The European Commission has published its annual progress report on 10 EU candidate countries, the last before they are due to join the union in May of 2004. The report says that although the "newcomers" have made great progress in implementing EU norms and regulations there are serious concerns in 39 specific sectors relating to movement of people, farm payments and health and sanitation standards. The Czech Republic has been urged to speed up the approval of laws relating to recognition of diplomas, road transport and farm aid systems. The EC is also unhappy with the steep deficit in public finances and the high level of corruption in the Czech Republic.
Liechtenstein has said it will sign the agreement on an expanded European Economic Area despite its earlier refusal to do so because of open disputes with the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Lichtenstein threw a damper on hopes of creating a large area of free trade, finance and travel in Europe, when it walked away from the agreement a few weeks ago. Norway and Iceland also refused to sign in a show of solidarity. The refusal came after the Czech Republic and Liechtenstein crossed swords over sensitive SWW issues. Liechtenstein demanded that the Czech Republic open the door to property claims by its citizens relating to past confiscation of land and property - a demand that Prague refused to comply with. Liechtenstein said on Wednesday that it did not want to block progress on European integration and would sign the agreement, along with Norway and Iceland. Its officials have stressed however that this does not signify any change in position regarding the unresolved SWW issues.
The response from Prague to the EC's report has been generally optimistic. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said the report had been more or less what the Cabinet expected. He said that the government was aware of the country's shortcomings and that everything was being done to resolve the outlined problems before the country's joins the EU next May. Czech Foreign ministry officials have likewise stated that the Czech Republic is ready to meet its remaining obligations within the set time limit.
The police say they have detained a blackmailer who threatened to explode a shopping centre in Prague if he did not receive 50 million crowns from the state. The money was to be placed in a bag and tossed from an express train going from the West Bohemian town of Cheb to the Czech-German border. The police say they are confident they have the right man and will be pressing charges. No further details have been released. The police have had to deal with a growing number of extortionist cases this year, with blackmailers threatening to blow up rail tracks, hospitals or shopping centres.
Speaking at a meeting of Czech Army commanders at the Ministry of Defence, President Vaclav Klaus said reform of the country's defence forces should be carried out as soon as possible. Mr Klaus, who as president is the army's supreme commander, said it was necessary to find a balance between being able to defend the country and fulfilling the obligations that went with membership of NATO and other international organisations. The Czech Army is due to become fully professional by the beginning of 2005.
Scientists are to conduct tests to ascertain whether the Temelin nuclear power station in south Bohemia is to blame for a drought in the region. Local farmers say clouds of hot steam rising from Temelin's cooling towers are effectively chasing away rain clouds, leaving their land dry. The director of the Czech Hydrometeorological Institute told the daily Pravo Tuesday they would compare data currently being gathered near the plant with long-term climate records.
Nobody is to face charges in connection with the flooding of the Prague metro system in August last year. A source told the CTK news agency on Tuesday that while police found a crime had been committed, they had not found the evidence needed to charge anybody. Some seven billion crowns worth of damage was done during the flooding, which knocked out parts of the metro system for several months.
The presidents of the Visegrad Four group - the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia - have said their mutual co-operation makes sense and should continue even after all four join the European Union next year. The four presidents made the comments after Monday's Visegrad meeting in Budapest. The Czech President Vaclav Klaus, a fierce critic of the group in the past, explained that while he had always believed the four countries were very close, he had been concerned that past Visegrad Four meetings were not always productive.
President Vaclav Klaus has ended a three-day official visit to Russia, during which he met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, and was awarded an honorary degree. On Saturday both men agreed their meeting, the first of its kind in ten years, was the start of a new direction in Czech-Russian relations. The Russian president said that relations between the countries had improved and had a more solid character, saying questions over the Russian Federation's outstanding debt to the Czech Republic had been resolved. Also discussed were future visa requirements for visitors of both countries once the Czech Republic joins the European Union next year.
Health Minister Marie Souckova has indicated she is less than enthusiastic over weekend results from the Czech Medical Chamber's conference, held in Brno. That meeting saw David Rath, the body's president, earn a confidence vote and retain his post, with Mr Rath receiving 156 votes in his favour and 72 against. All the same the conference was not without controversy: many delegates refused to take part in the vote on the grounds the conference had been manipulated. Meanwhile, speaking on Sunday the health minister said she respected Mr Rath's reconfirmation, but stressed she was unsettled by what she called "unresolved issues". One of Mrs Souckova's concerns, for example, is inappropriate finance management by the chamber's executive body. She cited the example of an outstanding 1.2 million crowns the chamber owes the country's tax bureau, a discrepancy that came to light after auditors began investigating the chamber's books. The case is currently being continued by a special commission as well as by the police.
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