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Germany

Fischer to Assuage Czech-German Diplomatic Distress

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer visits Prague on Wednesday, aiming to bring the Czechs back into good stead with the European Union after controversial comments by Prime Minister Milos Zeman.

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Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman is looking at getting a lesson in manners

With its delicate balancing act of national interests the European Union is bound to have an even-keeled foreign policy featuring as few provocative comments as possible, and an ample supply of olive branches.

But enlargement of the 15-member EU, with a first wave planned for 2004, means that countries less accustomed to diplomatic graces will join. They will be asked to cultivate finer etiquette.

This is why German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer found himself in Prague Wednesday, ostensibly for long-planned political talks but also to put out the fire that lately has roared from the mouth of Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman.

In recent weeks, Zeman raised the EU’s ire by comparing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler, both "terrorists" in Zeman’s view as reported by Israel’s respected Ha’aretz newspaper.

Then, defending Czech interests regarding the Temelin nuclear power plant against Austrian calls for its closure, he called Austrian far-right populist Jörg Haider a "post-fascist" and a one-man "political Chernobyl", stirring fury amongst Haider’s powerful allies in Vienna.

Zeman went on to strain relations with the entire German-speaking world by calling the Sudeten Germans, expelled from Czech lands en masse at the end of World War II, as Hitler’s "fifth column." This came just as Germany slips
into a national debate, prompted by a new novel by Nobel prize-winner Günter Grass, about the unrecorded, unacknowledged misery of some 13 million ethnic German
refugees from countries like Czech Republic and Poland.

Sound-bites and sensitivity

The problem, as the EU sees it, is insensitivity – reducing complicated politics and history into "sound-bites" and simplistic generalization. Czech President Vaclav Havel has joined in the criticism of Zeman, expressing "concern" at his fire-breathing.

As for Fischer, his visit is an attempt to assuage distress, especially stemming from the Sudeten question, that could dash plans for a March visit by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

But it may be difficult to put out this fire. The latest opinion polls suggest that just 50 percent of Czechs favor joining the EU, mostly because they fear, justifiably, "second-class" membership that accords them fewer rights than the current 15, including Germany and Austria.

Likewise, the Sudeten question looks very different from opposite sides of the Czech-German and Czech-Austrian borders.

Sudeten Blues

For the Czechs it looks threatening that a group of Sudeten Germans forced to move to Austria after the war has gone to court in the United States, suing to win rights to take back property potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars. For the Czechs to buckle under this pressure would
contradict a policy approved when the Allies decided the shape of post-War Europe at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 – the reason why the issue has so long been taboo and why in Prague it has been moot for decades.

For Germans and Austrians, meanwhile, this is a moment for the breaking of historical taboos. Grass, the author, set it in motion with his new book "Krebsgang" (Crab Walk), and it has sparked new interest in an issue until now the domain of neo-Nazis.

The expulsions of eastern Germans were, in many cases, cruel and wholesale, including non-political Germans and children. Polish Prime Minister Lezcek Miller, in stark contrast to Zeman, has spoken out about the suffering of
Germans expelled from his country.

"I know that suffering," Miller said, because of his family name, which the fatherless prime minister explained is
probably German.

On the other hand, a Czech government spokesman pointed out in the Prague Post, anti-fascist Sudeten Germans were invited to stay after the war. It was not a wholesale expulsion, however imperfect.

But Fischer and his counterpart, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan, will not succeed in sorting out such matters. Wednesday’s visit is not the occasion for historical debate, rather a lesson in manners.

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