PM Paroubek to attend CEI meeting in Piestany

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, photo: CTK

Among Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek's official engagements this week is a trip to the spa town of Piestany in neighbouring Slovakia. The trip is political rather than medicinal: as well as taking the waters, Mr Paroubek will be taking the temperature of Central Europe as he joins 16 other prime ministers for a meeting of the Central European Initiative.

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, photo: CTK
The Central European Initiative began life in November 1989, when Italy, Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia got together to form a body called Quadragonal Co-operation. It was described then as a "platform for mutual political, economic, scientific and cultural co-operation".

1989 was momentous year for Central Europe, as Communist regimes began toppling like dominos and once totalitarian governments became democratic. The following year Czechoslovakia joined the group and it became something called the Pentagonal Initiative. In 1992 Poland joined and the group had to change its name again, becoming the Hexagonal Initiative. When Yugoslavia collapsed later that year the group - perhaps growing tired of geometrical metaphors - renamed itself the Central European Initiative.

In strictly geographical terms the Central European Initiative is no longer very Central European. The organisation embraces a territory of 2.4 million square km and a population of nearly 260 million people, stretching from the Mediterranean shores of Italy to the icy steppes of Ukraine, and covering almost all of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans in between. Seven members are now in the EU, while several more are set to join soon. Several others - such as Moldova for example - are very, very far from joining. There is perhaps no similar organisation where the prime minister of Bosnia sits down to breakfast with the prime ministers of Belarus and Bulgaria.

One of the CEI's main tasks at present is helping the ten non-members of the EU learn from the seven EU members, or in the CEI's jargon "facilitating and co-financing the transfer of know-how on 'fresh' transition and negotiation experience."

As far as the Piestany meeting is concerned, talks will focus on the specific challenges facing Europe. Chief among those challenges at present is the fight against terrorism. As the EU formally asks the United States to clarify reports that it ran secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe - and the EU wants to see satellite images of two CEI members, Romania and Poland - the question of terrorism and civil liberties is alikely to be uppermost in everyone's minds.