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25-9-2021, 06:35 UTC
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 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: CTKEU 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 Western Europe.
The Czech Republic is joining NATO, photo: CTKThe 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 Europe.
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 new Convention 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 peace." 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 subsidy.
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.

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