At a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday the European Commission issued its annual progress reports, announcing that ten candidate countries, among them the Czech Republic, would be ready to join the EU in 2004.
As European Commission President Romano Prodi made the historic announcement in Brussels, reading out the names of candidates who were deemed ready for EU entry, political leaders across much of central and eastern Europe assembled at government and parliament headquarters to watch the press conference live. At EU headquarters in Prague, which was packed with reporters, the EU ambassador to the Czech Republic Mr. Ramiro Cibrian responded to the announcement on an upbeat note.
"Today is a day to celebrate, much more to celebrate than to criticize. Today the message is : Yes, the Czech Republic has made tremendous efforts in the past 12 years after the fall of communism. The Czech Republic is now ready to join the family of advanced European nations."
Along with the long awaited invitation, the Czech Republic received a positive progress report, the best in several years , reflecting the country's efforts to make up for lost time and accelerate the final stages of the reform process . The commission's report says that significant progress has been made in bringing Czech law in line with EU legislation but notes that in practice new laws are not always properly implemented. Prague has been urged to give the Roma minority better access to education, housing and jobs. The report highlights the need to reform social expenditure, including pension and healthcare schemes and the need to address the still high level of corruption and economic crime.
In an effort to allay fears of a "big bang" expansion the European Commission unveiled a special market protection mechanism which it said would remain in force for two years after expansion and would "work both ways" to resolve any problems that arise.
With an official invitation in its pocket, the Czech government now needs to make sure that Czechs fully understand the importance of joining the "rich nations club" . With only 53% of Czechs currently in favour of EU accession, increasing public support for EU membership prior to the referendum next spring has become a top priority. Mr. Cibrian again:
"I believe that from now until the referendum, in the month of May or June, not only the Czech government but the Czech political class that supports enlargement of the EU should increase its efforts in order to maximize public support for this historic decision. I expect that parliamentarians and regional authorities and everybody who is in favour of accession will become extremely active in order to mobilize the electorate and to convince the people of this country of the advantages of supporting EU enlargement."
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