Talks on changes to restitution bill hit wall

Photo: Martina Schneibergová

Members of an expert commission discussing possible changes to a major church restitution bill were not able to reach a consensus in their meeting on Tuesday; in the end they agreed only to dissolve the commission itself. Through the commission, the coalition-leading Social Democrats had been trying to partially roll back the agreement reached between the Church and State: so far, without success.

Photo: Martina Schneibergová
There is no question that the church restitution bill, which came into effect in 2013, is a thorn in the side for many Social Democrats, who have charged that the level of compensation agreed by the previous government and church groups did not mirror reality. A commission made up of representatives of the coalition Social Democrats and ANO as well as faith groups was formed to weigh possible changes – presuming that the church groups would budge.

But that hasn’t happened: with a deal in hand promising 75 billion crowns in returned property and another 59 billion plus inflation over 30 years, there seems little incentive for church groups to agree. On Tuesday, Social Democrat Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka charged that church group representatives hadn’t gone beyond lip service in talks and weren’t willing to make real concessions.

“The church groups were accommodating only in name, when what we need is to reach an agreement.”

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: Filip Jandourek
The Social Democrats – as well as ANO, who hold the Finance Ministry – had sought to slash 13 billion crowns from the price-tag and the head of the Social Democrats’ negotiating team, Alena Gajdušková, warned that if an agreement could not be reached, as a last measure the government could pass a special tax in Parliament which would cover returned funds. Some in the opposition, including TOP 09 party leader Karel Schwarzenberg, ridiculed the suggestion.

“That’s a comical idea. Imagine I steal your watch. Then I return it after 50 years… and I tax you for it.”

The General secretary of the Czech Bishops' Conference Tomáš Holub reacted by saying that unilateral steps taken in Parliament would have “nothing in common with democracy”, stressing that an agreement was needed, not for the government to go strong-arm over the issue. At the very least, it would cause a rift between the senior parties and the smallest party in government, the Christian Democrats. Culture Minister and Christian Democrat Daniel Herman:

“I was surprised by the suggestion that the funds be taxed but if on the other hand if a fair agreement involving the church groups is reached, we won’t be against the proposal. It has to be fair: a one-sided decision or demand is not an agreement and we would be against that.”

Daniel Herman,  photo: Jana Šustová
New talks on the issue of church restitution are now on the table but within a new framework. On Wednesday Prime Minister Sobotka stated he was now in favour of putting together a new government commission to look into the matter of church restitution. But the terms haven’t changed: it appears the prime minister will continue to push for a slash in the billions and to cut inflation from the equation.

The prime minister emphasised on Wednesday he favoured reaching a deal but notably left open the option of a special tax as a last resort. Finance Minister Andrej Babiš and head of ANO on Wednesday also more or less gave the special tax a nod as a last measure, which means the next round of negotiations, for church groups, could be tougher than the last.