Anger in Austria over EP Benes decrees report

Eduard Benes

The political fallout continues in neighbouring Austria over a report commissioned by the European Parliament, which found that the post-war Benes decrees pose no barrier to the Czech Republic's entry to the European Union. The report, released on Monday, endorsed the European Commission's view that Prague does not need to scrap the decrees, under which some two and a half million ethnic Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia, before joining the EU. The report has evoked a furious response from Austria's far-right Freedom Party, which repeated its threat to veto Czech membership of the EU. But is the dispute over the Benes decrees really an important issue for most ordinary Austrians? A question my colleague Rob Cameron put earlier to Kerry Skyring from Radio Austria International.

Eduard Benes
"For most of the population - no - it's not really a big issue. What you have is a section of the media, and one branch of politics, the conservatives and the far right, making an issue out of it. So I think most people don't really consider it an issue - they're not affected by it, and they realise that it's not something that's going to affect them personally unless perhaps they are Sudeten Germans who feel they have some claim in the Czech Republic on property. This is an issue of mainly the far right, but it has also been taken on by the centre of politics here, and also by one newspaper - the tabloid Kronen Zeitung - which is making an emotional issue out of it."

And how much influence does that tabloid wield? Is it like Britain's Sun newspaper for instance, i.e. a paper really capable of forming public attitudes?

"Yes, that's the best comparison you can make of the Kronen Zeiting. It is a populist tabloid, and is the most circulated newspaper in the country. And it does run campaigns if you like."

Right. So what was the immediate reaction in Austria to the release of the report?

"It depends on which side of politics you're talking about, and which newspapers. If we're to take the governing coalition first, the conservative People's Party of Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel has cautiously welcomed the report. At yesterday's cabinet meeting, Chancellor Schuessel said he believes this brings the issue of the Benes decrees closer to a solution. From that you can take it that he still maintains some gesture is needed from the Czech Republic on this. The far-right Freedom Party said this does nothing, this doesn't achieve anything in the way of justice, and it doesn't rule out trying to veto the Czech Republic's entry into the European Union. Among the opposition, both the Greens and the Social Democrats have taken a fairly reasonable position, but if you read carefully what they're saying, they also feel the need for some gesture from the Czech Republic at some point in the future."

So you're saying then that a careful apology from the Czech government, or if not an apology then an expression of regret about what happened in 1945 and 1946, perhaps would do a great deal to smooth relations between the two countries and possibly bury this issue?

"Yes I think that's what it's gradually moving towards. The People's Party here and the Social Democrats both want this to be handled by historians and experts in the field, making their reports, leading to a final statement between political parties and between the two governments. They don't want to push this, they don't want to rush it, and they don't want to exploit the emotion in it. And I think they're the voices and the heads that will rule on this issue eventually."