Central European Initiative - the region's largest gathering of national leaders

Photo: CTK

Leaders of 17 central, eastern and southeast European countries met in the Slovak spa town of Piestany on Friday. On the agenda of what is known as the Central European Initiative are relations with the European Union and the ambitions of countries such as Ukraine, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania to join the EU. Rob Cameron was in Piestany for Radio Prague and says the Central European Initiative includes a very mixed bunch of nations:

"Seven members are EU members, five of whom recently joined - the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Poland. The ten other countries range from the Balkan states to countries like Moldova and Belarus. So it's a really diverse range of countries. The whole idea now of the CEI is for the new members to help those that are still trying to get in, such as Bulgaria and Romania."

But there are some countries there which are a long way away from joining. If we take Belarus, for example. So, what's the message for a country like that?

Photo: CTK
"The message I think is: this is how far we have got in the years that we have been members of the CEI, perhaps you can take us as an example of how a former Soviet bloc country [e.g. Latvia and Lithuania] can join. But as you suggest there, countries like Belarus and Moldova have no real aspirations to joining the European Union anytime soon. But with regards to countries such as Ukraine perhaps - a year ago, just after the Orange Revolution, there was much talk of when it could join the EU and that has all gone very quiet in recent months; obviously that is much more of a pressing concern to the CEI than countries such as Belarus."

Slovakia is hosting it and if you read the financial press, Slovakia is held up as one of the great economic success stories of the past few years. Is Slovakia seeking to show its example to other countries?

Finance Minister Bohuslav Sobotka
"Very much so. Part of the whole idea of the CEI is its rotating presidency. Each year a different member hosts the organisation. It's a kind of showcase to the other members. Slovakia, as you mentioned there, has made real strides in economic policy in recent years. It has got a flat tax of 19 percent across all areas of its commercial life and it has attracted a great deal of foreign direct investment as well. So it is really trying to set trends in the region and in many ways, in terms of pension reform it is much further than Hungary, Poland, or the Czech Republic."

It is also represented in Southeast Europe - the Balkan states. What's the message there? Are they being encouraged to move towards the European Union, to settle old differences? This week, it's ten years since the Dayton Agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia.

"I think the message is 'we will do what we can to strengthen the bonds of peace and stability in your region'. That was what the Czech Prime Minister, Jiri Paroubek, told journalists; that the CEI can help to consolidate peace and stability with peace keeping missions and support and negotiations, and so on. So, I think the message is to keep the peace and stability on track and let economic prosperity follow."