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The Czech Republic´s problems with meeting EU criteria

Enthusiastic reactions by Czech political leaders to the country's accession to NATO should overshadow the fact that the Czech Republic is facing serious problems in meeting EU membership criteria. Pavel Telicka, the country's chief negotiator, has admitted that the Czech Republic is behind schedule "by a few weeks" in adjusting to various EU requirements. In reality, the Czech Reublic's problems with meeting EU criteria may be more serious.

The EU's ambassador to the Czech Republic recently said Czech politicians should unite around EU themes and push through the necessary reforms. His statements coincide with ever more frequent warning by Czech analysts, who say that the current political situation in the country is making it impossible for the government to initiate necessary reforms and push through the parliament hundreds of laws that the country needs to adopt in order to adjust its legal system to EU standards.

The problems the Czech Republic faces in its efforts to meet EU standards are, above all, generated mainly by the decision-making paralysis that has existed in the country for more than two years. Since June 1996 the Czech Republic has had only minority governments--all of them too weak to restart the stalled engine of reforms.

The early elections in June 1998 failed to break the political deadlock. The so-called opposition agreement between the Social Democratic Party (CSSD) and the largest opposition party, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), made it possible for the CSSD to form a one-party government, but in effect made the CSSD a political hostage of the opposition. The agreement merely stipulated that the two parties divide important state posts between them and that they will work together on constitutional changes. At the same time, under the agreement the oDS is not allowed to initiate a vote of confidence in the government. The agreement failed to give the CSSD any assuarnces that its legislative inittiatves will receve at least mimimal support from the ODS.

As a result, the Czech Republic has a minority government that is frequently criticized by all parliamentary parties but, at the same time, cannot be recalled because without the ODS the three remaining parliamentarydo not have enough votes to deliver a vote of no-confidence in the government. The government has to fight over every draft law it submits to the government. Several of such bills have been voted down by the majority opposition.

Such a situation is unfortunate at a time when the Czech Republic needs to adopt many new laws in order to bring its system in line with that of the EU. Some politicians and analysts have suggested that the only way out of the current impasse may be the creation of a majority government. One possibility is a grand coalition between the ODS and the CSSD. Another possibility is a government consisting of the right-of-center Union of Freedom (US), the centrist Christian Democrats (KDU- CSL), and leftist CSSD.

At present, however, leaders of all non-governmental parties are still playing a political chess, rather than giving a priority to national interests. Leaders of the parliamentary parties publicly talk more about why their parties cannot cooperate with each other than searching for common themes. Often, such arguments are highly personal--Czech voters know more about why particular politician dislike other politicians than about important tasks that lie ahead.

Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Czechs are disgusted with politics, as currently practiced in the country, and with politicians. Political leaders, however, have not so far been able to heed warnings conveyed by opinion polls. It seems that the economic situation in the country may have to deteriorate even further before politicians realize that the deepening crisis could threaten their very political fortunes.

Currently, there seems to be lack of resolve among leading politicians to deal with both the deepening economic crisis and the risk of failing to meet EU criteria. The EU will soon start preparing its annual report on the Czech Republic, to be released in the fall. At present, there are few indications that the Czech Republic will be able to rectify any of the major concerns expressed by the EU in its last report.

When President Vaclav Havel recently warned that if the Czech Republic does not intensify its efforts to meet EU standards, it could start lagging behind other countries in the first group of EU candidate countries and even slide into the second group of candidate countries he was criticized by most Czech politicians as a harbinger of bad news. At the same time, some politicians freely admit that the country is having problems with meeting EU criteria.

The situation is bad not only because the CSSD lacks support in the parliament and Czech leaders are unable to unite around even the most essential issues. IT is also bad because the ODS is opposed to some reforms that are crucial for meeting EU criteria. For example, the party is questioning the need for reforming the state administration system, which is a prerequisite for reforming many other areas. ODS Chairman Vaclav Klaus has also rejected any suggestions that his governments made some basic mistakes during their tenure. Without a truthful diagnosis of the current situation, any discussion about looking for solutions is impossible.

The CSSD government has prepared a report about the situation in the country and the failings of the previous governments. However, the report has been politicized to the extent that any discussion about its possible merits is not possible. The Czech Republic is currently deadlocked. Unless the Czech political elite wake up soon to the worsening situation, the dream of early EU membership may become unrealistic.

Reuters - 19. 3. 1999