Prague, 11 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's enlargement commissioner reassured the Czech Republic today that a series of post-World War II decrees depriving mainly Czechoslovak Germans of their citizenship and property belong to the past, and will not affect the Czech Republic's EU accession hopes.
Guenter Verheugen made the comments at a press conference with Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman in Prague, where the two released a joint statement on the subject.
Verheugen said he hopes his visit will "de-escalate" the debate surrounding the so-called Benes decrees, especially in what he called "certain quarters of the European conservative camp." Politicians in neighboring countries, especially Austria, have criticized the decrees and urged the EU to link Prague's accession talks to a resolution of the quarrel.
"I want to make it very clear: We are not negotiating the past. We are negotiating the future, and we should leave the past where it belongs -- to history. I confirm what Prime Minister Zeman said. The Commission maintains its view that the presidential decrees have no impact on accession negotiations and will not be raised in the context of the accession negotiations," Verheugen said.
Verheugen said it's not a question of whether the decrees meet modern-day legal standards -- some of them clearly wouldn't. But since the decrees no longer produce "legal effects," he said they should be left alone.
The joint statement says, "As was the case with measures taken by other European countries at that time, some of these acts would not pass muster today if judged by current standards -- but they belong to history."
Later, at a press conference with Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan, Verheugen said it is only second-tier officials in Austria and Germany -- such as Austria's far-right politician Joerg Haider -- who have sought to link the decrees with Czech EU entry.
"Not a single member state -- government of a member state -- has raised the issue of the presidential decrees in the context of the accession negotiations. Never," Verheugen stated. "If you feel that a certain Mr. Haider is more important than 15 heads of state and governments of the member states of the European Union, you might believe it. I do not believe it."
Both Zeman and Kavan welcomed the news that the European Parliament now looks likely to drop references to the decrees from its report on the Czech Republic. Kavan said the five disputed paragraphs will now be replaced by one saying MEPs will discuss the decrees only after they see a detailed legal analysis of the documents. At the earliest, this means July, which puts it after the Czech general elections.
"In my conversations with European Parliament leaders, I'm assured that a rational tone devoid of any emotions and passions will now finally prevail," Kavan said.
Verheugen added that he expects the Czech Republic to conclude its negotiations on EU entry by the end of this year.
The commissioner was also asked about the upcoming Irish referendum on the Nice Treaty, which details the reforms designed to allow the Czech Republic and 11 other countries to join the EU.
If Irish voters again reject the treaty, as they did last summer, is he concerned that this could derail the whole enlargement process?
"I must make it very clear. We need the Treaty of Nice for the conclusion of the [accession] negotiations. That's a must. Otherwise a delay would be inevitable. Given the fact that a strong majority of the Irish people is very much in favor of enlargement, it should be possible to make it clear in Ireland that the Treaty of Nice is a precondition for the successful conclusions of the accession negotiations," Verheugen said.
He said the first referendum had not made sufficiently clear the connection between the treaty and the enlargement process, and noted that the Irish are among the most supportive in Europe of the process of enlargement.