Mr Gross goes to Brussels

Prime Minister Stanislav Gross in Brussels, photo: CTK

During his first official visit to the European Union institutions and NATO headquarters in Brussels, the Czech Prime Minister Stanislav Gross on Tuesday backed Turkey's EU membership bid, pledged to boost the Czech Republic's defense budget to honor its NATO commitments, and rejected calls for EU-wide tax harmonization. Analysts say the former Czech interior minister, whose critics at home often portray him as weak on foreign policy, avoided speaking to controversial issues but nonetheless made a strong impression.

Prime Minister Stanislav Gross in Brussels, photo: CTK
Turkey's ambitions to join the EU have dominated the political agenda in Brussels this week. By publicly supporting Ankara's bid during his meetings with top officials in Brussels on Tuesday, the Czech Prime Minister gambled little political capital. By joining the president of the European Parliament in saying the matter should be decided in a referendum — as should the adoption of a so-called European Constitution — Mr Gross could present himself as a "man of the people," looking to make Brussels more accountable to Europe's citizens.

If he appealed to the people he also played to the bureaucrats, or "eurocrats." There is no standard salary for members of the European Parliament - each country has to pay for its own Euro-parliamentarians - and Mr Gross curried favor with his country's MEPs by calling for a "unified position" on pay - i.e. equal salaries for all and so a de facto salary hike for Czech MEPs.

Stanislav Gross and the General Secretary of NATO Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, photo: CTK
By most accounts, Prime Minister Gross cut his teeth in Brussels rather well, with one newspaper even speaking of a new "Gross doctrine" on foreign policy. He also played on his political strengths to the audience at home, where Mr Gross is seen as tough on crime, by coming out in favor of uniform penalties across the EU for serious crimes and by floating the possibility of creating an EU prosecutor general's office.

The one weak hand Mr Gross played was in the area of defense spending, in reaction to a call by the NATO secretary-general for the Czech Republic to honor its budgetary commitment to the military alliance.

The reason is that the Czech Republic earmarked 50.7 billion crowns, or nearly $2 billion for defense this year, and the state is expected to allocate nearly 53 billion crowns for 2005, an increase in nominal terms, it is actually a smaller percentage in terms of overall spending — and still short of levels agreed among NATO member states.

So the question is, how can the Czech Republic pay to honor that NATO commitment, when the Social Democrat-led government of Mr Gross has in its draft 2005 budget proposal set out across-the-board cuts on all ministries. This, in line with its EU commitments to rein in the country's record high budget deficit.