Czech PM: "Europe has not digested its enlargement"

Photo: CTK

The acrimonious collapse of European Union budget talks in Brussels on Friday night is being variously interpreted as a disaster and an opportunity for the union. It revealed the depth of divisions between countries, but it was also the first time that the ten new members were out in force.

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek,  photo: CTK
Dissatisfaction with EU enlargement was one of the reasons why the French rejected the constitution, but paradoxically, it was the new members from Central Europe, that did most to try to push for compromise between the battling factions - primarily Britain and France. Their failure did not come as a great surprise. The Czech Prime Minister, Jiri Paroubek, chose to look at the infighting in a historical light, suggesting that the EU row had precedents going back over a hundred years.

"I'll say it with an example from the history of the old Austrian monarchy. After 1870 when the Austrian monarchy divided into two parts and became the Austro-Hungarian empire, practically each ten years negotiations took place about the budget of the monarchy. And it was a great crisis. Therefore my consequence is: It is a normal thing. When we speak about the budget, it is not easy."

But when the talks finally collapsed in the early hours of Saturday morning, even Mr Paroubek was gloomy, saying that Europe had not digested its enlargement and was now faced a more fundamental question: whether to be just a common market or a politically united structure built on the principle of solidarity.

Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda,  photo: CTK
Mr Paroubek's government is firmly in favour of the second option, and the Czech prime minister welcomed the decision by EU leaders on Thursday to continue the ratification process of the European constitution, even after the French and Dutch "No". The Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda:

"The constitution is not dead, the process of ratification is not dead. We need some time for reflection."

The Czech delegation left the summit with a commitment to continuing the ratification process.

"It will be necessary to discuss with coalition parties in the first step, in the second step with opposition parties, with the Civic Democratic Party and the Communist Party and during the next two or three days to determine concrete future steps."

Almost immediately after his return to Prague, Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek kept his word and met his coalition partners. They agreed to work towards a referendum either to coincide with next year's general elections in the spring, or more likely towards the end of 2006. But as the Czech Republic has no legislation on referenda, a referendum law would have to be approved by parliament first with a three-fifths majority. The opposition Civic Democrats have already made it clear that they will block any attempts to hold a referendum. Under those conditions the fate of the constitution in the Czech Republic appears to be sealed.

Radio Prague's Pavla Horakova was at the summit in Brussels. Pavla, what was the atmosphere at the Brussels talks?

Brussels,  photo: CTK
First of all I must say that in the corridors of the Justus Lipsius Building, which is the seat of the European Council, the atmosphere was very anxious. No one really knew what to expect, so journalists were eagerly waiting for members of delegations and diplomats to give them any snippet of information on how the talks were going. If we were to judge from Prime Minister Paroubek's statements, the atmosphere was first perceived "very good" and it gradually deteriorated until he called the outcome a great disappointment. When Prime Minister Paroubek was giving the budget a 50, possibly an 80-percent chance, the Czech ambassador to the EU, Jan Kohout, too, said there was still a possibility that the 25 member states would reach a consensus at the end of the day. But Mr Kohout explained the difficulties at the summit partly by the overall atmosphere in Europe which he said was not very cooperative.

I understand Prime Minister Paroubek was quite active in the talks...

Czech ambassador to the EU Jan Kohout,  photo: CTK
When three of the new EU members, Poland, Hungary and Lithuania, made a gesture in order to save the deal when they offered to give up some of their own budget demands, Prime Minister Paroubek backed their initiative, saying it was better to make concessions than not to approve any financial perspective. It should be said that the fiasco of the talks could have negative financial consequences for the new members.

At a news conference in the small hours of Saturday, Prime Minister Paroubek strongly condemned the UK for its inability to reach a compromise and said that Britain should have made its position clear earlier because everyone, including the Czech Republic, would have been prepared for a different kind of debate.

But not everyone in the Czech Republic is blaming Britain for the crisis...

While the Czech government is very critical of the UK's stance, with Finance Minister Bohuslav Sobotka going as far as calling the British rebate "immoral", there is a broader spectrum of views in the Czech press, including those that the EU's agricultural subsidies have to be reduced and more money has to go into research and development in order to make Europe competitive on the global market.