Czechs revel in EU membership

May 1 signalled another huge leap in European political and economic co-operation when 10 former Communist bloc and Mediterranean nations joined the EU.

May 1 signalled another huge leap in European political and economic co-operation when 10 former Communist bloc and Mediterranean nations joined the EU. Political Editor Graham Dines has been talking to the Czech ambassador to the UK Stefan Fule

THE ruthless crushing of the Prague Spring - Alexander Dubcek's attempt to restore some form of democracy in the former Czechoslovakia - marked the zenith of the Soviet domination of easterm Europe.

When the tanks rolled in to Wenceslas Square in the heart of Prague in the summer of 1968, they failed however to crush the spirit of this proud nation and although Czechoslovakia buckled down to become a model Soviet satellite, organised opposition to the Communist regime began to flourish.

Demonstrations were brutally crushed, but the spirit of freedom lived on until the Soviet empire crumbled in 1989.

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Democracy was restored to Czechoslovakia, but this led to Slovakia demanding to go it alone and the nation was split in two, with the Czech Republic centred on Prague - without question one of Europe's most remarkable and beautiful capital cities - and Slovakia with its capital in Bratislava.

On May 1 this year, after a long series of negotiations, the culmination of a 60-year dream was fulfilled with the accession of 10 more nations into the European Union, the majority of whom had been enslaved in the Communist bloc. They joined the 15 existing states in the west to signal political and economic co-operation across a peaceful continent.

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Last month, I travelled to the Czech Republic as the guest of its government but before leaving I spoke the country's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Stefan Fule.

He said it was a complex mix of political, economic, security and psychological reasons that led the Czechs to want to join the EU.

"The European project has been regarded as attractive not only as a framework for peaceful co-operation of states valuing individual rights, civil society and liberal democracy. But also as a chance for a rapid implementation of necessary political, social, economic and legislative reforms, and for satisfying the desire for inclusion and belonging."

What were the main political and economic advantages for the Czech Republic joining the EU? "In five words - safe, stable and predictable environment," said the ambassador.

"There is a firm conviction that the interests of the Czech Republic and its citizens will be best safeguarded in the European community of nations sharing common values.

"But I would like to stress that EU enlargement is not a one-way street -

it will benefit all members of the EU, old and new. A number of studies have shown that the EU enlargement will boost European stability, security, trade, jobs and prosperity.

"For example, the accession of Central and Eastern European countries shall increase the UK's gross domestic product £1.75 billion a year and add 1.5% a year to the GDP of new entrants. And enlargement should also give the EU a louder voice in the world."

The biggest decision facing the Czech people before the end of the decade is one which, so far, the British government is afraid to ask us - whether to join the single European currency. In a nation where average wages and the cost of living is a fraction of that in Britain, prices for food and transport will be hit.

Ambassador Fule admitted the constraint of joining the euro-zone is the Czech Republic's public budget but said his Government's aim was to join during 2009-10.

And there there's the thorny issue of the European Constitution. "The Czech Government was actively involved in drafting the Constitutional Treaty and is fully supportive of it. Several countries, including the Czech Republic, supported the reference to God, to be included to the preamble. For various reasons, this proved impracticable and, in the end, was judged as being an unnecessary complication of the text.

"In the Czech Republic, constitutional changes have to be approved by at least three fifths of our members of parliament. The Constitutional Treaty, being a rather divisive issue in the Czech Parliament, there may be a need for a referendum on the text. The final decision lies with the new Prime Minister Stanislav Gross."

The most people, the Czech Republic is Prague and only Prague. But there is far more to this central European nation and for the Czechs, one way to promote inward investment and tourism is to foster existing twinning links between UK and Czech towns and cities, and to encourage new arrangements between the regions of the two countries.

"There is real enthusiasm in both countries for this further cementing of relations," said the ambassador. "We are not building the Czech -UK relationship from scratch. The first links in the post-communist era developed in the early 1990s thanks to several projects sponsored by the UK Know How Fund.

"Today, there are 17 formal regional partnerships and many more local communities have expressed their interest. In fact, on September 23, the Embassy, in co-operation with the Local Government International Bureau, is organising a special day of the Czech Regions in the UK. So far, interest among those involved in regional and local politics in both countries has been considerable."

How important is tourism and inward investment to the economy of the CR? What is the government doing to exploit the advantage that geography places the country at the heart of Europe? "The Government has set up two specialised agencies, CzechInvest and CzechTourism, whose task is to attract investment and promote tourism respectively. And I am confident that it is not just geography that makes the Czech Republic an interesting place to invest in or visit.

And how will the Czechs sell themselves to UK? "As a confident and reliable partner, a constructive fellow member of the EU and NATO," said the ambassador.

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