Visegrad summit cancelled after furious Czechs, Slovaks pull out

President Eduard Benes

Just over ten years ago the leaders of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland gathered in the Hungarian town of Visegrad, with the aim of increasing regional co-operation and paving the way for membership of the European Union. Back then it was all friendly smiles and firm handshakes - but this week relations between the countries seem anything but friendly, as a bitter row over their wartime past rears its ugly head once again. By Rob Cameron.

President Eduard Benes
The row centres on the post-war Benes decrees - under which many ethnic Germans and Hungarians were expelled from Czechoslovakia and their property seized by the Czechoslovak state. The row has already created tension with neighbouring Germany and Austria, who want the decrees abolished, but last week the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stepped into the fray - telling the European Parliament the Czech Republic and Slovakia should repeal the laws before being allowed into the European Union. That caused uproar in Prague and Bratislava, and Hungary has been forced to cancel a Visegrad summit planned for this Friday. Gabor Horvath is the spokesman for the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, and earlier Radio Prague's Rob Cameron asked him why Hungary had decided to cancel the meeting:

"This is totally wrong information, Hungary did not cancel the Visegrad prime ministerial summit - as is well known, the Czech and Slovak prime ministers decided not to attend the meeting which was scheduled for March 1st. This is a regrettable fact because both Prague and Bratislava were referring to an issue which has nothing to do with our bilateral relations and nothing to do with Visegrad co-operation."

But are you surprised that Prague and Bratislava are angry, given the sensitivity surrounding the Benes decrees?

"As is well known, the Hungarian Prime Minister was attending a hearing at the European Parliament and the question concerning the Benes decrees was actually raised by a member of the European Parliament. So he responded to that, he gave a very clear and very balanced response. The fact in itself clearly shows that in European politics, as well as in the European Parliament, the issue of the Benes decrees from time to time emerges. Also there are resolutions by the European Parliament from last year and the year before as well, where it is clearly stated that the European Parliament would welcome if, for example, the Czech government would bring the Benes decrees into harmony with the laws of the European Union as well as the Copenhagen criteria. So this clearly shows that this is not an issue that Hungary has raised."

Right, but what do you say to those critics who accuse Mr Orban of merely trying to woo nationalist votes ahead of April's elections in Hungary?

"This is total nonsense. Let me repeat: this issue is obviously present in European thinking and European politics. Actually the Hungarian Prime Minister very clearly stated in Brussels that we did not intend and will not intend to raise this issue in our bilateral relations, although those elements of the Benes decrees which attach collective guilt to minority populations are totally not yet in harmony with the current principles and philosophy of European law, and Hungary actually regards them as a kind of sad remnant of the last century and we believe that even in the framework of our joint marching towards a reunified Europe, these issues upon accession of the Central European countries will really have to evaporate."