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EU: Prodi Seeks To Smooth Over Differences With Prague

European Union Commission President Romano Prodi and his commissioner for enlargement, Guenter Verheugen, are on a two-day visit (5-6 April) to Prague to discuss the Czech Republic's progress towards EU accession. The trip is the latest in a series of visits to Eastern candidate countries, designed to encourage those on the lengthy road toward membership. Yesterday Prodi and Verheugen held talks with Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman and Foreign Minister Jan Kavan. Afterwards, Prodi, Verheugen, and Kavan held a joint press conference at which some of the sensitivities on both sides were revealed. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 6 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Romano Prodi, a genial, avuncular figure, appeared to be using all his persuasive powers at the press conference yesterday in Prague. His Czech hosts are unhappy with the European Union on several counts, and Prodi spoke in soothing terms, as one seeks to calm a family argument through reason.

The origins of Czech concerns are twofold. First, the European Union is close to deciding on restrictions that would bar the free movement of labor from east to west for some years after the Czech Republic and other Eastern candidates become full EU members. That prospect vexes the Easterners, who think it would give them the status of second-class citizens in the Union.

The second reason is that Brussels has just assigned the Czech Republic the EU's "Category Three" risk status in regard to BSE, the so-called mad cow disease. This means that the Czech Republic is "likely" to have a BSE risk, even if it's not confirmed. The Czechs believe they deserve a higher rating -- in which the risk is deemed "unlikely."

Prodi said that the Czechs are making impressive progress in their accession process, and he felt sure they would be among the first wave to join the Union, in 2004. On the issue of free labor movement, Prodi called for flexibility and "delicacy." He urged Czechs to understand the "deep fears" of some EU member-states about a possible influx of labor from Eastern Europe. He meant Germany and Austria, which have both demanded a seven-year grace period before workers from the new Eastern members can come and work within their borders.

Prodi said these fears must be respected. He also noted that Czechs and other East Europeans had their own deep-seated fears about rich EU citizens buying up land in their countries after expansion gets underway.

Prodi said he believed the fears on both sides were unjustified.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen then said that if the EU does impose any bans on labor movement, he believed they should be reviewed after two years. He noted the situation facing the Easterners is not unique, recalling that Spain and Portugal had to wait five years after they became members before a review lifted restrictions on the movement of their workers. Verheugen said transition periods are a normal element of the accession process, and noted the current candidate countries have themselves asked for more than 500 transition periods.

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan, in comments after the press conference, said the labor problem is more one of perception than reality.

"None of the EU officials or politicians I have talked to claim they believe there is a real danger of a mass migration of the Czech labor force either to Austria, or Germany, or anywhere else. They all say this is not necessarily a scientific problem, this is a political-psychological problem. There are certain fears, they may be unjustified fears, but they are fears -- that's a political reality, and we have to tackle it."

Prime Minister Zeman said jocularly that he would not mind labor movement restrictions that lasted a few seconds, weeks, or months. But it would be another matter, he added seriously, if they went on for more than 20 years -- as Joerg Haider wants. Zeman was referring to the far-right Austrian politician, whose anti-foreigner views are well known.

Kavan summed up the situation:

"I'm prepared to accept that some kind of transition period will be necessary in the chapter on free movement of labor as well as [the one on] free movement of capital. So the argument is not whether there will be a transition period, but what kind of transition period. I, of course, hope that it will be a very short one, short enough to convince the European Union countries that their fears have been unjustified."

As for the other irritant between Prague and Brussels, the BSE Category Three, Prodi sought to assure his hosts that the categorization was not meant in any way to be discriminatory and did not impose any ban on Czech exports of meat to the EU. He said it only stipulates the removal of high-risk materials -- such as spinal cords and vital organs -- from meat before it is exported.