Czech government plugs Union membership on Europe Day

Ramiro Cibrian

Wednesday in the Czech Republic was Europe Day, where ordinary people had the chance to put their questions to the politicians and officials involved in negotiating Czech accession to the EU. As several delicate issues have arisen recently, such as a proposal to prevent workers from post-Communist countries finding jobs in the EU after expansion, there was no shortage of questions requiring an answer. Nick Carey was there, and brings back this report.

Ramiro Cibrian
Europe Day has become a regular fixture for the Czech Republic since the Social Democrat government, for whom EU accession is a high priority, came to power in 1998. The idea of the event is to inform the general public about EU accession preparations, ahead of a possible entry date of 2004. This year's Europe Day consisted of an information stall, the EuroStand and a stage for public debate on Prague's Republic Square, where several leading figures in the accession process, such as Foreign Minister Jan Kavan and the EU ambassador to Prague, Ramiro Cibrian, answered questions from passers-by that were a mixture of the curious, the friendly, and distinctly hostile.

But according to Pavel Klus, the man in charge of the Eurostand, most people are simply curious He feels the main problem is that the Czechs don't know enough about what EU membership involves, and are simply hungry for knowledge:

"I see that the people are hungry. This is not usually a point of special interest for ordinary people, the problems of EU membership. It is not central to their lives and our project is meant to involve them in the process, and it is obvious that the people are really hungry for information."

One of the main questions that was aired repeatedly during debates on EU accession was the free movement of labour, a touchy subject that has received intense media attention in the Czech Republic over the past few weeks. Germany and Austria face wide public concerns at home over a possible influx of cheap labour from the east following expansion, and have therefore proposed a transition period of up to seven years, during which time workers from new member states will not be able to seek gainful employment in the 'EU 15'. The chief Czech negotiator for EU accession, Pavel Telicka, has warned that this could be playing into the hands of Czech eurosceptics, but the EU's ambassador to Prague, Ramiro Cibrian, does not feel that this is the case:

Demonstrators on Europe Day
"I am not pessimistic. I believe that when things are explained to the people, they understand. This is not an issue that will have an actual impact on the prosperity, on the economy, on financial possibilities of the Czech people. There is absolutely no pressure here to emigrate to Europe, to Germany or Austria. So it is not an issue, it is more of a, if you like, symbol and we have to learn to be flexible and pragmatic about these issues and focus on the issues that really matter. I believe that this kind of approach will prevail."