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Europe

Stoiber Says Czechs Unfit for EU Membership

Riled by a speech given by the Czech Republic's Prime Minister justifying the historical expulsion of ethnic Germans, Edmund Stoiber says the Czechs should repeal the Benes decrees or be barred from EU admission.

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The Czech government forced ethnic Germans like those pictured here into exile in 1945.

Earlier this week, Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber, the opposition Union bloc's candidate for chancellor, questioned whether the Czech Republic is fit for admission into the European Union following remarks made by the Czech Republic's Prime Minister justifying the expulsion of three million Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II.

The latest sparring between politicians in the neighboring European countries has intensified a quarrel that has become the thorn in the side of German-Czech relations.

Ministerpräsident Edmund Stoiber in Nürnberg

Edmund Stoiber

"If, in the year 2002, anyone defends acts of expulsion and denial of rights which happened over 57 years ago, then they must be prepared for all Europeans to question whether they are ready to be part of Europe," Stoiber (photo) said, speaking at an annual meeting of Sudeten Germans in Nuremberg on Sunday.

Stoiber said the Czech Republic should be excluded from the EU until it repeals the Benes decrees, which ordered the expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans and many Hungarians from the Sudentenland region in 1945.

"No state in the EU can approve of expulsions," Stoiber said, calling the continuing existence of the decrees "intolerable."

Stoiber and other critics say the symbolic law fuels discrimination against minority Germans still living in the Czech Republic.

"They wished to go home"

Czech Prime Minister Milosh Zayman sparked the attack during a speech given at a commemoration of victims of the Theresienstadt concentration camp on Sunday that was also attended by First Lady Laura Bush, the wife of U.S. President George W. Bush.

"They wished to go home, to the (Adolf Hitler's) Reich. So they went," Zayman said of the expulsions.

A day earlier, a key Zayman deputy, Vladimir Spidla, told the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" that the Benes decrees, which were approved by the Allies, were "one of the sources of peace," and that "the German minority was identified then as one of the possible sources of conflict."

"Foolish"

Germany's Interior Minister, Otto Schily, responded by calling Zayman's remarks "foolish." At the same time, he criticized opposition candidate Stoiber, whose statements he characterized as nationalistic and inflammatory.

Schily also called on the Czech Republic to repeal the Benes decrees. But he was booed when he added that the question of reparations should not be made a prerequisite for the Czech Republic's EU admission.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a Green, also took issue with Stoiber's speech. He said that the creation of any barriers to Czech entry into the EU would "seriously damage German interests." He added that Stoiber's comments were unrealistic and should not be taken seriously.

The debate over the Benes decrees, named for former Czechoslovak President Eduard Benes, continues to cast a shadow over German-Czech relations as the former Eastern bloc nation prepares for membership in the EU in 2004.

Pressure mounts

Benes-Dekrete werden nicht zurückgenommen

Czech Premier Milos Zeman (left)

In an April vote, the Czech parliament refused to repeal the decrees, saying their passage had been justified given the treatment of Czechoslovakians under the hands of the Nazis. The Czechs also refuse to pay damages to the Germans whose property was expropriated by the government at the time of their expulsion.

And earlier this year, Zayman called the Sudeten Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II, Hitler's "fifth column."

Dispute over the issue seriously damaged relations to both Austria and Germany, with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder cancelling a planned trip to Prague earlier this year.

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