Prime Minister's 'gaff' sparks war of words


Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman is known for being outspoken and for making controversial statements that create uproar in the media and amongst opposition politicians. Monday this week was no exception, as the prime minister claimed in an interview that he had been told off the record by European enlargement commissioner Gunter Verheugen that if euro-sceptic opposition leader Vaclav Klaus were to become prime minister, the Czech Republic wouldn't be able to join the EU . Nick Carey reports.

Prime Minister Milos Zeman's statement came during an interview for the Czech section of the BBC. When the interviewer played the prime minister a quote by Civic Democrat leader and former prime minister Vaclav Klaus that the Civic Democrats were the only party that can represent Czech interests, Mr Zeman's response was:

Milos Zeman
"It would be cheap of me to quote a statement from Gunter Verheugen, which was not made publicly, that were Vaclav Klaus to become Czech prime minister, the Czech Republic would not become a member of the European Union."

The prime minister's words have already caused controversy, with Vaclav Klaus calling for proof that Gunter Verheugen ever made the statement. The enlargement commissioner himself has refused to comment on the matter, saying merely that he would never publicly make such a statement. The Czech media is already speculating over whether Mr Verheugen actually said anything of the sort. According to commentator Jiri Pehe, it is entirely possible that he did, given Mr Klaus' frequent euro-sceptic comments:

Whether or not Gunter Verheugen did say it, the next bone of contention is why Mr Zeman quoted him, whether it was deliberate, or simply a slip of the tongue. According to Civic Democrat MP Petr Necas, the prime minister didn't think before he spoke:

"Mr Zeman has become known as a politician who likes to talk sometimes two times faster than he is able to think. So, we can take this as a possible result of his way of thinking."

But Jiri Pehe believes that Mr Zeman's statement was intentional, and was meant as an attack on Mr Klaus as a euro-sceptic:

"No, I don't think the prime minister makes mistakes when he makes remarks such as the one he made about Mr Verheugen and Mr Klaus. I think this was deliberate and that it was probably an attempt to start fending off consistent attacks by euro-sceptics in the Czech Republic. I think that Mr Zeman probably feels that he needs to say quite openly that Mr Klaus is simply unacceptable for the European Union. So if you want Mr Klaus you can have your Mr Klaus, if you want Europe, you can't have Mr Klaus." But at the end of the day, what effect will the prime minister's statement have? According to Civic Democrat MP Petr Necas, Mr Zeman will come off worse:

"I would say that these words will damage the credibility of the prime minister, because unfortunately he is well known for talking too fast sometimes."

But again, Jiri Pehe, believes that the reverse is the case, as he feels the majority of Czechs are pro-EU:

"As far as Mr Klaus is concerned, it will probably hurt him slightly more than Mr Zeman in the end, because I think the Czechs are a very pragmatic people and they want to join the European Union, or at least the majority of them do. In the end, if we hold a referendum in this country, most people would vote yes, and if they see Mr Klaus as an obstacle, as a danger to our membership in the European Union, it may hurt him politically."