Blair: Benes decrees will not hinder Czech bid to join EU

Tony Blair und Vaclav Klaus, photo CTK

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair touched down in Prague on Monday for a brief visit to the Czech Republic, holding talks with Czech officials on his way home from the United States. Top of the agenda in Prague was the crisis in the Middle East - a Czech anti-chemical unit was recently deployed in Kuwait to protect the U.S. command headquarters in Kuwait City. But Mr Blair also found time to praise the Czech Republic for progress towards joining the EU, adding there was still room for co-operation within Europe on a "nation state" level.

Tony Blair and Vaclav Klaus, photo CTK
"We don't see any obstacle in the way of the Czech Republic becoming a full member of the European Union - we look forward to that day, obviously the chapters have to be negotiated in the proper way and that is as it should be. In respect to the European Convention on the future of Europe, we did obviously discuss that and I think there is a lot of common ground there between the Czech position and the British position. Which is that as we move towards closer co-operation together, it is important we do so on the basis of nation states working together, rather than on the basis of some federal super-state that subsumes national identity. That is our position, and I believe that is the position of the Czech Republic too."

But what the Czech government really wanted from Mr Blair was an unequivocal show of support in the dispute over the Benes decrees. Prague is currently locked in dispute with politicians in Germany, Austria and Hungary over the controversial post-war decrees, under which 2.5 million ethnic Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia and thousands of ethnic Hungarians dispossessed. Prime Minister Tony Blair said the decrees - approved by Britain and the other Allied Powers after the war - belonged to history, and would not be allowed to hinder the process of European integration.

Tony Blair and  Milos Zeman, photo CTK
"The British position hasn't changed, it's the same position that we set out in 1996. These issues of history arouse very deep feelings, but I think within the context of the European Union, these things can be moved forward in an amicable way, I'm sure of that. And I certainly don't believe that it form any part of the discussion about enlargement."

And Mr Blair also had a special word of thanks to Czechoslovak airmen, who fought alongside Britain in the Second World War. The British Prime Minister held a brief meeting with former Czech RAF pilots on Monday, a meeting which he said had made a deep impression on him.

At the memorial of Gen. Karel Janousek, Czech veteran of the Battle of Britain and R.A.F. Air Marshall, photo CTK
"I shall remember with a great deal of fondness and gratitude, the meeting with the war veterans of the Czech Republic who fought alongside British servicemen and women in the Second World War. They are people of immense courage and bravery who served not just their country and not just my country, but the interests of Europe. And it is in large measure due to the sacrifices of people such as that, that we have a Europe today that is peaceful and prosperous. Where countries such as the Czech Republic, after many years of difficulty and trouble, are now going to be welcomed into the European Union as strong partners for our future."