Prague lies further west than Vienna
Czechs are fond of recalling that, geographically, Prague lies further west than Vienna. And it is worth repeating that Czechoslovakia was an independent democratic state between the two world wars, with a higher GDP per capita than Austria. However, the Cold War meant that Czechoslovakia and the other Soviet satellite states were cut off from the western half of Europe for over 40 years. The collapse of Communism in 1989 was seen as a new chance for democracy, peace and unity in Europe. This is still the challenge for Europe today. The Czech Republic is on its way to a full ´return to Europe´. At the heart of Central Europe, the Czech Republic has ties with both its former partners in Central and Eastern Europe, and its new partners in Western Europe.
A milestone in European history was marked in March 1999 when the Czech Republic along with two other former Warsaw Pact member states, Poland and Hungary, joined NATO, the very organization which the Warsaw Pact had been created to oppose. As a NATO member, the Czech Republic contributes to the Alliance´s collective security strategy, and thus plays a role in shaping the security configuration of the whole of Europe.
The next major step for the Czech Republic on its path back to Europe is accession to the European Union. During the Cold War era, there was neither mutual recognition nor contractual relations between the European Community (as it was called then) and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) and its Communist member states, which included Czechoslovakia. The Joint Declaration between the EU and Comecon of June 1988 on mutual recognition between the two parties opened the way for diplomatic relations between the EU and each of the Comecon states. In 1989, the end of the Communist regimes and of Comecon created entirely new conditions for relations. First, came a network of bilateral trade and cooperation agreements, known as the ´first generation´ agreements. From 1991 onwards, more comprehensive agreements known as Association Agreements or Europe Agreements were being signed between the European Community and the former Communist states. The name "Europe Agreement" is symbolic of the importance of these accords for the European continent. The Czech Republic's Association Agreement was signed in Brussels on October 4, 1993, entered into force on February 1, 1995 and is still the fundamental legal basis for relations today. March 30, 1997 was an important date for the Czech Republic as it was selected along with five other candidates to begin accession negotiations with the EU. It is as of yet unknown how long these negotiations will take. In other words, a date for the first eastward enlargement of the EU has not yet been set.
A milestone in the Czech Republic's progress towards EU membership was the EU Summit in the French resort of Nice that took place from the 7th to the 11th December 2000. Debate was long, complex and sometimes fraught, making it the longest summit in EU history, but leaders agreed on a package of internal reforms to prepare the Union for admitting up to twelve further members. It was agreed that in future each EU member country will appoint one member of the executive Commission, and that the biggest five EU members will give up their second seat on the executive in 2005. Most observers agree that, in practice, the influence of the Commission will be reduced. EU leaders also decided how many votes all the current and future members will have on the EU's legislative body, the Council of Ministers: France, Germany, Britain and Italy will have 29, Spain and Poland 27 (initially the EU proposed fewer votes for Poland than for Spain, which has a similar population, but Germany rallied behind Poland's claim that anything less than full parity would be unfair), Romania 15, The Netherlands 13, Greece, The Czech Republic, Belgium, Hungary and Portugal 12, Sweden, Bulgaria and Austria 10, Slovakia, Denmark, Finland, Ireland and Lithuania 7, Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia, Cyprus and Luxembourg 4, and Malta 3. This new distribution greatly reinforces the influence of the biggest Union members, which had been afraid of losing some of their weight, amid the growing combined voting power of the smaller countries in an expanded Europe.
The summit also outlined certain changes to the way important EU agreements are reached, reforming outdated processes that were designed for a far smaller Union. In some areas member countries have agreed to abandon their right of veto, and many decisions will in future be taken using a complex method known as "qualified majority voting", which EU leaders hope will prevent the decision-making process grinding to a halt in a larger Europe as individual countries try to block initiatives.
The reforms weaken the influence of the smaller EU members, which is not necessarily good news for a country the size of the Czech Republic, but - with a degree of reserve - Czech politicians have broadly welcomed the Nice Treaty.
As the country's chief EU negotiator, Pavel Telicka, put it: "I think the most important element is that the path towards EU enlargement is now clear and the EU cannot come up with any single additional condition or problem to be tackled."
Perhaps the most encouraging message from Nice for the Czech Republic was the EU leaders' statement at the conclusion of the summit, that the first new members would be joining from 2004, in time for the next EU elections.
The EU summit of 14-15 December 2001 at Laeken just outside Brussels brought more good news for the Czech Republic. Although the summit was marred by petty squabbles between various EU member countries, it did bring greater commitment to expansion. The Czech Republic was included on a list of ten applicant countries that the union thinks will be ready for membership by 2004. Under the Laeken Declaration fourteen applicant countries were also given a place (but no voting rights) on a new Convention established to debate and put forward proposals for changes to the EU's founding treaties in preparation for expansion.
Further EU reforms will be discussed at a summit in Berlin in 2004, to define the division of power between Brussels, member states and regions. While the Czech Republic has largely reoriented its economy and politics towards Western Europe, it is also developing regional ties with the other Central and Eastern European countries with which it shares similar goals, namely economic catch-up. It was natural that the countries of Central and Eastern European would want to come together to contemplate the future after the fall of Communism. This was the inspiration for Visegrad cooperation. Named after the Hungarian city where heads of state met in 1991, the Visegrad group includes the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. Although cooperation between the four petered out after 1994, largely due to Czech resistance to political cooperation, it was effectively re-established in May 1999 when the four leaders met in Slovakia's capital Bratislava. Perhaps the greatest success of Visegrad cooperation has been its trade facet. On December 21, 1992, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland signed the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), which aims to stimulate regional trade by abolishing tariff and non-tariff barriers among the member countries. A free trade zone will be established by the year 2001. The Visegrad four have since been joined in trade cooperation by Slovenia (1996), Romania (1997) and Bulgaria (1997) and today the CEFTA countries cover a common market of nearly 90 million people and represent a bloc to be taken seriously during trade negotiations.
Another regional grouping in which the Czech Republic participates is the Central European Initiative. The initial idea for this form of cooperation came from the 1989 meeting in Budapest of the deputy prime ministers of Austria, Hungary, Italy and Yugoslavia. Today the sixteen-member Central European Initiative continues to function without an institutional structure, and has some modest accomplishments to its name.
One organization that works for human rights and democracy all over the European continent is the Council of Europe, in Strasbourg. Hopes for reconciliation and for a "United States of Europe", in the words of Sir Winston Churchill, meant that movements for European unity were springing up everywhere after 1945. In 1949, the Council of Europe was born, hurried on by the sharp East-West tensions marked by the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and the Berlin airlift of 1948-9. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Council of Europe opened its doors to the new democracies of Eastern Europe and Czechoslovakia became a member of the organisation in 1991.
Attempts at healing the ideological division in Europe and fostering security and cooperation in the 1970s sparked the Helsinki process. The Czech Republic, along with every other European nation (except Albania and Andorra) began to participate in these negotiations in 1973. Today, the Czech Republic is one of the 55 members of the descendant of the Helsinki process, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE International Secretariat has its headquarters in Vienna and an office in Prague