Verheugen - "artificial" debate over Benes decrees is not EU issue

The European Union's Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen paid a visit to Prague on Thursday, to reassure the Czechs over the post-war Benes decrees. The decrees sanctioned the expulsion of Czechoslovakia's German population after the war, and representatives of German expellees are now clamouring for compensation. Some Austrian and German politicians, meanwhile, are trying to link the issue with the Czech Republic's accession to the EU. But as Rob Cameron reports, Mr Verheugen made it quite clear to reporters that the dispute was a storm in a teacup, and any attempt to link the wartime past to EU integration was in vain.

Milos Zeman and Günter Verheugen,  photo CTK
Guenter Verheugen is obviously keen to settle the dispute over the Benes decrees once and for all, and the language he employed at Thursday's press conference in Prague reflected that. Doing away with diplomatic niceties, Mr Verheugen dismissed the German and Austrian politicians fuelling the dispute as insignificant backbenchers. He also criticised the Czech press for giving those politicians the space to air their views, space he said they were denied at home.

"To be very frank, this debate is very often artificial. A handful of politicians, especially in Germany and Austria, which are never able to make headlines in their own countries but are always able to make headlines in the Czech Republic. If you - as the Czech media - would start to treat these people as they are treated at home, as backbenchers in the third row, then perhaps the situation would be a little bit calmer."

The dispute over the Benes decrees is often described as "a dispute between the Czech Republic and neighbouring Germany and Austria" - wrong again, said Mr Verheugen. He told reporters it was crucial to realise that neither the German nor Austrian government had raised the issue with regard to the Czech Republic's accession to the EU, regardless of what nationalist firebrands such as Austria's Joerg Haider said in public.

"It's simply not true that leading politicians in Germany want to raise the issue. I know them all, and I do not know a single one who is important in that country who wants to do that. So it's simply not true. And Austria is the same. Austria did not raise it in the context of the accession negotiations. And if you feel that a certain Mr Haider is more important than 15 heads of states and governments than the European Union, then you might believe it. I do not believe it."

Günter Verheugen and Vaclav Klaus,  photo CTK
Critics say European Parliament resolutions criticising the decrees are proof the EU is taking the matter seriously. Wrong again, said the Commissioner. The Parliament had been misinformed about the decrees, he said, and none of the 15 member states - including Germany and Austria - had raised the issue at a Commission level.

"My view is that former resolutions of the European Parliament were adopted because a strong majority of the members of parliament did not know what the Benes decrees. Now they are aware, and they know how sensitive the issue, and that the real issue is the post-war settlement. I do not think that more than 3 percent of the members of the European Parliament want to discuss that. As far as the member states are concerned, not a single government of a member state has raised the issue of the Benes decrees in the context of the accession negotiations. Never."

So a clear message then from the European Commission, and Mr Verheugen said it was now time for the "artificial" debate to end. But this is after all an election year in much of Central Europe, and some parties may not be able to resist the temptation to play the nationalist card.