CZECH REPUBLIC IN THE EUROPEAN UNION
The Czech Republic and nine other countries, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus joined the European Union on the 1st May 2004.
On 13th and 14th June 2003 the Czech Republic crossed the final hurdle to membership, when a nationwide referendum showed nearly 80% support for EU membership, despite a disappointing turn-out of only 55%. Membership has also been endorsed in referenda in a further eight applicant countries.
THE CZECH REPUBLIC AND EU REFORM
The European Convention
At the EU Laeken summit in December 2001 a Convention was established to debate and put forward proposals for changes to the EUs founding treaties in preparation for expansion. Fourteen applicant countries, including the Czech Republic were given seats (but not voting rights) on the Convention, headed by former French president, Valery Giscard dEstaing. The Czech Republic was represented by deputy Foreign Minister, Jan Kohout, Senator and former Foreign Minister, Josef Zieleniec, and the shadow foreign minister Jan Zahradil from the largest opposition force, the Civic Democratic Party. Mr Zahradil, a Eurosceptic, politically closely allied to Britains Conservative Party, walked out of the very last meeting of the Convention in June 2003, claiming that its agenda had become too federalist. This view was firmly rejected by the other two Czech representatives on the Convention and by the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, but President Vaclav Klaus has made no secret of his opposition to further European political integration.
A Constitution for Europe
At a summit in Thessaloniki in June 2003, the Convention presented its draft for a new European Constitution with the declared aim of making the EU more accountable, less cumbersome and more transparent. Like most EU members and applicant countries, the Czech Republic expressed full agreement with over 90% of the points outlined in the lengthy document, but there are issues where both the Czech government and individual political parties have expressed doubts.
EU summit in Thessaloniki, photo: CTK
The Czech government went into the EU Inter-Government Conference launched in Rome on 4th October 2003, with a number of specific demands:
One country: one Commissioner. The draft Constitution proposes a system, whereby each member country will have one Commissioner, but only 15 of the 25 European Commissioners will have full voting rights. This is designed to prevent deadlock in what is effectively the government of the European Union. The Czech Republic and the other smaller countries fear that the change will weaken their influence. The draft constitution does allow for a system whereby the fifteen voting Commissioners will come from varying countries every five years, but the Czech Republic argues that this is not enough. The Czech prime minister has made it clear that he is determined not to abandon the principle of one Commissioner, one vote, a view shared by the other Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia).
Rotating presidency. One of the most controversial proposals in the draft Constitution is to end the current system of a six-month rotating presidency, giving each member country a turn at the helm. Instead, the draft proposes a European president elected by the European Council (the body made up of the heads of state or government of the member states) and approved by the European Parliament for a term of 2.5 years. The Czech Republic, alongside most of the other smaller countries, is opposed to the change, which it fears could concentrate power in the larger states, depriving the smaller countries of their guaranteed turn at the presidency. Another of the Czech Republics fears is that the institution of a European president could lead to the weakening and marginalization of the European Commission, which up to now has tended to favour smaller countries.
Rules for qualified majority voting. The Nice treaty of December 2000 defined new rules for decision-making in many areas of the EUs work, in order to prevent countries using their veto to block important decisions. The draft Constitution proposes adapting the system still further in favour of larger countries. In the main EU decision-making bodies it will be possible to approve most decisions with the support of half the member countries, provided that they represent at least 60% of the EU population. But the Czech Republic is one of several countries requesting a return to the original Nice proposal, whereby the support of three-fifths rather than just half of the member countries would be required for decisions to be approved. However, the Czech prime minister has indicated a willingness to show flexibility on this issue.
Mention of Christian values. The Czech government, in particular the Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda (a Christian Democrat), has shown itself to be mildly in favour of a mention of Europes shared Christian values in the preamble to the Constitution.
The Czech Republic, and the other Central European countries set to join next year are also keen for NATOs role in guaranteeing European security to be firmly rooted in the constitution.
