Czech foreign minister warns: patience with border blockades running thin

Photo: CTK

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg took time off from the official talks to try and resolve a drawn-out bilateral problem with neighboring Austria. In a private meeting with his Austrian counterpart, Ursula Plassnik, Mr. Schwarzenberg said that Czech patience with continuing Austrian border blockades by anti-nuclear activists was running thin. He warned that if Austrian opponents of the Temelin nuclear power plant continued to restrict free movement at the Czech -Austrian border he would have no choice but to put the matter on the agenda of the next EU foreign ministers meeting.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and Ursula Plassnik, photo: CTK
The Czech Republic and Austria have much in common. Both have roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and share a great deal in terms of history, culture and mentality - with one outstanding exception: nuclear power. Nuclear-free Austria and the Czech Republic have been at loggerheads over the Temelin nuclear power plant in south Bohemia since it went into operation in 2002. That year's Melk Agreement - a bilateral treaty on nuclear safety and information exchange - has kept controversies more or less in check. But in recent months Austrian anti-nuclear activist have increased their protests, blocking as many as 12 of the country's 16 common border crossings on a single day recently. Minister Schwarzenberg said on Monday this could not continue:

"I warned my Austrian counterpart that our patience is running thin. It would be a different matter if the protesters demonstrated in Vienna. By all means let them do that. But blocking the border and restricting freedom of movement is another thing. Such steps harm good relations and neighborly cooperation."

Photo: CTK
The Austrian Foreign Minister, Ursula Plassnik, said she "fully understood" the Czech position and promised to do what she could, but pointed out that she did not have the power to ban the demonstrations.

Vienna is now in a difficult position. Anti-nuclear protesters are determined to keep up the pressure and want their government to sue the Czech Republic over Temelin at a European court. The Austrian government recently commissioned a study to assess Vienna's chances in a legal battle with its neighbor. The conclusions of this study were leaked to the press on Monday and splashed across the front pages of the Austrian dailies Die Presse and Osterreich. "Austria doesn't stand a chance," the headlines said. According to some commentators, the Austrian government is now looking for a way to beat a retreat without losing face.