Central European heads of state meet in Salzburg

The Austrian city of Salzburg has never seen anything quite like it. This week presidents from no less than 17 Central and Eastern European countries converged on the city, bringing the ancient city centre to a complete standstill, much to the bemusement of locals and tourists alike. The presidents were continuing a tradition of meetings that began ten years ago in this same city on the initiative of Austrian President Thomas Klestil. As expected, the talks did not see anything new on the key questions of Europe's future, but as David Vaughan reports from Salzburg, it was an opportunity for the presidents to exchange ideas on the identity of a continent desperate to patch up recent divisions.

Central European heads of state meet in Salzburg, photo: CTKCentral European heads of state meet in Salzburg, photo: CTK Beethoven's Ode to Joy played by a military band on the beautiful Residentzplatz in the centre of Salzburg gave the meeting of seventeen Central and East European presidents a sense that all is well on the Old Continent. But the meeting also made clear the deep divisions in Europe, highlighted by the recent war in Iraq. The meeting's host, Austrian host Thomas Klestil, spoke repeatedly of the need for a united and single European foreign policy.

"The European Union has to speak with one voice in foreign affairs. We expect the European Convention to make proposals in this regard."

He was heavily critical of the United States' recent sidelining of its European allies and in his opening speech, he said quite openly that he did not feel NATO was adequate to Europe's defence needs. I asked the Czech president Vaclav Klaus to response to Mr Klestil's comments.

"I think there is a very different position between us and Austria, between me and President Klestil. The Czech Republic is a member of NATO, Austria is not a member of NATO. So the position is different, and I'm sure he has no right, no mandate to speak on behalf of his country and say anything else. So this is quite understandable position."

The Polish President Alexandr Kwasniewski tried to find a middle path, offering cautious support to a common European defence policy, but under very strict conditions.

"I think we should such policy as the European Union, and Poland is very interested to develop such a concept. But we see some important conditions for the success of this project. This European policy must be very connected to a good idea of transatlantic co-operation. I think European policy cannot be against United States, and everything that we understand as European policy must strengthen transatlantic ties."

One of the most interesting aspects of the meeting was the breadth of countries that were represented, from Italy and Germany in the west, to Ukraine and Moldova in the east. Even if the meeting to hide the differences in Europe, it gave leaders from countries across the continent the chance to exchange ideas on an equal footing.