What future for radar base after House slashes missile defence funds?

The Bush administration's plans to build a radar station in the Czech Republic as part of its missile defence shield have never been far from the front pages, and today the story is back on the agenda. The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to cut funding for the proposed missile defence facilities by almost one half, prompting a sharp exchange of views in Prague on whether the system will ever see the light of day.

The story so far is this: the Czech government has said yes, in theory, to allowing the U.S. to build a radar base in the Czech Republic as part of its plans to expand its missile defence shield into Central Europe. Czech and American negotiators started formal negotiations in May, and Washington wants Prague to give them the green light by January 2008. The U.S. Missile Defence Agency has chosen a site near village of Misov, about 90 km southwest of Prague. The Czech government agrees that it's the most suitable location.

However two major hurdles stand in way of the plan going ahead. Stationing U.S. troops on Czech soil would require approval from the Czech parliament, and the system won't be built unless the U.S. Congress agrees to fund it.

On Sunday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill which would cut the next round of spending on the radar base in the Czech Republic and an interceptor base in Poland from 310 million dollars to 139 million dollars.

That might not mean a great deal at the moment. As the Czech deputy prime minister Alexandr Vondra pointed out, that just the House's proposal - the Senate still has to vote on their own proposal, where the cuts are far less radical. Afterwards representatives of the two houses will meet to hammer out a compromise. The Czech opposition, however, have seized upon the House's decision as a signal that missile defence doesn't even enjoy support of U.S. legislators.

Back in Prague, there are also warning signs for the centre-right government. The left-wing opposition, which opposes the base, currently controls 98 of the 200 seats in the lower house, after losing two rebel MPs. The government has a slim majority on paper, but that majority is less than convincing. The key is held by the coalition Green Party and their six MPs.

The Greens have said all along they will only support the radar base if it falls under NATO's umbrella. Future NATO deputy Secretary General Jiri Sedivy was quoted recently as saying the radar base would never be under NATO's control, although later he sought to tone down the comments.

That has done little to reassure the Greens. On Monday the party's deputy leader, Ondrej Liska, said missile defence meant the Czech Republic was being used as a pawn in a superpower chess game, describing the Czechs as Bush and Putin's "useful idiots". It is hardly the language of a party willing to throw its weight behind missile defence.

And then there's the Czech public, who remain implacably opposed to the plan, at least according to all opinion polls taken in the last six months. President Vaclav Klaus, who rolled out the red carpet for George W. Bush a few months ago, is now saying public opposition to the plan must be respected. The opinion polls weren't made up, he said, and has criticised government efforts to get the Czech people to change their minds.