Czechs, Austrians reach agreement at crucial Temelin summit

Prime Minister Zeman and EU's Commissioner Verheugen, photo CTK

Prague and Vienna finally buried the hatchet on Thursday over the Czech Republic's troubled Temelin nuclear power plant - ending a long-running row which had threatened the European Union's enlargement to the east. Under a compromise deal brokered by the European Commission, the Czechs have agreed to new stricter safety measures and the Austrians have promised not to block the Czech Republic's energy talks with the European Union. The agreement will be legally binding, and included in the country's accession protocol with the EU. But is the Temelin dispute - which has dominated Czech and Austrian headlines for more than two years - really over? Rob Cameron reports.

Prime Minister Zeman and  EU's Commissioner Verheugen
Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman and Austria's Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel emerged from a marathon eleven hours of talks on Thursday evening, to pose for the cameras with the EU's Commissioner for Enlargement, Guenter Verheugen. All three men looked tired but distinctly relieved at resolving this bitter dispute over safety at Europe's newest nuclear plant.

Prime Minister Milos Zeman described the deal as a "very reasonable compromise," and said relations with Austria were now firmly back on track. "The skies have cleared," he said - "Austria and the Czech Republic will be able to continue as good neighbours." Those were sentiments echoed by both Chancellor Schuessel and Mr Verheugen.

Under the deal, Prague agrees to provide more accurate information on safety at Temelin, a mixture of Soviet design and Western operating technology. The Czechs will also co-operate closely on emergency measures and make some technical adjustments at the plant itself. Austria, in turn, will drop its objections to the Czech Republic closing the energy chapter with the European Union - the last serious obstacle in the country's talks on joining the EU. The terms of the agreement are legally binding.

So a story with a happy ending. Or is it? Kerry Skyring is from Radio Austria International - I asked him for Austria's reaction to Thursday's deal.

"There's been a cautious reaction, and I guess this is positive in terms of support for the agreement. A cautious reaction from the opposition - both the Social Democrats and the Greens. They're saying, OK, we've got some improved security. But there are reservations there of course, and one wouldn't expect the Greens to endorse it with enthusiasm, but at least they haven't been totally opposed to it."

So it seems that Mr Schussel could actually have pulled this one off?

"I wouldn't go so far as to say that yet. Certainly they've pulled it off as far as agreement with the Czech Republic is concerned, and some cautious support from the opposition. What they haven't got yet is support from their coalition partners, the Freedom Party. The Freedom Party may continue with their referendum against Temelin, asking the parliament to debate it, collecting signatures against Temelin. So that remains very unclear at this stage, just what the Freedom Party is going to do with this agreement. Many commentators believe they've backed themselves into a corner on this. They can't back down now on the whole threat of a veto, or this referendum they've begun."

What about the people themselves? Obviously Austrians are overwhelmingly against nuclear power, they don't like Temelin, they're scared of it, perhaps partly because of the lack of information. Do you think most of them will now reconcile themselves with the fact that the Czech Republic is going to join the European Union with Temelin?

Prime Minister Zeman in Vienna,  photo CTK
"Yes I think so. I think while as you say opposition to nuclear power remains, most people are being pragmatic about this, recognising that Austria cannot tell the Czech Republic how to generate its own power, Austria doesn't like being told what to do either. You still do have though a section of the media, the populist tabloid the Kronenzeitung running a complete anti-Temelin crusade - that's what it's been - and that will play out as well, in terms of mostly Freedom Party supporters I guess continuing to see Temelin as something to be feared."

Kerry Skyring from Radio Austria International. Temelin does have some opponents at home in the Czech Republic, mostly members of the country's small green lobby. Jan Haverkamp is from the Czech branch of Greenpeace, and he remains convinced the Czechs will have to contemplate shutting the plant down - maybe not today, but sometime in the future:

"What we can see is that the reality of the big problems still attached to Temelin will not escape attention eternally. Temelin will go on line, that's going to create a lot of nuclear waste, it's going to create a lot of extra risk. It's going to create a lot of electricity that we don't know what to do with and will have to dump under price on either the Czech or the international market. And for what?"

Greenpeace and other environmental groups in both the Czech Republic and Austria will continue to call for Temelin to be shut down, and a serious question also remains as to what to do with the country's surplus of electricity when Temelin is running at full strength - the European market is already flooded. For now, though, the Czech Republic will join the European Union with the Temelin nuclear power plant, and EU enlargement will not be delayed over the issue. And it's hard not to see that as a major diplomatic victory for Milos Zeman and the Czech Republic.