German president skirts historical minefields on first visit since election

Christian Wulff (left), Václav Klaus, photo: CTK

German President Christian Wulff arrived in Prague on Monday for his first visit to the Czech Republic since becoming head of state. While overall relations between the two countries are rosy, the visit was to some extent overshadowed by history and is still expected to raise some thorny issues.

Christian Wulff  (left),  Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Czech President Václav Klaus borrowed a phrase and the language of his visitor, Christian Wulff, when he described current Czech-German relations as “a gift of history” on Monday.

Certainly, many commentators agree that relations between the Czech Republic and its biggest and most important neighbour have never been better. And the visit by Germany’s recently elected president Christian Wulff shows every sign of helping things along.

The German head of state, who was elected at the end of June, made all the right noises during the visit, as he has during interviews ahead of it. He apologized for the indescribable suffering inflicted during the German occupation from March 1939 until the end of WWII mentioning the destruction of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky and Terezín concentration camp and prison in passing.

And President Wulff also on Monday praised reconciliation efforts at a national level and local initiatives, such as the offer by the mayor of the border town of Cheb, to host a war cemetery for German soldiers who died during the last war.

Petr Nečas,  photo: CTK
In Monday’s press conference following their meeting, Czech President Václav Klaus did not resurrect comments of less than a week ago on Czech national day. Then he complained that Czech retribution against Germans at the end of WWII was getting more coverage than the far greater wrongs committed by the Germans during it.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas was due to focus on more specific issues. The prime minister’s office said ahead of the afternoon meeting that these included Germany’s final opening of its jobs market to Czechs in May 2011, continued strict checks on Czech motorists after crossing the frontier into Bavaria, and the Eastern Partnership.

The Czech side has described the frontier checks on drivers as harassment which breaks the spirit if not the terms of the European Union’s Schengen agreement. Bavaria has shown no enthusiasm to back down saying that the checks have helped to counter crime. So the German president is likely to be asked to exert some behind the scenes pressure here.

The Eastern Partnership is Eurospeak for the stronger relations that the European Union is attempting to forge with six for countries of the Soviet Union: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Christian Wulff  (left),  Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
The idea of far reaching trade and economic relations with the countries has been championed by the Czech Republic with the partnership announced during the Czech Presidency at the start of 2009. Strategic decisions are likely to be taken soon about how fast and deep these relationships can be taken and how much cash can be thrown at forging close relations. So support from the EU’s main muscleman and paymaster, Germany, is important here.

The Czech prime minister also had some questions prepared about the future role of the country’s biggest car maker and exporter, Škoda Auto, in the plans of parent company Volkswagen.

Christian Wulff as former head of the region of Lower Saxony, one of the major shareholders in Volkswagen, has until recently been on the German car maker’s board so has a fairly good idea of what is happening there.

Relations between Volkswagen and Škoda Auto are often sweet and sour. On the one hand Škoda Auto is a highly profitable cash cow for the German company, on the other hand there are fears that some of its success comes at the price of Volkswagen’s own car sales.

The Lobkowicz Palace - German embassy in Prague
Also on the talks menu are some property issues, the first being the German interest in buying the Prague palace that currently houses the German embassy. Here, President Klaus said he had no view either way about a sale of the palace or possible exchange for land in Berlin. The second issue mooted for debate centred on 650 hectares of German forest owned by the Czech town of Cheb. The town has been fighting for 17 years win back its rights to manage the forest after a German court took them away.