Ministers from across the EU met with their counterparts from Latin America in Prague on Wednesday for an EU-Rio Group summit. Top of the agenda was the recent swine flu outbreak and the steps individual countries have taken to counter the spread of the virus. Mexico is currently the head of the Rio Group, though delegates from more than 40 countries attended the summit. According to Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout, steps that countries could take to help each other following the outbreak were discussed alongside security measures each country had chosen to implement. Swine flu has been confirmed in more than 30 countries though deaths from the virus have been registered in only four – Mexico, the United States, Canada and Costa Rica.
Czech President Václav Klaus is receiving Declan Ganley, the head of the eurosceptic party Libertas, at Prague Castle on Wednesday. Mr Ganley last week welcomed the Czech president’s decision not to sign the Lisbon treaty into law, despite its ratification by both houses of Parliament. Libertas’s leader said President Klaus was standing by the people of Ireland and would not ratify the treaty without their consent. Mr Ganley led the initial referendum campaign in Ireland which ended up rejecting the Lisbon treaty and his party is now putting up candidates across Europe for European Parliament elections in June. President Klaus also opposes the Lisbon treaty as an attack on national sovereignty.
Former media magnate and MEP Vladimir Železný is to remain a candidate for the eurosceptic party Libertas.cz in June’s European elections, despite having recently been found guilty of tax evasion by the High Court in Prague. After being handed a two-year suspended sentence on Monday, Mr Železný said he would withdraw from Libertas’s list of candidates. But, on Wednesday, his resignation was rejected by senior party officials. Mr Železný is Libertas’s number-two candidate in June’s European Parliament elections. Former Civic Democrat rebel Vlastimil Tlustý, who helped topple the government in March, tops the list of Libertas candidates, while fellow former Civic Democrat Jan Schwippel is the third candidate being fielded by the party.
Czech Minorities and Human Rights Minister Michael Kocáb wants to create a foundation to buy out a pig farm located on the site of a former Nazi concentration camp where hundreds of Czech Romanies died during WWII. Romany rights groups have long sought the removal of the large-scale pig farm from the site, and the Czech government has come under repeated criticism from the European Parliament for failing to move the facility elsewhere. Previous governments pledged to abolish the pig farm but said they did not have the funds to do so. An estimated 600-700 million crowns (30-35 million USD) is required to relocate the farm and transform Lety into a memorial of the Romany Holocaust. Speaking at a commemorative service at the site on Wednesday, Human Rights Minister Michael Kocáb said he would ask Czech firms such as CEZ to contribute to a fund which would pay for the pig farm’s removal.
Meanwhile, interim leader Jan Fischer presented his cabinet to deputies in the Czech lower house on Wednesday. Mr Fischer’s caretaker cabinet was officially appointed by Czech President Václav Klaus last Friday. Addressing the lower house on Wednesday, Prime Minister Jan Fischer said his most pressing task was asking the lower house for a vote of confidence in his government. According to the Czech Constitution, an interim government has 30 days to so. On Tuesday, one of the parties which originally helped construct Mr Fischer’s caretaker government, the Social Democrats, said that they would not support the new cabinet in a confidence vote if it did not meet 21 of their demands.
The Czech Eurovision Song Contest entry, Gipsy.cz, failed to make it through the semifinals of the event taking place in Moscow. Tuesday night’s disappointment means that the last three Czech entries have failed to get through to the finals. Gipsy.cz is fronted by Radoslav ‘Gipsy’ Banga who portrayed himself satirically as a sort of ‘supergipsy’ for the song. The finals of the Eurovision Song Contest take place in the Russian capital on Saturday.
Czech MEP Jan Zahradíl has said that his party, the centre-right Civic Democrats, will not be talked out of leaving the European People’s Party, a grouping of centre-right parties from across the continent at the European Parliament in Brussels. Nor would leader of the British Conservatives, David Cameron, be swayed to chance his mind, Mr Zahradíl told the Czech press. On Tuesday, British paper The Guardian suggested that Mr Cameron was under pressure to reverse his decision to leave the grouping after June’s European elections, both from those within his own party, and centre-right politicians in Europe such as Angela Merkel. The British daily also suggested that the Czech Civic Democrats harboured doubts about leaving the EPP – which is the single strongest parliamentary group in the European Parliament. On Wednesday, Mr Zahradíl said that his party’s departure from the EPP ‘could not be stopped’, and that Mr Cameron would be ‘disgraced’ should he change his mind.
The priority of the Czech interim government must be repairing the damage done to the country’s EU presidency by recent domestic political turbulence, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout said in an interview with Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Wednesday. Mr Kohout said that the success of the Czech EU presidency would also depend on the outcome of an EU summit in June, at which a new Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty would be discussed. The foreign minister said that the change of government in Prague had ‘certainly not contributed’ to the Czech Republic’s image in the European Union. In the interview with the German daily, however, Mr Kohout stressed that the European Union was not currently running on ‘autopilot’ and that the new Czech government was up to the task.
The Czech Chamber of Deputies passed a constitutional bill on Wednesday under which early elections will be held on October 9-10 at the latest. The bill also ordains that the current caretaker government will be dissolved by mid-October at the latest. The legislation, which was supported by 172 of the 189 deputies present, now goes to the Senate for final approval. As it is a constitutional law, it cannot be vetoed by Czech President Václav Klaus. The bill had the support of the two biggest parties in the lower house, the Civic Democrats and Social Democrats and, as these two parties also have a clear majority in the Senate, it is expected that the bill will be passed there too.
In business, Czech electricity maker ČEZ said on Wednesday that first-quarter profits were up by 23 percent, beating analysts’ estimates, on the back of higher wholesale prices and one-off gains. The company said net profit rose to almost 19.1 billion crowns (around 969 million USD), up from 15.5 billion crowns one year ago. First-quarter profits were helped by a rise of around 1.1 billion crowns in earnings from emissions allowances, as well as a revaluation of its shares in Hungarian oil and gas group MOL, a ČEZ spokesperson said. The results defied the predictions of analysts, who had expected the energy giant to have been hit by the current Czech economic downturn.
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