The Czech Republic's position in the heart of Europe means that it is at the crossroads of many international routes. As a result, the country has an opportunity to establish itself as a transport hub for much of the trade that passes through an enlarged European Union and beyond. A conference held in Prague this week focused on ways of developing this potential.
Take a look at a map of Europe and you will see that the Czech Republic lies almost smack bang in the middle of it. In the past, this central position ensured that the Czech Lands became the backdrop for many of the pivotal events that helped shape modern Europe, such as the Thirty Years War or the Battle of Austerlitz. It also ensured that the region became something of an international crossroads, as traders and merchants from all over the continent passed through it while they went about their business. This undoubtedly helped establish the area as a hub of economic activity, which turned the capital Prague into a major cultural centre.
Today, as the European Union prepares to expand, the Czech Republic's central location means that it stands poised to become a major transit point for business in one of the largest free-trade zones in the world. However, many feel that the country needs to develop its transport infrastructure in order to capitalise on this opportunity. For this reason, a conference entitled "The Czech Republic - The Future Crossroads of Europe" was held in Prague this week, which focused on ways to encourage investment and development in the transport sector. Karel Steiner, the director of the Ministry of Transport's policy department, was at the conference and I asked him why the issue was so important.
"Throughout history, this country has been located at the heart of Europe. This means that many of the shortest routes for getting from one part of Europe to another pass through our territory. Every time trade is going some place, it is possible to develop industry [around it] and improve people's lives."
However, in order to make the most of the Czech Republic's geographical advantages, Mr Steiner acknowledged that the transport infrastructure had to be modernised and made more efficient. He said that some road and rail links would have to be improved in order to ensure that the country is a properly integrated part of the European transport network:
"With the railways, we have to modernise some corridors, which is something that has just not been done. As regards motorways and highways, we have to complete our motorway system and the connections to neighbouring countries."
Mr Steiner also stressed the need for the Czech Republic to develop transport-related services to maximise the sector's potential. These would presumably include things such as cargo and container handling services as well as comprehensive regulatory mechanisms.
The biggest obstacles to developing the country's transport infrastructure are funding and environmental issues. EU structural funds are expected to cover a substantial portion of the costs, but it is likely that some finances will also come from the private sector. Mr Steiner said he was hopeful that the country's transport system could be improved without having too big an impact on the natural environment. He maintained that becoming a transport hub would help the development of industry in the Czech Republic, which would result in economic benefits for everyone.
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