New 'Prague spring' to bring closer EU ties: Czech minister

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 10, 2014 12:13 PM

By Luke Baker

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Two weeks into his new job, the foreign minister of the Czech Republic is helping to project a more positive attitude towards the European Union, overturning years of skepticism that has at times pushed his country to Europe's margins.

Attending his first EU foreign ministers' meeting since being appointed on January 29, Lubomir Zaoralek said the new center-left government was determined to re-engage with Europe and show its commitment to joining the euro, even if it remains too early to set a date.

"Our ambition is to create a new Czech policy which will not be nebulous or dubious, but will be understandable, predictable and maybe credible," he told Reuters in his first interview with the foreign media since taking office.

Asked whether that represented a new "Prague Spring" - the period of political liberalization and openness to the rest of Europe the former Czechoslovakia experienced in the late 1960s - he agreed, although with conditions.

"Maybe the prerequisite is to have a clear stance towards the euro - that we are ready to do everything that has to be done during this period to be ready to enter the euro zone."

Quizzed about the timing of any entry, Zaoralek was cautious, saying it depended on meeting the EU's criteria on deficit and debt, joining the exchange rate mechanism that binds currencies to the euro, and shifting Czech public opinion.

But he indicated that, by the end of the new government's current term, the euro entry timeframe would be clear, which is in line with Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka's hopes for the Czech Republic to adopt the single currency by 2020.

"We have to declare that we are ready to ensure everything that has to be done is prepared in our election term," Zaoralek said. But he added it was not solely up to the government.

"It's also a matter of public debate. We have to influence public opinion."

The past four years of Europe's debt crisis have had a debilitating knock-on impact on countries that do much of their trade with the euro zone, such as the Czech Republic.

As growth has slowed and unemployment risen, opinion polls show growing disillusionment towards the European project, despite strong support when it joined the EU in 2004.

Why is Anyone a Socialist?
John C. Goodman

"People are feeling that they are not better off, they are worse off, and they see no concrete effects from the EU," said Zaoralek, adding that he hoped Czech entrepreneurs would work to help get across a more positive pro-EU message to citizens.

As well as the more positive attitude towards the euro, the government is reassessing its decision not to sign the fiscal compact in 2012, an agreement on managing budget deficits that only the Czech Republic and Britain opted out of.

And the new government is also keeping an open mind on 'banking union', the legislation currently working its way through the European Parliament that aims to overhaul how banks in the euro zone and wider EU are overseen.

"We have clear interests in the European integration project," said Zaoralek. "We can be critical, but in the fundamental line, we are pro-European."

(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Andrew Heavens)