Differing views within the Czech Republic
There is not a political consensus in the Czech Republic over EU reform. The right wing opposition Civic Democratic Party is one of the most Eurosceptic mainstream right-wing parties in Europe. The party leader Mirek Topolanek has made it clear that he sees no need for a European Constitution, a view shared by the partys former leader, Czech President Vaclav Klaus. It is no coincidence that the British Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith chose Prague as the place to launch his partys fiercely Eurosceptic platform in July 2003, standing alongside Mr Topolanek. Like the British Tories, the Civic Democrats are in favour of a referendum on the EU Constitution, but they have stopped short of rejecting the Constitution outright. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Communists, the third largest force in parliament, have also expressed scepticism over EU reform. They too are calling for a referendum on the Constitution. The Czech government will need the support of at least part of the opposition in order to ratify the Constitution when it is finally agreed, as the treaty will require a three-fifths majority in order to be approved by parliament, and the government currently enjoys only a fragile parliamentary majority.
Czechs are fond of recalling
that, geographically, Prague lies
further west than Vienna. And
it is worth repeating that
Czechoslovakia was an
independent democratic state
between the two world wars,
with a higher GDP per capita
than Austria. However, the Cold War meant that Czechoslovakia
and the other Soviet satellite states were cut off from the western
half of Europe for over 40 years. The collapse of Communism in
1989 was seen as a new chance for democracy, peace and unity in
Europe. This is still the challenge for Europe today. The Czech
Republic is on its way to a full 'return to Europe'
. At the heart of
Central Europe, the Czech Republic has ties with both its former
partners in Central and Eastern Europe, and its new partners in
The Czech Republic is joining NATO, photo: CTK
A milestone in European history was marked in March 1999 when
the Czech Republic along with two other former Warsaw Pact
member states, Poland and Hungary, joined NATO, the very
organization which the Warsaw Pact had been created to oppose.
As a NATO member, the Czech Republic contributes to the
Alliance's collective security strategy, and thus plays a role in
shaping the security configuration of the whole of Europe.
The next major step for the Czech Republic on its path back to
Europe is accession to the European Union. During the Cold War
era, there was neither mutual recognition nor contractual relations
between the European Community (as it was called then) and the
Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) and its
Communist member states, which included Czechoslovakia. The
Joint Declaration between the EU and Comecon of June 1988 on
mutual recognition between the two parties opened the way for
diplomatic relations between the EU and each of the Comecon
states. In 1989, the end of the Communist regimes and of
Comecon created entirely new conditions for relations. First, came
a network of bilateral trade and cooperation agreements, known
as the 'first generation' agreements. From 1991 onwards, more
comprehensive agreements known as Association Agreements or
Europe Agreements were being signed between the European
Community and the former Communist states. The name 'Europe
Agreement' is symbolic of the importance of these accords for the
European continent. The Czech Republic's Association Agreement
was signed in Brussels on October 4, 1993, entered into force on
February 1, 1995. March 30, 1997 was an important date for the
Czech Republic as it was selected along with five other candidates
to begin accession negotiations with the EU.
A milestone in the Czech Republic's
progress towards EU membership
was the EU Summit in the French
resort of Nice that took place from
the 7th to the 11th December
2000. Debate was long, complex
and sometimes fraught, making it
the longest summit in EU history,
but leaders agreed on a package of internal reforms to prepare the
Union for admitting up to twelve further members. It was agreed
that in future each EU member country will appoint one member of
the executive Commission, and that the biggest five EU members
will give up their second seat on the executive in 2005. Most
observers agree that, in practice, the influence of the Commission
will be reduced. EU leaders also decided how many votes all the
current and future members will have on the EU's legislative body,
the Council of Ministers: France, Germany, Britain and Italy will
have 29, Spain and Poland 27 (initially the EU proposed fewer
votes for Poland than for Spain, which has a similar population,
but Germany rallied behind Poland's claim that anything less than
full parity would be unfair), Romania 15, The Netherlands 13,
Greece, The Czech Republic, Belgium, Hungary and Portugal 12,
Sweden, Bulgaria and Austria 10, Slovakia, Denmark, Finland,
Ireland and Lithuania 7, Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia, Cyprus and
Luxembourg 4, and Malta 3. This new distribution greatly
reinforces the influence of the biggest Union members, which had
been afraid of losing some of their weight, amid the growing
combined voting power of the smaller countries in an expanded
The summit also outlined certain changes to the
way important EU agreements are reached,
reforming outdated processes that were
designed for a far smaller Union. In some areas
member countries have agreed to abandon their
right of veto, and many decisions will in future be
taken using a complex method known as
'qualified majority voting', which EU leaders
hope will prevent the decision-making process
grinding to a halt in a larger Europe as individual
countries try to block initiatives.
