Missile defence conference held in Prague but Condi, political consensus both absent

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK

The Czech Foreign Ministry played host to a conference on missile defence on Monday, with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer among the guest speakers. The conference was organised to look at what lies ahead for plans to build a U.S. radar tracking facility on Czech soil, after NATO gave the project a cautious endorsement at its recent summit in Bucharest. Radio Prague’s Rob Cameron reports.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK
The Czech government is trying hard to paint a picture of rapid progress on the radar base – witness this major conference on missile defence in Prague. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek gave a defiant opening speech, spelling out his belief that those who opposed the U.S. missile defence shield opposed the very foundations of western civilisation and democracy.

Certainly the battle lines have been drawn. Mr Topolanek faces a difficult struggle to get the deal ratified in parliament, with the left-wing opposition and even some coalition Green MPs against the plan. NATO’s Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer had this message for the plan’s opponents:

“I have not come to the Czech Republic today to interfere in what is an internal Czech political debate: that is up to the Czech government and up to the Czech parliament. I’ll say nevertheless that if one agrees that there is this threat, then you have to agree that an answer to the ballistic missile threat has to be found.”

The problem is that few Czechs believe an Iranian attack on Europe or America is a clear and present threat, and those who support the idea of building the base are very much in the minority, as I found out by taking a quick straw poll of shopkeepers near the Foreign Ministry’s Cernin Palace.

“I’m against. I don’t think it’s a good idea. And I’m absolutely against the idea of American soldiers being here – it’s absolutely out of the question.”

“I’m against all forms of warfare, against all weapons. The arms race is just a bad thing. I don’t care what the Americans say about it being a defensive system – they’re just building up more weapons and creating a new Cold War.”

And there was one noticeable absence at Monday’s conference. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was meant to be in Prague this week to sign two bilateral treaties on stationing the radar base on Czech soil. But “scheduling problems” prevented her from coming to Prague, and it’s not clear when – or whether – she’s going to make it any time soon.

Mr Topolanek is still short of a guaranteed majority for ratifying the plan in parliament – a key requirement under the Czech constitution. Until a cast-iron majority has been negotiated, the plan to build the U.S. radar base here remains just that - a plan.