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Europe

The Czech Republic - A Bumpy Ride into the EU

While economic ties are strengthening, Czech-EU relations are strained after a row of controversial comments by prime minister Milos Zeman and an ongoing debate over the expulsion of ethnic Germans after WWII.

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EU-Czech relations are not all smiles - not least due to prime minister Milos Zeman's recent fire-breathing

Vaclav Havel has been presiding over the Czech Republic since its creation in 1993. With only one more year to go, he is determined to see his second five-year term out with his country’s accession to the EU.

The Czech Republic is expected to join the EU in 2004. But human rights issues have continued to be a sore spot in EU-Czech relations. And loud-mouthed prime minister Milos Zeman has not done much to help.

Earlier this year, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer travelled to Prague to put out the fire laid by prime minister Milos Zeman, who sparked indignation among EU ranks after comparing Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler.

Zeman went on with his fire-breathing and called the Sudeten Germans, ethnic 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.

It ended with calls throughout Europe to bar the Czech Republic accession to the EU.

And the issue continues to overshadow Czech-EU relations.

Calls to repeal

In April, the Czech parliament voted unanimously to reject attempts to reopen the issue of post-war expulsion of 2.5 million ethnic Germans.

The decision was made despite calls from various European leaders to repeal post-war decrees issued by the then president, Edvard Benes, which provided for the expulsion and the confiscation of their property.

Yet so far, some in the EU tend to regard the Czech Republic and its loudspoken prime minister as a rather bad-mannered, untrained dog.

Concern has been expressed by parties from various European sides, but so far, the EU is more interested in getting the Czech Republic into the club, than seeing it panting at its gates.

Steady flow

More than 65 per cent share of the country's foreign trade is with the EU. European Union member states are the largest investors in the country.

European Union support has been flowing steadily since 1990 with the Phare Programme. Phare is one of the three pre-accession instruments financed by the European Communities to assist the candidate countries in their preparations for joining the European Union. Some 540 million euro ($ 490 million) were committed to Phare national programmes in the Czech Republic from 1990 to 1999.

This steady flow has helped the country in business development, education and training, agriculture, environment and infrastructure - and has played its part in the Czech Republic's current economic upswing.

Real Czech GDP growth is at 3.6 per cent in 2002. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, rising import demand in the EU will add a boost to the Czech economy, with growth rising to 4.2 per cent in 2003.

Looking to the West

When Czechoslovak foreign minister Jiri Dienstbier cut through the barbed wire on the country's border with Germany in late 1989, many Czechs felt they were returning to the part of the world they historically belonged to - the West. Since then, every Czech government has declared aspirations to achieve EU membership of the European Union.

But recent opinion polls show a mere 50 per cent of Czechs in favour of joing the EU, mostly because they fear "second-class" membership which accords them fewer rights than the current 15 member states, including Germany and Austria.

This attitude fits well with opposition leader Vaclav Klaus' fears that EU membership may suffocate the Czech Republic's autonomy.

Indeed, Klaus loathes the EU and is given to emotive hectoring. EU membership has already become an election issue, as Klaus hopes to win more votes on the right from those who agree with his idea of "Euro-realism".

Fed up

Current polls are showing a run off between the the centre-left Social Democrats, led by a loud-mouthed Milos Zeman, and the Civic Democrats, commanded by Vaclav Klaus.

Voters are fed up with the horse-trading going on between – supposedly – oposition parties, and the prospect of a new parliament leaves most unthrilled.

Klaus may clearly be the more charismatic of the two. But the success of the Civic Democrat, known for his loathing of the EU, may prove a stumbling block for the Czech Republic’s long-awaited EU membership.

Shared views

The current government's "Mission to the EU", says: "More importantly, the Czechs have always shared the European civilisation and cultural values".

Most of the Czech Republic's borders are with EU member states. But the EU and the Czech Republic are still world's apart.

In 2000, the Temelin nuclear power plant sparked a major row with Austria. Austrian authorities and environmentalists argued the reactor was unsafe.

Milos Zeman

This year, loud-mouthed Milos Zeman (photo) sailed into a diplomatic storm after comparing Yasser Arafat with Adolf Hitler, infuriating the Arab world.

And minority issues, of which the EU has been critical in the past, came to a head in 1999: EU ministers called for the destruction of a wall which had been built in the Czech town of Usti Nad Labem to seperate Gypsies from other local residents.

Whether the Czech Republic manages to show more diplomatic grace and manages to level out sore EU-Czech relations, time - and the June elections, may tell.

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