Next EU president visits Prague; remains tight-lipped on expansion

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt

In just 10 weeks, Belgium takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union. This comes amid heated debate over two major issues; setting a date for EU expansion eastwards, and the delicate issue of allowing workers from post-Communist candidate countries the right to seek employment in the West. Tricia Deering reports.

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt visited Prague this week on a whistle stop tour of EU candidate member countries, prior to donning the hat of EU president on July 1.

But during a joint public appearance with Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman, Mr Verhofstadt diplomatically dodged the question of an EU entry date for the Czech Republic.

"I think the most important thing is not a discussion on dates. The most important is that we go firmly further in these negotiation procedures..."

Mr Zeman praised Czech-Belgian relations, adding that the purchase of two state banks - CSOB and IPB - ranks Belgium as one of the country's top investors. Friendly relations aside, Zeman held firm to the oft-discussed admission date.

"I will be very polite - and if the Prime Minister of Belgium rejected the concrete date I may only repeat that the reference date for the Czech Republic is the 1st of January 2003. And of course in the case that the 1st of January is on a Sunday, I will accept even Monday, the 2nd of January. As you may see, I am prepared for compromise."

On the heels of a German and Austrian proposal to levy a 7-year transitional period preventing citizens of EU candidate members from working in EU member states, the question looms above the Belgian prime minister: will he support a labor moratorium?

"That we have to discuss. But if there is no problem, with the candidate member state, I don't see the necessity to have one, OK? But you have to put it in a general framework. It has to be a framework that can be adopted to every member state but it can be different from member state to member state, from candidate to candidate."

Opposition to a transitional period is mounting steadily in the Czech Republic, and Foreign Minister Jan Kavan has warned that it may turn Czech voters against membership, come EU referendum time.

But while the 'Euroskeptic' debate rages, both Mr Verhofstadt and Zeman agree on a few trans-European ideals: common defense, constitution, social and foreign policy. Mr Zeman also called for strong ties between Benelux and Visegrad nations. The first meeting of these groups is slated for later this year.

Author: Tricia Deering
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