The Czech Republic ponders its future.

What the foreign papers are saying.
June 11 2003 5:54 PM

Czechs In?

News about the European Union has dominated the continent's papers in a week sandwiched between two of the most important popular votes—in Poland and the Czech Republic—determining how next year's expansion of the union will proceed.

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Poland, by far the most populous (and, on the international stage, most influential) of the candidate countries, gave a resounding "yes" last weekend, with 77.5 percent approving of entry, now firmly set for May 2004. Initial results showed that about 59 percent of the population bothered to go to the polls. The pro-EU crowd breathed a sigh of relief, since Polish law required a minimum turnout of 50 percent for the referendum to be valid.

Papers outside the country welcomed the entry of 39 million Poles to the union. "Poland has found its place in Europe," said Norway's Aftenposten. While running a headline that read "Welcome, Poland," Denmark's BT voiced concern over the low turnout: "In an increasing number of EU countries, EU membership is being seen as the project of the society's elite. For the ordinary citizen, it is difficult to establish a relationship with the EU." In a fit of national selflessness, Stockholm's Expressen welcomed Poles who might migrate to Scandinavia for higher-paying jobs. (Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

The Czech Republic followed the Polish vote closely, since its own vote on EU entry beckons this weekend. Most Prague newspapers placed a beaming Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski on their front pages Monday. For the last several days, the Czech press's main concern has been the plebiscite, which starts on the inauspicious date of Friday the 13th and continues through Saturday. Today, next to its front-page countdown to the vote, Mlada Fronta Dnes led with a report on "[Prime Minister Vladimir] Spidla's False Letter"—a faked e-mail message ostensibly from the premier that deluged 2 million inboxes, urging them to vote yes. In a country of 10.3 million, that's quite some spam.

Passage is said to be almost assured: In the same article, Mlada Fronta Dnes reported on a "lightning poll" that showed "about 57 percent of the people want to come out for the referendum, and of them, 78-80 percent would vote for entry." But many pro-EU Czechs fear it could be an embarrassingly close call or perhaps even a failure. On summer weekends, city-dwelling Czechs traditionally retire to their country cottages, particularly if the weather is good. It's a serious concern—so serious that the foreign ministry official in charge of the "yes" campaign said back in April that she'd rather the vote were on a Sunday and Monday, rather than a Friday and Saturday, for precisely that reason.

Prague is now in the midst of a heat wave—too hot, perhaps, for Spidla. With his ruling Social Democrats beset by internal divisions and his government roundly criticized in the press for its unimaginative "yes" campaign, many say Spidla is depending on a large turnout this weekend to save his embattled premiership. Meanwhile, a strange role is being played by Czech President Vaclav Klaus. Lidove Noviny asked yesterday why Klaus, who ran for the premiership—and lost—on a pro-EU platform, refused to divulge whether he'll vote yes. "We only know that he'll vote," the paper wrote, wondering aloud if circumstances have really changed so much since last year's election.

Meanwhile, a photo of "Citizen Havel"—ex-President Vaclav Havel—at a Tuesday night pro-EU concert in Wenceslas Square appeared on the front page of many Czech papers. Havel urged his countrymen to vote for entry, saying, "I believe that this will start a new era for all of us." (A PDF version of Mlada Fronta Dnes, with Havel's picture, is available here.)

Elsewhere in Europe, news has trickled out of last-minute haggling over Europe's first-ever constitution, being drafted by former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, head of the 105-member committee debating Europe's future charter. France's Le Monde marveled at Giscard d'Estaing's diplomatic finesse, noting that just days ago, consensus within the convention appeared impossible. Now he "has gained sufficient consensus to present his draft constitution to the forthcoming Thessaloniki summit." (Translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

The Paris-based International Herald Tribune pointed out Tuesday (in one of the few stories not reprinted from its parent New York Times) that Germany is the big winner in the reshuffling of EU voting rights. "A landmark compromise negotiated last week" replaces "a complex and somewhat arbitrary voting system where Germany's 80 million people were significantly underrepresented," the paper wrote. Remarkably, the new system did not come about through a significant lobbying campaign by Europe's "sleeping giant."

The quip of the day came from Switzerland's Le Temps, which mocked the "show of pro-European enthusiasm" at a press conference given by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. The paper called the pair "the Starsky and Hutch of the third way," according to the BBC. (See yesterday's "International Papers" for more on the British government's should-we-or-shouldn't-we debate over joining the euro.)

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