Benes decrees at the forefront of attention

European Parliament

Will the European Union attempt to force the Czech Republic's hand over the delicate issue of the ethnic Germans expelled after World War Two? Some Austrian, German and Hungarian politicians are calling for the controversial decrees of the post war Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes, that formed the legal basis for the expulsions, to be revoked. Following months of uncertainty and conflicting signals from members of the European Commission and the European Parliament an increasing number of Czech politicians feel that the time has come for the Czech Republic to take a clear stand on the matter, arguing that any revision of the outcome of World War Two is a dangerous precedent.

The largest opposition force, the Civic Democratic Party has long advocated the need for the Czech Republic to take a clear, united stand with regard to the Benes Decrees in order to bring the drawn-out controversy to an end and prevent the issue from being re-opened at some future date. Jan Zahradil, the Civic Democrats shadow Foreign Minister, explains the Czech position on the decrees, as officially approved by all the country's mainstream political parties last week.

"The whole legislation is part of a larger post war settlement package adopted as a result of the outcome of the SWW. Currently it does not create any new legal relations so that at this point nobody can be discriminated by these legal acts. On the other hand all legal impacts and all property rights stemming from the Benes decrees are valid, untouchable and have to be safeguarded for the future."

European Parliament
Although Prague has received repeated assurances from the European Commission, in particular from the EU's Commissioner for expansion Gunter Verheugen, that the EU understands and respects this stand, some members of the European Parliament are proving harder to convince. Last week the Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan traveled to Brussels to defend the Czech Republic's stand. This week a meeting of European Parliament deputies and their Czech counterparts here in Prague produced a closing statement so vague with respect to the controversy that it was clear the issue was far from closed. I asked the co-chairwoman of the joint accession committee of the Czech Republic and the European Parliament Ursula Stenzel if she thought the Czech Foreign Minister had failed to convince the majority of European Parliament deputies.

"I don't know that yet. First of all we must await the outcome of the legal expertise which is underway and after that we will discuss it. Whether or not there will be a EP resolution on the Benes decrees is not yet clear. But I personally think that the outcome of this legal expertise should be very interesting because some EP deputies believe that the Benes decrees could be in violation of EU treaties."

As yet the European Parliament has not arrived at a united stand on the Benes Decrees - and the anti-Benes lobby, made up mainly of right of centre MPs from Germany and Austria, has slammed Czech efforts to close the issue before judgement has been passed. Jan Zahradil of the Civic Democratic Party again:

"Because the activities of certain deputies mainly from Germany and Austria evoke a certain degree of uncertainly and even fear within the Czech population I would consider it a very positive signal if some European institution -the European Commission or even the European Parliament itself would state officially that no legal rights, no property rights in the Czech Republic will be under threat after the Czech Republic's accession to the EU."