Former Czech president Vaclav Havel has been honoured in Berlin. On Wednesday he was awarded a prize by the German National Foundation for 2003, for his services in helping to improve German-Czech relations, European integration, and conditions on human rights. The prize given to Mr Havel is worth 100,000 euros. In his acceptance speech the 66-year-old former president said his goal had always been to steer a steady course of reconciliation between the West and the East while defending his nation's interests. Among those in attendance at the special ceremony on Wednesday was German President Johannes Rau. The German National Foundation which awarded Mr Havel the prize, was first set-up by former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 1993.
Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda has said foreign ministers from a number of EU countries have expressed their surprise that President Vaclav Klaus had failed to make clear whether Czechs should vote "Yes" in the recent EU referendum. Speaking to reporters after returning from an EU meeting in Luxembourg, Mr Svoboda said the Czech president was the only head of state of a candidate country to refuse to recommend EU membership to his citizens. President Klaus urged people to vote in the poll, but said they must make up their own minds. He was also quoted as saying that EU membership was a marriage of convenience, not love. In the end, 77 percent of people voted "Yes" to joining the EU.
President Vaclav Klaus has come under fire for his non-committal stand regarding the country's accession to the EU. Finance Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Labour Minister Zdenek Skromach have both criticized the head of state for failing to take a public stand on so crucial an issue. President Klaus appealed to voters to go to the polls and make a prudent decision, but he refused to commit one way or another or to say how he himself would vote. "This is not a stand befitting a president" minister Sobotka told newsmen, pointing out that the presidents of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia had led their country's pro EU campaigns.
The European Commission's ambassador to Prague Mr. Ramiro Cibrian has said he is convinced that the process of ratifying the EU accession treaty by the unions 15 members should go smoothly. At a press conference in Prague on Monday, Mr. Cibrian congratulated Czechs on endorsing EU accession in a historic referendum and said it was a wonderful conclusion to his mission in Prague. After four and a half years in the Czech Republic, Mr. Cibrian is leaving his post, to be replaced by the current charge d'affaires Mr. Ralf Dreyer. Over the past twelve months Mr. Cibrian covered 35,000 kilometers, visited eighty towns and cities and held debates on EU membership with over 10,000 people in near-fluent Czech. "It has been hectic, but worthwhile" he told reporters.
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said it was "a historical and fateful vote" but quickly reminded Czechs that much needed to be done for the Czech Republic to join the EU as an equal partner next May. He said that the positive outcome of the vote gave the government, which has a narrow one-vote majority in the Lower House, a strengthened mandate to enact key reforms needed for the eventual adoption of the euro. Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said the outcome was a success for all Czech citizens. Although no minimum turnout was required, a fairly strong turnout was important for the ruling coalition which has spent 200 million crowns on a campaign promoting EU membership. Joining the European Union has been the country's main foreign policy goal since the fall of communism in 1989.
Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Vondra is in Iraq to negotiate the conditions under which the Czech Republic will participate in the reconstruction of that country. Mr. Vondra spent Sunday in Basra where he visited the Czech field hospital which has been serving the civilian population in and around Basra since May. The Czech government is sending twenty Czech experts to Iraq to help restore the country's damaged infrastructure and has appointed a liaison officer for Czech firms which are interested in participating in the reconstruction of Iraq.
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla has thanked Czechs for endorsing the country's accession to the European Union in a historic referendum over the weekend. According to a final result published by the Czech Statistical Office 77 percent of voters cast ballots in support of EU entry, 23 percent voted against. The turnout was 55 percent. Support for EU membership reportedly came from all strata of society and from all political parties.
The European Commission also thanked the Czech electorate for voting
"yes". "The Czech Republic takes the place it was always entitled to"
said the Commission's chief representative in Prague Mr. Ramiro
Cibrian. Congratulations have come from the EU Commissioner for
Expansion Mr. Gunter Verheugen, from Greece which currently holds the
rotating EU presidency and from representatives of the European
Both EU members and EU candidates have congratulated the Czech Republic on making "the right decision" and "putting faith in the future of the European Union". The French Minister for European Affairs Noelle Lenoir welcomed Czechs in the EU and said that the return of the Czech Republic to Europe was excellent news for all. German officials called it " a great day for the Czech Republic" and in the Austrian capital Vienna, Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero Waldner welcomed Czechs to the EU with a few sentences in Czech.
The Czech Republic is one of ten predominantly former communist states set to join the European Union next May in a "big bang" eastward expansion. Voters in Poland, Malta, Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania and Slovakia have already approved accession in national referenda. Estonia and Latvia are to vote in September.
Czechs have begun voting in a historic referendum on joining the European
Union. Polls opened to the public at 2pm Friday. Among public figures who
cast their ballots early in the afternoon were former president Vaclav
Havel, who all along has indicated his support for the European Union, and
current President Vaclav Klaus, who refrained from indicating this week
which way he would cast his vote. Asked on Friday as he left the voting
booth whether he would reveal his decision at last, the president had this
"Definitely not. You know, I am absolutely sure my vote was the right one, and you may just guess."
Mr Klaus was also asked by journalists how he gauged the importance of the referendum for the Czech Republic overall:
"Well, it's an important moment in our effort to become, after thirteen years a normal, standard European country. In some respects the vote will be part of the whole process."
The polls close on Friday at 10pm local time. On Saturday they will reopen at 8am till 2pm, when final ballots must be cast. Unconfirmed results should be made available almost immediately after polls close. There is no minimum turnout needed for the referendum to be declared valid, but the vote is binding. If a majority of people vote "Yes" to joining the EU, there will be no need for the parliament to ratify accession. In the event of a "No" vote, the government can ask the president to hold a second referendum in two years' time. The latest opinion polls suggest that between 70 - 75 percent of those who come to the polls will vote for accession.
The chairman of the Lower House Lubomir Zaoralek has levelled criticism at Czech President Vaclav Klaus, as well as one of the Czech representatives at the European Convention, Jan Zahradil. Speaking shortly before the polls on European accession opened in the Czech Republic on Friday, Mr Zaoralek told journalists Mr Klaus' and Mr Zahradil's stances on the EU showed a 'lack of courage'. Mr Zaoralek also added that he felt 'laments' or 'taking offence' over the future of Europe were hardly beneficial for the Czech Republic. On Thursday it was Jan Zahradil who walked out of the European Convention complaining the agenda had become too federalist. An MP for the opposition Civic Democrats, Mr Zahradil stated the Convention was being manipulated by representatives of the national parliaments.
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