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EU: Czechs Warns Austria It Risks New Sanctions

The Czech government is escalating its public anger over last week's blockade of its border by Austrian anti-nuclear activists, who were protesting the entry on line of the Temelin nuclear power plant. Prague is sending its foreign minister to Brussels tomorrow, apparently to ask the European Union to examine what it considers Vienna's violation of the association agreement the Czech Republic signed with the EU. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.

Brussels, 17 Oct 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech reaction to anti-Temelin protests on its border with nuclear-free Austria last week might end up making EU history. Although Prague has not yet filed a formal complaint, this could be the first time a candidate country accuses an EU member state of seriously violating its Europe Agreement, the official term for an association accord that each candidate signs with the EU. It may also be the first time the European Commission has been asked to mediate such a dispute.

The Czech government has said it believes Austria to be in breach of the association agreement's spirit, which seeks progressively to guarantee a candidate the four core freedoms EU members enjoy among themselves. They are freedom of the movement of capital, services, people, and goods.

On Saturday, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan said in an interview that the Czech decision to operate the controversial Temelin facility was irreversible. He warned that Austria was risking renewed EU sanctions if it did not stop the blockades.

After Austria formed a government that included representatives of the far-right Freedom Party early this year, the EU imposed bilateral political sanctions on Vienna -- the first time the Union had ever taken such a step. The sanctions were lifted last month.

Czech officials say that the week-long border blockade -- which was suspended for seven days on Sunday -- seriously disrupted the traffic of both people and goods between the Czech Republic and Austria. Austrian protesters, demanding an immediate closing-down of Temelin, forced thousands of trucks and other vehicles to seek alternative routes to avoid long lines at the border.

The charge is a serious one and seems to have caught the EU by surprise. Today, Jean-Christophe Filori, who is the spokesman for Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, said he thought the Austrian blockades had contravened the spirit of the EU-Czech Europe Agreement. But he said the Commission had received no formal Czech complaint, and had therefore not yet adopted any official position.

"There are mechanisms within the Europe Agreements to address conflicts. There are procedures whereby one party raises the issue and it is discussed within the framework of the institutions built into the Europe Agreement. There's been no request at all to start this procedure so far at all."

Czech Foreign Minister Kavan is due to meet Verheugen in Brussels early tomorrow morning.

The bilateral problem is compounded by the EU's lack of common standards on nuclear safety. The European Commission -- which both oversees the application of EU law and administers contacts between member-states and candidates -- has no clear competence in regard to Temelin.

Over the past two years, the commission did put heavy pressure on Lithuania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria to shut down eight super-annuated nuclear reactors. Its action, however, was based not on EU regulations but on a declaration adopted by leaders of the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries, or G-7. According to commission officials, the G-7 declaration does not mention threats posed by the Temelin plant.

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel raised the issue at last week's Union summit at Biarritz, asking the EU to work out a set of common nuclear safety standards. The European Council, which represents EU member governments, has already launched a working group to investigate nuclear safety in candidate countries. But the group is not expected to deliver its report before the end of the year, and what legal status it will have is not clear.

The Czech position also appears somewhat ambiguous. Vaclav Klaus, the speaker of the Czech parliament's lower house, said yesterday in Vienna that Temelin was a bilateral issue between his country and Austria. He said Austria's attempts to put it on the EU negotiating table at Biarritz had been, in his words, "not helpful."

What all sides agree on -- so far, at least -- is that the problem should not be allowed to impede the Czech Republic's effort to join the EU. After talks with Klaus yesterday, Schuessel said Austria had no plans to block Czech EU entry over Temelin.