Radar base treaty “three words” away but many obstacles remain

Mirek Topolánek and George W. Bush, photo: CTK

The Czech Republic and the United States are just “three words away” from a treaty on basing a U.S. anti-missile radar facility in Central Bohemia, according to the leaders of the two countries. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek met U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House on Wednesday, and while a final treaty was not agreed, they seemed confident it would be soon. But the path to expanding missile defence to Central Europe does not appear smooth.

Mirek Topolánek and George W. Bush,  photo: CTK
George Bush and Mirek Topolánek exuded an air of easy confidence in the Oval Office on Wednesday, Mr Topolanek telling the TV cameras there were only three words preventing him from finalising the treaty with Mr Bush there and then.

President Bush declined to elaborate what those three words were, but Mr Topolanek later clarified that the words in question were “strict environmental rules”, in other words a firm guarantee the radar base would not damage the health and habitat of its surroundings - the Brdy hills about 70km southwest of Prague. But he said this was a minor technical matter and one which would be resolved “very soon”.

So a treaty is on the horizon – two treaties in fact, the main one discussed in the White House on Wednesday and a so-called Status of Forces Agreement or SOFA, which will govern the rules of deployment for the American military personnel who will man the base. Czech officials say talks on that agreement are also going well.

But that doesn’t mean Mr Topolánek can start shopping for a new spade to break the earth in the Brdy. Far from it. He – and Mr Bush - have a great deal of weeds and even boulders to clear before construction can go ahead.

At home in the Czech Republic Mr Topolánek has his work cut out. The presence of American soldiers on Czech soil requires the prior approval of parliament. There Mr Topolánek – if you count three renegade MPs who have crossed the floor to join the government – has a majority of three votes (103 seats in the 200-seat parliament).

But that’s including the six votes of the Green Party, which is far from keen on missile defence. The Greens – currently consumed by ugly infighting - say they will have an internal referendum on the radar base. What if their members say no?

But even those Greens who will tolerate the base say they’ll only do so if there’s a cast-iron guarantee it will be incorporated into NATO’s own missile defence shield in the future. Czech officials say the Alliance is due to discuss this at its summit in Bucharest in April, but with NATO preoccupied with Afghanistan, missile defence is unlikely to be very high on the agenda.

And it’s not just NATO – what happens if the Democrats win the U.S. election and pull the plug on the whole thing? What about Russia, which is fuming over the radar base plan? When happens if Poland signs its own treaty on hosting an interceptor base after Mr Bush leaves office? Can there be a Czech radar base without a Polish interceptor station?

And what about the U.S. Congress, which holds the purse strings? Congress says it won’t release a cent until the new two-stage interceptor to be located in Poland has demonstrated “through successful, operationally realistic flight testing, a high probability of working in an operationally effective manner.” The problem is the new interceptor can’t demonstrate anything - it doesn’t exist.

Agreeing on “three words” is the easy part. The hard part has only just begun.