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EU Enlargement Thursday, 12 March, 1998, 09:38 GMT
Local worries overshadow Czech ambitions
Prague- old square
Prague's old town square: part of the new Europe?
The Czech Republic's first post-communist prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, used to boast that his country was more prepared to cope with the travails of a free-market than many states in Western Europe. But as Ray Furlong reports from Prague, not many of his countrymen share the former premier's optimism.

Go to a traditional, smoke-filled Czech pub and ask someone what he thinks about joining the European Union, and he will usually say "Yes, if they'll have us." It is a typically Czech response, half doubting that Western Europeans will accept Czechs into their rich man's club, and half not believing that there is much they themselves can do to influence it.

Given Czech history, in which the country has so often found itself at the mercy of Great Power interests, this is perhaps not surprising. But it also reflects the lack of serious debate about European Union membership in the country.

The return to the West

When the Czechoslovak foreign minister, Jiri Dienstbier, cut through the barbed wire on the country's border with Germany in late 1989, many people in the country felt they were returning to the part of the world they historically belonged to: the West. There was talk of a "return to Europe," and every Czech and Slovak government since then has declared that it aims to achieve membership of the European Union.

The division of Czechoslovakia in 1993 complicated the situation in Slovakia, where the government of Vladimir Meciar has cast doubt over this Western orientation. Western criticism over the level of democracy in the country led Mr Meciar to declare that "if they won't have us in the West, we'll look to the East."

But while such rhetoric reaps applause in the depressed industrial areas of central Slovakia, young people in the country's cosmopolitan capital Bratislava say they are ashamed of Mr Meciar's government and the direction it is taking the country.

The Europe mantra

The Czech Republic has had a smoother path, being invited to join NATO and named among five nations tipped for EU membership. All mainstream political parties say they are committed to entering the EU but this can often seem little more than a mantra which is low on concrete details, and there is still little real idea among ordinary people of what joining the EU means - beyond the vague notion of "returning to Europe."

With potential membership still years in the future it has no place on the domestic political agenda, and is seen as something too far away to have any relavence to this year's pre-election debate - which is instead expected to be dominated by an increasing number of colourful corruption scandals.

Not talking about Europe ...

The local media is also more pre-occupied with stories about how various political parties cooked their account books than with questions which are for Czechs dull and obscure, such as the single European currency or the Common Agricultural Policy. Again, the attitude seems to be that Czechs will be happy to be let in at all, rather than that they should also participate in considering the issues at stake.

One exception to this tendency was the former prime minister, Vaclav Klaus - who, while strongly advocating EU membership, also held Eurosceptic positions on a number of issues, particularly the single currency. Mr Klaus argued that the Czech experience of trying to preserve a single currency with Slovakia after the division of the federation had proved unsustainable.

He was widely criticised for this inside the Czech Republic, but it was unclear whether his opponents were passionate supporters of the single currency or merely considered it inappropriate for Mr Klaus to express himself critically about a club that Czechs wanted to join.

But it can be expected that the Czech response to EU membership will get more sophisticated as the questions becomes more topical.

About three months ago there was no debate about joining NATO, but as membership of the alliance has started to appear more an imminent reality than a distant prospect, the first signs of a nascent debate are appearing - both in the media and in the country's smoky drinking dens.

Europe Today - a news programme from the BBC World Service about Europe for Europe

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