The reforms weaken the influence of the smaller
EU members, which is not necessarily good news
for a country the size of the Czech Republic, but
- with a degree of reserve - Czech politicians
have broadly welcomed the Nice Treaty.
As the country's chief EU negotiator, Pavel
Telicka, put it: "I think the most important element
is that the path towards EU enlargement is now
clear and the EU cannot come up with any single
additional condition or problem to be tackled."
Perhaps the most encouraging message from
Nice for the Czech Republic was the EU leaders'
statement at the conclusion of the summit, that
the first new members would be joining in
2004, in time for the next EU elections.
The EU summit of 14-15 December 2001 at
Laeken just outside Brussels brought more good
news for the Czech Republic. Although the
summit was marred by petty squabbles between
various EU member countries, it did bring greater
commitment to expansion. The Czech Republic
was included on a list of ten applicant countries
that the union decided would be ready for
membership by 2004. Under the Laeken Declaration
fourteen applicant countries were
also given a place (but no voting rights) on a
established to debate and put
forward proposals for changes to the EU's
founding treaties in preparation for expansion.
Friday 13th December 2002 was a
lucky date for the Czech Republic
and nine further candidate
countries. At a historic EU summit
in Copenhagen, a summit which
went surprisingly smoothly, given
predictions that it would be beset
by haggling over details, the final big hurdle on the path to
membership was overcome. The long-discussed financial
conditions for admitting new members were agreed. In flowery
language the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen
described it as a historic day: "Today we opened a new chapter.
Europe is spreading its wings in freedom, in prosperity, and in
The Czech Republic emerged from the summit with a much
better deal than it had originally expected, on the question of
direct EU payments and even on the sensitive issue of agricultural
Other European organizations
While the Czech Republic has largely reoriented its
economy and politics towards Western Europe, it is also
developing regional ties with the other Central and Eastern
European countries with which it shares similar goals, namely
economic catch-up. It was natural that the countries of Central
and Eastern European would want to come together to
contemplate the future after the fall of Communism. This was the
inspiration for Visegrad cooperation. Named after the Hungarian
city where heads of state met in 1991, the Visegrad group
includes the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland.
Although cooperation between the four petered out after 1994,
largely due to Czech resistance to political cooperation, it was
effectively re-established in May 1999 when the four leaders met
in Slovakia's capital Bratislava. Perhaps the greatest success of
Visegrad cooperation has been its trade facet. On December 21,
1992, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland signed the Central
European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), which aims to stimulate
regional trade by abolishing tariff and non-tariff barriers among
the member countries. A free trade zone will be established by the
year 2001. The Visegrad four have since been joined in trade
cooperation by Slovenia (1996), Romania (1997) and Bulgaria
(1997) and today the CEFTA countries cover a common market of
nearly 90 million people and represent a bloc to be taken seriously
during trade negotiations.
Another regional grouping in which
the Czech Republic participates is
the Central European Initiative. The
initial idea for this form of
cooperation came from the 1989
meeting in Budapest of the deputy
prime ministers of Austria, Hungary,
Italy and Yugoslavia. Today the
sixteen-member Central European
Initiative continues to function
without an institutional structure, and has some modest
accomplishments to its name.
One organization that works for human rights and democracy all
over the European continent is the Council of Europe, in
Strasbourg. Hopes for reconciliation and for a "United States of
Europe", in the words of Sir Winston Churchill, meant that
movements for European unity were springing up everywhere
after 1945. In 1949, the Council of Europe was born, hurried on
by the sharp East-West tensions marked by the Communist
takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and the Berlin airlift of
1948-9. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Council of Europe
opened its doors to the new democracies of Eastern Europe and
Czechoslovakia became a member of the organisation in 1991.
Attempts at healing the ideological division in Europe and
fostering security and cooperation in the 1970s sparked the
Helsinki process. Czechoslovakia, along with every other
European nation (except Albania and Andorra) began to
participate in these negotiations in 1973.
In 1975 Czechoslovakia signed the concluding accords of the Helsinki Conference, under which countries committed themselves to guarantee human rights throughout the continent. Charter 77 was an appeal by Czechoslovak dissidents to the government to adhere to those commitments.
Today, the Czech
Republic is one of the 55 members of the descendant of the
Helsinki process, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in
Europe (OSCE). The OSCE International Secretariat has its
headquarters in Vienna and an office in Prague.