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Europe

Germans and Czechs Turn a New Page on Troubled Past

Chancellor Schröder was in the Czech Republic on Friday to mend strained relations with Prague. The nation's looming EU entry and the delicate issue of a new European constitution topped talks with his Czech counterpart.

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Czech Prime Minister Spidla (left) and German Chancellor Schröder in Prague on Friday.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made a long-delayed visit to Prague when he arrived in the Czech capital for a one day visit on Friday. In March last year, Schröder abruptly scrapped a visit to the city amid an ugly row over the so-called Benes decrees.

Under the decrees, 2.5 million Germans were expelled by the Czech authorities from the Sudeten territories after World War II. They were stripped of property and citizenship; most had supported the Nazis when they annexed the borderlands in 1938 and the rest of Czechoslovakia in 1939.

At the time of the row last March, the country’s then prime minister, Milos Zeman, described the Sudeten Germans as "Hitler’s fifth column" and defended their expulsion as a "mild punishment." The statements sparked outrage and anger in Germany and led to a souring of relations between the two neighbors.

Moving beyond the past and looking ahead

This time round, the past played just a fringe role in Schröder’s visit to Prague. The Chancellor seemed eager to bury the hatchet and move on.

"The past shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the future," he told journalists. "The Czech Republic and Germany have every reason to look forward; what has sometimes led to misunderstandings or differences of opinion should be relegated to the past."

In fact -- Schröder pointed out -- a 1997 Czech-German declaration binds the two countries not to burden bilateral relations with controversies from the past.

The current Czech Prime Minister, Vladimir Spidla, concurred with Schröder's forward looking remarks, stressing that relations between the two countries should be focussed on the future. "The bilateral relationship is at its highest point in the long-running common history of the two countries," he said.

Schröder was honored on Friday by several Czech organizations for his role in supporting compensation payments for the 75,000 Czech victims of forced labor under the Nazis. Spidla said Schröder’s initiative was an important contribution towards the development of good relations between the two countries.

Czechs dissatisfied with EU draft constitution

But apart from the niceties and eagerness to let bygones be bygones, the two leaders had their work cut out for them on the political front.

This week, the Czech Republic, due to join the European Union on May 1, 2004 along with 14 other small and medium-sized countries, insisted on changes to the draft European Union constitution.

Spidla raised objections to the draft text of the EU constitution, which foresees reducing the European Commission from the current 20 representatives to 15 (whereby each country won't have a permanent representative) and proposes a longer-term EU president to replace the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency. The Czechs, along with other smaller candidate countries, fear that the constitution favors larger EU states like Germany and France.

In an interview with the German radio station DeutschlandRadio earlier this week, Spidla said he expected "relatively tough" negotiations over the document, referring to an intergovernmental conference planned for October to prepare for the inking of the future constitution. "If the big countries hold out, the conference will fail," he said. Spidla urged the larger members of the EU to compromise on the sticking points.

On Friday, however, Spidla toned down his rhetoric. He stressed that he wanted to "negotiate successfully with an eye on the larger interest."

Schröder against fiddling with the draft constitution

But the Czech Republic’s stance towards the draft constitution has alarmed Germany, which wants to avoid fiddling with the document. Recently, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer appealed to smaller EU candidate countries not to torpedo the compromise text.

On Friday, after talks with Spidla, Schröder spoke out against tampering with the draft constitution. He said that he feared, "dismantling the packet would make it impossible to put it back together."

In an interview published by the Czech paper Mlada fronta Dnes on Friday, Schröder called on Czechs to make every effort to ensure that the future constitution was adopted before the end of the year by all members of the enlarged EU. "Czechs and Germans are among those who have a common responsibility to ensure that the EU can be led politically and that it remains operational," he said.

"Center of Expulsion" an unresolved issue

Another thorny issue that dominated the Czech-German talks involved the location of a controversial "center of expulsion" for millions of Europeans expelled from their homelands in the 20th century. The German government has been reluctant to house such a center in Berlin, and, on Friday, the Czechs came up with a host of alternate suggestions.

Prime Minister Spidla said Sweden could be a possible location for the center because of its neutrality. "When one is doing something like this, it should be in a country that isn’t burdened by history – like Sweden," he said.

The Czech President, Vaclav Havel, took a different view: "To be honest, I would prefer it if it (the center) was in Sarajevo instead of Berlin, or, better still, in Pristina or Kosovo." He added that a "forgotten country" was more appropriate than a "powerful one" like Germany.

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