Last Monday the Czech Prime Minister, Milos Zeman, boarded an official government plane for the Swedish city of Gothenburg. Mr Zeman - flanked by a small army of civil servants and businessmen - was visiting Sweden at a crucial time for his country: Stockholm currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, and there is a small but realistic chance that the Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson will announce a concrete date for enlargement when EU members meet in Gothenburg in June. Rob Cameron followed the Czech Prime Minister from shipyard to car factory to audience with the King of Sweden, and brings back the following report for this week's Talking Point.
Prime Minister Milos Zeman
Goran Persson has made enlargement one of the top priorities of his country's six-month presidency, its first since joining the Union in 1995. Sweden already enjoyed a high standard of living and one of the most generous welfare systems in the world when it joined the EU. Ten percent of its nine million people are immigrants, and Swedish society is open, tolerant and relaxed. An ideal breeding ground for cultivating pro-expansion sentiment, as I found out on the streets of Stockholm when I asked passers-by whether they were in favour of enlargement: Others, like this businessman on his lunch break, were more cautious: But then, of course, there were the voices of dissent, like this elderly man walking his dog in Olaf Palme Square: Goran Persson may have committed his country to enlargement, but he knows many Swedes are horrified at the idea of sacrificing their hard-earned prosperity to pay for a bigger European Union. He's also very aware that many of his European colleagues are convinced that neither the candidate countries nor the EU itself are ready for enlargement, and that giving a firm date now would be disastrous. He will therefore have to perform a delicate balancing act over the next six months. One of the most common worries in the EU is an influx of cheap labour from the East. Many ordinary people, especially in areas bordering candidate countries, believe they'll be flooded by thousands of East Europeans - who will - so the theory goes - simply up sticks and move to richer parts of the EU. Politicians - even pro-enlargement politicians - have been forced to adopt a tough line on the issue of migration: the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder recently suggested delaying the free movement of labour for new members by several years. But the Czech Prime Minister, Milos Zeman, was quick to allay such fears, stressing there would be no mass migration of Czechs when his country joined the EU. Mr Zeman said that even when similar restrictions on the free movement of labour had been put in place for new members in the past, they hadn't lasted long. But the Euro-sceptics have plenty of other ammunition in their battle against enlargement. The simplest case against expansion is the cost. Poland, for example, will eat up billions of euros in agricultural subsidies alone, something which has forced a total rethink on the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. But there's also economic criticism levelled at the Czech Republic: the Maastricht criteria - which laid down the ground rules for enlargement in 1991 - say an EU member's budget deficit may not exceed 3 percent of its GDP. New figures released by the Czech Finance Ministry predict the country's budget deficit will grow to almost 10 percent of GDP by the end of this year. Mr Zeman, however, said the deficit was largely due to bad loans inherited from the past, not newly created debt. He also pointed out that there were many other factors to be taken into account when assessing the health of the Czech economy: But away from the facts and figures, it's probably Mr Zeman's droll humour and personal charm which more than anything will smooth his country's path to membership of Europe's most exclusive club. At home his sharp tongue and robust style has made him many enemies, especially among the Czech media, whom he despises with a passion. Abroad, however, he's a different man: I watched as he won over audiences of no-nonsense Swedish businessmen and journalists with jokes about almost everything under the sun: from how to survive in politics to why he smoked so much. He even broke diplomatic protocol to poke fun at the Swedish language: Whether Mr Zeman can turn that easy rapport and good humour into the magic date for joining the EU of course remains to be seen. But as he told me after meeting Swedish officials in Gothenburg, he was optimistic his country would have a better idea of its prospects in five months' time: In the end it will be political realities in the countries that make up the EU which will determine when to let the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and other former Communist countries join the club. But on the icy streets of Stockholm at least, there was firm evidence that the people of Western Europe were definitely warming to the idea: