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Czechs and Balances on Way To EU

Czechs are expected to vote in favor of joining the EU in a referendum Friday and Saturday. But with many leading politicians yet to endorse the referendum, support for Brussels in Prague may be tepid.

If there were such a thing, the Czech Republic should surely be awarded the Nobel Prize for skepticism.

At least that was the conclusion drawn by the European Union's commissioner for expansion, Günther Verheugen, during his last visit to the country before it holds a referendum on June 13 and 14 on EU membership.

Verheugen says that based on his experience, the Czechs are especially wary about what an expanded European Union might mean for their future. But his off-the-cuff remarks have drawn considerable criticism from euroskeptics in Prague. Jan Zahradil, the chief foreign policy expert for the populist opposition party ODS has very little understanding for Verheugen's humor.

"I don't care what Mr. Verheugen says," says Zahradil, who is a leading euroskeptic in Prague. "He's a European bureaucrat. What he says about the Czechs is his thing."

As an observer in the European Parliament and a member of the European Convention, Zahradil has also been a consistently critical voice in the debate over the constitution that will map out an expanded Europe's future.

"In my opinion, we don't need an EU constitution, especially not the kind they are conceiving now at the convention," he says.

In fact, Zahradil is displeased with the entire direction of the convention. In his opinion, the proposed creation of an office for an EU president will merely serve to diminish the sovereignty of the EU member states. And he argues that the introduction of qualified majority decision-making will increase the dominance of the larger EU countries like Germany and France. Nor does he care for the idea of appointing a European foreign minister.

"European foreign policy should be based on consensus and not on majority decisions," he says. "In my opinion, the designation of a 'European foreign minister' is totally inappropriate because it implies that there's a European government that includes a foreign minister. But of course that doesn't exist."

Majority support membership

Despite, or perhaps because of, these reservations, Zahradil says he plans to vote in favor of Czech Republic membership in the EU this weekend. "We can only have an influence once we're a part of it," he said.

If you believe the opinion polls, most Czechs seem to agree with Zahradil. In fact, 82 percent of people planning to vote who were surveyed recently by pollster TNS-Factum said they would vote in favor of EU membership. And the chances are very good that the referendum will pass without any hitches. Unlike Poland, where officials feared the required 50 percent of voters would not turn out, the Czech Republic requires only a simple majority.

Ironically, Czech President Vaclav Klaus, also a member of the OTS Party, has been reluctant to endorse EU membership. Instead, Klaus's comments on the vote, which comes on his 100th day in office, have been more like a warning.

"Every one of us has a say in the referendum and whether the Czech Republic should voluntarily give up an important part of its sovereignty and independence to a larger supranational body in exchange for the possibility of having a say in a part of this entity," Klaus said recently.

Vaclav Klaus

Former Czech premier and Civic Democrats' candidate Vaclav Klaus was elected president this year

But Klaus (photo) has also repeatedly offered an ominous analogy to his compatriots, warning that the Czech Republic could disintegrate into the EU like a lump of sugar in a hot cup of Brussels coffee. In contrast to the people Klaus has called the Euro-Unionists, Klaus likes to describe himself as a "Euro-Realist." Nevertheless, he did sign the EU accession treaty on behalf of the Czech Republic at April's EU summit in Athens.

The critical view of the EU promoted by the president and opposition have dampened efforts to spread European euphoria through €6.5 million advertising and media campaigns. Indeed, the statements made by the country's center-left government about the referendum have been weak and have generated little enthusiasm.

Havel: This is history in the making

But two prominent Czech politicians -- including Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla and former President Vaclav Havel -- are publicly supporting the EU membership drive. The legendary author and independence hero Havel shrugs off criticism of Czech membership.

"A loss of sovereignty?" Havel asks. "I can only lightly laugh about that. We don't have fundamental independence anyway. In this globalized world, which I don't want to judge right now, no country located in the middle of such a developed region like Europe can have total sovereignty."

In Europe's history, there have been many violent and bloody attempts to transform Europe into a single kingdom. But in Havel's assessment, EU expansion represents the first-ever attempt to achieve a unified Europe through democratic and peaceful means. And it's a historic step that most Czech voters seem prepared to take.

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