Meanwhile, President Vaclav Klaus has said the Czech Republic will cease to exist as an independent state once the country joins the EU. In an article in the newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes, Mr Klaus - a long-term critic of European integration - said the Czech Republic and the other nine countries joining the Union should assert themselves or be lost within the expanded 25-member bloc.
On a visit to Prague on Thursday the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, discussed preparations for a new EU constitution with his Czech counterpart, Vladimir Spidla. Mr Ahern also addressed the EU constitution in a speech to the Czech Senate; he said he would seek a spirit of compromise and flexibility from all EU states, so as to reach agreement by the end of Ireland's presidency of the Union at the end of June.
A bill reducing the top value added tax rate from 22 to 19 percent has
been passed by the Chamber of Deputies, overturning a veto by President
Vaclav Klaus. All Chamber business had been suspended since Tuesday to
allow the foreign minister, Cyril Svoboda, more time to recover after a
recent car crash. Mr Svoboda was flown to Prague by helicopter from his
hospital in Brno; his vote was crucial because the government has a
majority of only one in the 200-seat lower house.
Finance Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said the new VAT rate could take effect as of Friday, when it is published in the Czech Republic's Collection of Laws. Minister Sobotka had been pushing hard to have the change adopted ahead of European Union accession on May 1, saying failure to do so would have harmed Czech trade with other EU states.
A total of 19 customs officers from Breclav in south Moravia have been charged with taking bribes from lorry drivers from Balkan countries, a police spokesperson said on Thursday, adding that more arrests were expected. About half of the 800 or so trucks which cross the border at Breclav every day are from the Balkans.
Mr Klaus is currently on an official visit to China, where he has made history by becoming the first Czech president to meet his Chinese counterpart. During Thursday's meeting in Beijing, President Hu Jintao pointed out that ten years ago Mr Klaus had been the first Czech prime minister to visit his country.
Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda hospitalised since suffering a serious neck injury in a car accident last week, is to be air-lifted to Prague from Brno on Thursday to take part in a crucial vote in the Chamber of Deputies. The government coalition, which enjoys just the slimmest of majorities in Parliament, will be trying to pass a crucial VAT bill ahead of European accession. The bill, which aims to reduce the current VAT rate from 22 to 19 percent, was vetoed just last month by President Vaclav Klaus. Foreign Ministry spokesman Vit Kolar meanwhile said on Wednesday that preparations to get Mr Svoboda to the Chamber were being fine-tuned. On Thursday Mr Svoboda is expected to arrive in Prague at 11 a.m. and will be taken to the Chamber of Deputies by ambulance, accompanied by medical professionals.
Tens of thousands of civil servants staged a one-hour protest strike Wednesday over cuts in their salary bonuses, with Czech unions estimating more than 200, 000 civil servants took part. Workers are angry over the government's decision to pay them only 10 percent, instead of the usual 50 percent, of the so-called 13th month bonus. State workers, and some private sector employees, in the Czech Republic have traditionally received two bonuses each year equal to a half of a month's wages, known as 13th and 14th pay. On Wednesday hospitals, schools, libraries and museums joined the protest by keeping their doors closed one hour later than usual. Alena Vondrova, chairwoman of the Union of Public Sector Employees told news agencies that the strike showed the government public civil servants would not accept the cuts in silence.
The National Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Abuse has released a warning about the incidence of a dangerous and unknown synthetic substance that poisoned two in Prague on April 15th: capsules with powder apparently similar in make-up to Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. Eva Skrdlantova of the centre said on Wednesday there was reason to suspect the capsules contained an as yet unknown hallucinogenic substance that could be highly dangerous and even life-threatening. Meanwhile, blood-tests on the two users showed the presence of both cocaine and metabolites in the bloodstream. Tests are underway to determine the exact nature of the substance.