 years ago. The union has moved on, the membership terms have increased and are stricter, the Western Balkan countries' accession process is taking much longer, and the original EU countries are a little bit more cautious. The issues of the union's capacity to absorb more countries are under much more discussion, whether it's financially and institutionally able to integrate nine more countries. Enlargement by Turkey is not on the agenda currently, so the accession of the Western Balkans countries, Ukraine, potentially Moldova with Georgia, is being addressed. However, Ukraine is specific in terms of financial impact. The other countries are relatively small, but institutionally-wise it makes a difference whether there are 27 or 36 countries. I think it can be done, but it will raise many questions.

Do you have an estimate as to when these countries could join?

I believe that they will join, that's the starting point, because not everyone identifies with it. It won't be before 2030, and when after that is still an open question.

Ukraine is probably an even bigger open question.

Yes. First of all, it needs to solve the questions of how to protect its territorial integrity and win the war, then the first years after the war will be about getting the country back on track. But it's important to keep Ukraine's motivation during these difficult years that the prospect of membership is here.

What weakens the EU most from the inside today?

It's not about everyone saying what Brussels commands, far from it. It must be remembered that Brussels is not just European institution officials, but mainly the joint decisions of the leaders of the member countries. And also that Brussels is comprised of national ministers and the European Parliament, who decide on the European legislation. In other words, it's also us who decide. But once we agree on something together, I think it's important that we hold a common line.

What does the EU mean to you personally?

A lifelong mission.

Do you see yourself as more European or Slovak?

Slovak, and I'm proud of it. But at the same time, I also see myself as a proud European.

TEFI

This article was written in the framework of The Eastern Frontier Initiative (TEFI) project. TEFI is a collaboration of independent publishers from Central and Eastern Europe, to foster common thinking and cooperation on European security issues in the region. The project aims to promote knowledge sharing in the European press and contribute to a more resilient European democracy.

Members of the consortium are 444 (Hungary), Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), SME (Slovakia), PressOne (Romania), and Bellingcat (The Netherlands).

The TEFI project is co-financed by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.