The Czech Republic, along with the other EU member states of the so-called Visegrad group, which includes Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, has been urged by EU heads to meet Schengen zone standards as soon as possible over the next few years. Joining the Schengen zone will see the Czech Republic and other new EU member states drop state border controls with EU neighbours. On the final day of a meeting between EU heads in Brussels, Czech representatives set October 2007 as the likely date for the country to join the Schengen zone. Among other things, the widening of the zone requires a harmonization of protocol on asylum and illegal migration.
Prime Minister Stanislav Gross has said that it is not yet certain whether the Czech Republic will hold a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty, and if so, when the referendum will take place. However, the prime minister has said he hoped the constitution would be ratified. On Friday Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda pointed out that the question of shortening the process of ratification had been raised in Brussels, to not take a full two years among all EU states.
Originally, the Czech government said it aimed to hold its referendum on the constitution treaty in June 2006, simultaneously with general elections.
The deadline for the ratification of the EU constitution is October 2006.
The polls opened at 2:00 pm this Friday in elections to the Czech Republic's regional authorities and Senate, with a third of the seats in the latter up for grabs. Polls close on Saturday. The votes represent the first electoral test of Stanislav Gross since he became leader of the Social Democrats. The spotlight will also be on the chairman of the opposition Civic Democrats, Mirek Topolanek, who has been under some pressure following an apparent fall in support for the party and an alleged bribery scandal.
The ruling Social Democrats have successfully pushed a bill through the Chamber of Deputies banning the further transformation of hospitals to businesses by regional authorities in the Czech Republic. Some regions had been considering transforming local hospitals to joint-stock companies to help with their financial management a move some critics had said threatened the availability of balanced health care. The fear was that the hospitals might focus only on more lucrative programmes.
But, the Social Democrats' bill on Friday was opposed by the opposition Civic Democrats, who say the ban is 'unconstitutional' - intervening in regional governments' authority. Regional governors have already criticised the bill and say they will protest the move.
The issue may also go to the Constitutional Court.
On Friday the Chamber of Deputies postponed passing a bill allowing the legal registration of same-sex partnerships in the Czech Republic; as was widely expected the Chamber returned the bill for a second reading at the end of November. The second reading may allow for additional changes before deputies vote near the end of the year. The legal recognition of same sex-partnership remains a heated issue among parliamentary parties, with factions within each party for or against. Only the Christian Democrats unequivocally oppose the bill, which, if passed, could give same-sex partners the right to medical information or the right to inherit, while, for example, banning them from adopting children.
57 right-of-centre MPs and 22 Senators have appealed to the Constitutional Court to lift a proposed deadline on restitution claims at the end of 2005. Many Czech citizens still have not received compensation for property seized by the Communists in the years following 1948. The group of legislators worry that if the deadline is not struck down, the state will not honour its debt to those with outstanding restitution claims.
The Czech foreign minister, Cyril Svoboda, has spoken out against anti-American feelings across Europe. Mr Svoboda said in Prague on Thursday that anti-Americanism was a great disappointment to him, adding that Anglo-Saxon society had never experienced totalitarianism. He said that the United States had helped Europe and the Czech Republic and the Euro-Atlantic link was the key to Europe's future.
Jaromir Jagr, one of the most successful Czech hockey players of all time, is expected to play his last game in the Czech league on Friday evening. Jagr, like dozens of other Czech stars, has been playing in the Extraliga due to a lock-out in the NHL. But he is expected to leave the club where he began his career, Kladno, for an engagement at Russia's Omsk.
Saturday is expected to see light rain but a maximum daytime temperature of just 9 degrees Celsius.
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