- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

The Czech Republic and Central Europe’s other post-Cold War democracies do not have to choose sides in the trans-Atlantic clash between the United States and the European Union over Iraq and other issues, Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said in an interview yesterday.

“There is no clear division between old and new Europe on all the questions of controversy,” said Mr. Svoboda, referring to Defense Secretary’s Donald H. Rumsfeld’s now-famous description of the divide in Europe over the Iraq war.

“We can be solid partners with Washington on Iraq and still be constructive members of the EU. It is not a choice for us,” he said.

President Bush offered a warm White House welcome to a delegation of top Czech officials yesterday, including Mr. Svoboda and Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla. Despite intense pressure from France and other Western European powers, the Czech Republic strongly backed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, contributing military and medical specialists to the coalition forces.

The Oval Office meeting, which touched on the postwar rebuilding of Iraq, the trans-Atlantic alliance and Iran’s nuclear programs, went nearly twice the scheduled 30 minutes.

“I can say there is no gap whatsoever between the Czech Republic and the United States on Iraq and many other global issues,” Mr. Svoboda said.

The visit came as the White House prepared to bestow on ex-dissident and former Czech President Vaclav Havel the Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor. Past recipients include former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Mr. Spidla said he suggested that Czech firms could participate in the massive reconstruction effort under way in Iraq.

“We have come to full agreement with President Bush that, at present, no decision is required to decide whether one is for Europe or for America,” he insisted.

Many Central and Eastern European governments have complained about competing pressures from Brussels and Washington, over issues ranging from Iraq to the International Criminal Court. The diplomatic balancing act has been particularly tricky because many of the countries, including the Czech Republic, are on the doorstep of membership in the EU as they seek to preserve good ties with the Bush administration.

Czech voters approved the country’s EU membership bid last month, but debate remained about the division of powers between larger and smaller states under a proposed EU constitution.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, elected president in February over the governing center-left coalition’s candidate, has been skeptical of an EU constitution, tapping into popular Czech fears that EU membership will dilute the country’s hard-won sovereignty.

“I want to be a citizen of a Czech state. I don’t want a European passport,” Mr. Klaus told the French newspaper Le Figaro in an interview published yesterday.

But Mr. Svoboda expressed confidence that Europe’s smaller powers would be able to stand up to France, Germany and Britain.

“Eighteen of the 25 EU countries are smaller or midsized countries, each with an equal say in the constitution process,” Mr. Svoboda said. “With those kinds of numbers, there will have to be compromise and our interests will have to be taken into consideration.”

The foreign minister said he expected hard bargaining ahead of an intergovernmental summit this fall to hammer out a final constitution, but predicted a deal would be struck.

“If there is no deal, it would be a complete disaster for the European Union,” he said.

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