CZECH REPUBLIC: 'We have returned to Europe, but Europe has changed'
In May of this year, the European Union will welcome ten new members, the largest single expansion in the Union's history. The new members - Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovenia, Malta, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Cyprus and the Czech Republic - are part of what is often referred to as the 'New Europe'; seven of the applicants are former Eastern bloc states.
For the Czech Republic, EU membership is part of a long process that started right after independence in 1990. The country has been through a painful transition period, with the privatization of state assets and restitution of property to its original owners. The country has transformed itself into a market economy and brought its national legislation in line with EU standards.
In 1993, the Czech Republic peacefully split from Slovakia. In June of last year, 77.3 percent of Czechs voted in favor of Czech entry to the European Union. Voter turnout was only 55.2 percent, but there was no minimum turnout requirement for the referendum to be valid.
"Our EU accession is the end of a long process. If you had asked me in 1991, I wouldn't have said it would take so long. I would have been a bit more optimistic," Czech Ambassador Martin Palouš says.
There have been speculations that the fact that the new countries are expanding the EU eastwards might shift the EU's focus. "We hope it will have an effect," Ambassador Palouš says. "We bring different experiences. We hope this will contribute to a multifaceted discussion in Europe."
Seventy percent of the Czech Republic's trade is with EU countries, and with Czech EU membership that share will likely increase. The perception of the Czech business community has been positive. "The political discussion," the ambassador says, "well, that's a different story."
The negotiations to enter the EU have stirred up some issues from Europe's past. After the Second World War an estimated three million ethnic Germans were forced by a government decree to leave the part of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. Advocates for the Sudeten Germans have called for reparation payments by the Czech Republic. The issue has grown to the point that the German government has linked reparations by the Czech government to Czech EU membership.
The Czech government has been adamant that there will be no formal apology or repeal of the decrees. Many of the Sudeten Germans fought in the German army and others were members of political parties and associations that supported the Nazis.
"We are ready to discuss, but we will not pay compensation," Ambassador Palouš says. "Germany has been giving us a hard time over this issue. Where does it all end? We are not anti-German or anti-Austrian. We will discuss the past and get past it. It is widely known what the Sudeten Germans did during the war."
While the countries that are members already have the choice to enter the European Monetary Union, the newcomers do not have that choice. They have to enter the single currency zone, although a deadline has not been set.
The Czech Republic has all intentions to enter as a full member. "We believe our entry will be a positive gain for the EU. We believe we can contribute to the Union. The Czech Republic will not be a passive member, just eating the free cake," the ambassador says.
"Without sounding like I'm tooting our own horn, the Czech Republic is a tremendous success. The country has undergone an incredible change in the last 13 years," he continues.
The Czech Republic is third in Europe in terms of direct foreign investments per capita, right behind Britain and France. The country is fully digitized with a mobile phone penetration of 80 percent. It is the biggest producer of computer parts in Central Europe and there are a hundred companies in the industry for automotive parts in the country.
"Of course there are still things to do. There is the question of protection of minorities. Of education reform: is our education system comparable to the education standard in the rest of Europe? Should there be tuitions? Are the curricula comparable? And there is the reform of the pension system."
How much does he think the Czech Republic will be able to influence EU policies? "This past year and the war in Iraq has seen some changes in EU security and defense policy. Small states should not be silent within the EU. I do think we have a role to fill."
Initially, the European Union consisted of just six countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined in 1973, and then Greece in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986, and Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995.
The European Union traces its roots back to the Second World War. It was first proposed by the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman in a speech on 9 May 1950 with the idea that European integration would prevent atrocities like those in the Second World War from happening again.
In the beginning, much of the cooperation between EU countries was about trade, but lately the EU has become much more of a political force.
How does a country so recently independent feel about giving up part of its autonomy to the EU?
"What is sovereignty these days?" the ambassador shoots back. "You look at sovereignty in view of global challenges and it is not clear that an individual state can afford it."
"Of course you should discuss how far should this federalization of Europe should go," the ambassador continues. "There are no clear answers."
The same goes for the expansion of the EU. Discussions of inviting Turkey have stirred up talk of whether the country belongs in the EU.
"Where does Europe end? Does Russia belong? Russia is part of European history," the ambassador says. "Again, there are no easy answers."
"The world is different. We have returned to Europe, but Europe has changed."
Martin Palouš biography
Martin Palouš was appointed Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the Untied States by Czech President Vaclav Havel in the summer of 2001. He presented his letter of credence to President George W. Bush on Oct. 10, 2001.
Born in Prague on October 14, 1950, Mr. Palouš received a RNDr. degree (Doctor of Natural Sciences in chemistry) from Charles University, Prague, in 1973, and went on to study philosophy and social sciences (graduating in 1977). He has also studied law (1996-1999).
Mr. Palouš was one of the first signatories of Charter 77 and served as spokesman for this dissident human rights group in 1986. A founding member of the Civic Forum (November 1989), he was elected to the Federal Assembly in 1990 and became a member of its Foreign Affairs Committee. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Czechoslovakia as adviser to Minister Dienstbier and was Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs from October 1990 to October 1992.
Mr. Palouš has held a number of teaching positions at Charles University, since 1990. He became a member of the Faculty of Social Sciences (Foreign Relations Division) in 1994 and served for some time as the faculty's Vice-Dean. In 1993, he joined the Centre for Theoretical Studies (research center run jointly by Charles University and the Czech Academy of Sciences, headed by Ivan M. Havel). He has lectured extensively in the United States. Until 1998, he was also active in various non-governmental organizations (Chairman of the Czech Helsinki Committee, Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly). In October 1998, he became Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.
Mr. Palouš is the author of numerous publications, including the chapter on the Czech Republic in the European Commission publication Democratization in Central and Eastern Europe, "Totalitarianism and Authoritarianism", in the Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict (1999) and "Between Idealism and Realism: Reflection on the Political Landscape of Postcommunism", in Between Past and Future: "The Revolutions of 1989 and their Aftermath (2000). He translates the works of Hannah Arendt.
Mr. Palouš is married to Pavla Paloušová. They have two children, Michal and Johana.