- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2003

PRAGUE — On the eve of a Czech referendum on whether to join the European Union, President Vaclav Klaus yesterday refused to endorse the government’s campaign for a “yes” vote, calling EU membership “a marriage of convenience, not love.”

Today’s vote will determine whether this country of 10.3 million will link arms with its East European neighbors and join Europe’s common market next year.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Mr. Klaus has criticized the government’s pro-union campaign, and yesterday he refused to say whether he would personally vote yes. Polls show the referendum will pass overwhelmingly.

Instead of answering a reporter’s question, Mr. Klaus accused the journalist of “abusing” the press conference.

“I have told the citizens to come to the referendum. [Joining the union] is a marriage of convenience, not love,” he then said.

The planned EU enlargement would take in 10 new countries from the former Soviet bloc and the Mediterranean region.

The 15-member union would expand from 370 million people to 450 million, with half the new population coming from Poland.

Mr. Klaus, in a British Broadcasting Corp. radio interview, ridiculed the government’s campaign, calling it “one-sided, stressing only the positives or benefits and neglecting the other side.”

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel is unabashedly pro-union.

Looking rested and relaxed, Mr. Havel appeared at a “Yes for Europe” concert in Wenceslas Square Tuesday and urged his countrymen to vote yes.

Joining the union would benefit the country politically and economically, and strike a blow against the wanton corruption that has plagued the country since the collapse of communism in November 1989, he said.

Clad in blue jeans and a blue button-down shirt, Mr. Havel was cheered by the hundreds of people in the crowd when he walked on stage.

The Czech Republic, like all of its former Soviet-bloc neighbors, has benefited handsomely from an array of EU subsidies. The Czechs have already received well over $1 billion in EU aid aimed at enhancing everything from infrastructure to agriculture.

With membership, however, comes “another layer of rules, surveillance and obligations,” said Kirsty Hughes, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

“No choice is ever 100 percent, [but] the positives far outweigh the negatives,” Miss Hughes said.

Membership will also mean a further reduction in trade barriers for the applicant countries, and make them more attractive for foreign investors.

Those who favor union dismiss Mr. Klaus’ claim that he is merely a “Euro-skeptic” and consider him an out-and-out EU opponent.

A banner seen at a pro-union rally this week read, “With Europe or with Klaus.”

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