The Senate has approved a nation-wide EU referendum for next spring, giving Czech voters the opportunity to decide whether their country should join the European Union. All 67 senators present in the 81-seat upper house approved the bill, which must now be signed by President Vaclav Havel. The referendum would be held in June, and approval would pave the way for EU entry in 2004. The Czech Republic is one of 10 countries that hopes to close enlargement negotiations with Brussels next month, and receive a formal invitation to join the Union at December's Copenhagen summit.
Belarus has threatened to break off diplomatic relations with the Czech Republic if Prague refuses to grant visas to a delegation headed by the authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko for next week's NATO summit in Prague. The Czech authorities have so far refused to allow Mr Lukashenko into the country, after NATO officials made it clear his presence at the summit would not be welcome. On Wednesday a furious Mr Lukashenko threatened retaliation, saying he would flood western Europe with illegal immigrants and drugs. Belarus is not a NATO member, but co-operates with the western military alliance through the Partnership for Peace programme.
The Czech Republic has won support from Sweden in its debate with the European Union over post-enlargement farm supports. A spokesman for the Czech Minister of Agriculture said his counterpart in Stockholm agreed with Prague's positions on milk quotas, wine-vineyard hectarage, cattle production and other points in ongoing talks with Brussels. Agriculture is one of four areas still being discussed as part of the Czech Republic's negotiations for joining the EU. So far the Czech government has rejected the EU's offer for a gradual introduction of farm subsidies for new member states.
President Vaclav Havel has signed a law allowing U.S. fighter jets to guard the skies over Prague for the duration of the summit. Mr Havel interrupted his convalescence in Portugal and returned to Prague on Thursday in order to sign the law. U.S. air force technical staff are due to arrive in the Czech Republic on Friday.
A new opinion poll released by the CVVM agency shows public support for EU membership at 47 percent, up from 40 percent three months ago and the highest figure ever recorded by the agency. Eighteen percent said they would vote against joining the EU, while 23 percent said they would take part in a referendum but hadn't made up their minds which way to vote. The average in other EU candidate countries is 65 percent in favour, 19 percent against.
Police say they have uncovered a plot by five extremists to cut the power supply to parts of Prague during the NATO summit. A police spokeswoman said the plans were discovered during police questioning of the five, adding that the group had targeted the summit's location and the city's metro system. She gave no further details. Up to 12,000 police and soldiers are preparing for the arrival of more than 40 leaders for the key meeting of the alliance next week. It's the first summit to be held in one of NATO's post-Communist member states, and the first since the September 11th attacks.
The European Commission has called for 728 million euros in aid to help repair flood damage in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and France. Officials said agreement on the package by EU governments and the European Parliament could come as early as next week, with the funds being made available by the end of the year. The newly-created one billion euro European Union Solidarity Fund will provide 444 million euros in EU help for Germany, 134 million euros for Austria, 129 million euros for the Czech Republic and 21 million euros for France. The packages will be used to restore vital equipment and infrastructure destroyed by floods that devastated many parts of Europe in August this year.
The Czech Senate's foreign, defence and security committee has unanimously recommended the Upper House approve a government bill enabling US military planes to protect Czech airspace during the NATO summit in Prague on November 21st and 22nd - senators will vote on the bill on Thursday. Under the bill American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets will begin guarding Czech airspace as of November 19th, deputy defence minister Stefan Fuele told senators Wednesday. The US will also provide refuelling aircraft and an AWACS radar plane, while Czechs will provide their own MiG-21 fighters and other combat planes and helicopters. Mr Fuele added that major flights of civilian aircraft over the Czech Republic would not be curbed during the summit, but said armed guards would be stationed aboard. Small aircraft, on the other hand, shall be banned from Czech airspace during the summit.
The Czech Republic has acknowledged that its possible accession to the European Union, together with that of nine other candidate countries, could slip back by several months; the announcement coming in response to a statement made in Brussels on Tuesday, in which Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said that a small delay from the January 1, 2004 date would give parliaments in the 15 current member states more time to study and ratify the accession treaty. Responding to the comment Czech Deputy Foreign Minister and chief EU negotiator Pavel Telicka told reporters on Wednesday that the Czech Republic would continue to seek the earliest date possible, adding that an eventual delay should not create new obstacles. The Czech Republic is one of the 10 mostly ex-Communist countries from central and eastern Europe hoping to finish membership talks by the end of the year, to join the EU as early as January 1, 2004.
Belarussian President Alexandr Lukashenko has threatened that unless the Czech Republic grants him an entry visa, enabling him to take part in the NATO summit to be held in Prague next week, Belarus will cease guarding its borders, allowing thousands of illegal migrants into western Europe; the move would also open the way for drug smuggling, Mr Lukashenko warned. So far, there has been no Czech response. The Czech Foreign Ministry has not yet decided whether to grant the Belarussian president an entry visa, along with members of a Belarussian delegation that also applied last month; each case is decided individually and a decision on Lukashenko might not come until early next week. NATO officials have already made clear the Belarussian president is not welcome at the NATO summit because of both his autocratic style and his opposition to NATO in the past.