Schroeder in upbeat mood

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder

The German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder was in the Czech Republic on Tuesday and the highpoint of his stay was a visit to the most potent symbol of the success of Czech-German relations over the last ten years, the Skoda car plant in Mlada Boleslav - majority owned by Volkswagen and the Czech Republic's biggest single exporter. Mr Schroeder's current two-week tour of the eastern border regions of Germany along with the areas of Poland and the Czech Republic close to the border is aimed mainly at his electorate back home, as next year's general election draws close. But Mr Schroeder is also trying to give a clear signal of support to Germany's eastern neighbours. David Vaughan reports.

Over lunch with the Czech Prime Minister, Chancellor Schoeder said that the Czech Republic was certain to be in the first wave of European Union expansion, and that it could count on Germany's full support. He also gave a clear message that the row over the Czech Temelin nuclear power plant would not be allowed to cloud relations, a very different tone from some of the strident rhetoric being heard in Austria. There is a similar atmosphere of compromise over the delicate question of free labour movement once the Czech Republic and Poland join the European Union, and Mr Schroeder has also been careful to avoid bringing up the grievances of Sudeten Germans, expelled from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War. In his more relaxed attitude to relations with Germany's eastern neighbours, it is probably no coincidence that Mr Schroeder is the first German Chancellor to have grown up without memories of the war. So I asked the BBC's Petr Brod, a Czech journalist who has spent many years in Germany, whether Czech-German relations really are so rosy, or whether the problems are destined to linger.

"They are going to linger definitely, but they are not going to form a barrier between the two nations in any way. Let's not forget that the two countries are now together partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, their armies exercise together, we've had cases of German soldiers being sworn in on Czech territory together with Czech soldiers. These are immensely symbolic events that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. On another level the Czech Republic is very close to membership in the European Union. We're talking of three or five years. I don't think that any German government of whatever colour would try to put obstacles in the way of the Czech Republic towards full membership in the EU. And such problems, and they are real enough, such as Temelin or the movement of people within an enlarged European Union will not prevent the Czech Republic from joining."

And there have been some spectacular successes in Czech-German relations, particularly at an economic level, over the past ten years, most significantly with Skoda cars.

"That's right, and there are such successes on a smaller scale everywhere you look. The number of cooperative agreements between Czech and German firms is enormous. German firms build rather substantial headquarters for their operations in the Czech Republic. In Prague let's think only of Siemens, for example, which built a huge centre in Prague 6. Those are only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak."

There are clear signs of economic stagnation in Germany. There are fears that the country could be going into recession. Do you think that could have serious repercussions for the Czech Republic?

"It could have serious repercussions in the sense that in the last ten years since the downfall of the communist regime, the Czech Republic has completely re-oriented its foreign trade, and that the bulk of its foreign trade is now oriented towards the European Union and especially Germany, so that any lessening of demand in Germany would, of course, be felt here in the Czech Republic. At the same time it seems that the signs of an economic downturn are not evenly spread, that, for example, the car industry has not been hit by any signs of economic slowdown yet. The hopes are of course that if there is a slowdown it will affect only certain segments of the economy and that therefore the Czech Republic will not be hit as hard as might be expected."