The Czech Republic is celebrating its entry to the European Union. Open air parties have been taking place across the country and thousands of people turned up to see a magnificent fireworks display on Prague's Letna Plain at midnight when the Czech Republic and nine other countries officially joined the EU. The biggest expansion in the EU's history will swell its ranks to 25 nations and its population to 450 million people.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla both addressed the nation on the eve of accession. The Prime Minister assured Czechs that the country would benefit from EU entry and urged them to avail themselves of the opportunities opening up. "We are not abandoning our homeland or replacing it - of our own free will we have chosen to become a part of the European community," Mr. Spidla said. "We have much to offer and a great deal to benefit from, I am convinced that the Czech Republic will not be lost in the EU," he concluded.
President Klaus said EU membership was something that this country had striven for over the past 14 years, and that it would end half a century of isolation, one-sided orientation towards the East and years of disrespect for basic values embraced by the democratic world. Yet he warned Czechs not to get carried away by sentiment, saying that it was vital for the country to learn to move within the framework of EU structures, to make the best of its pre-negotiated position within the union in order to take up its rightful place within the community. The Czech nation must preserve its identity and we must make sure that the balance of advantages and disadvantages of EU membership is in our favour, the President said, adding that he was optimistic that the Czech Republic was ready for the challenge.
On the EU enlargement day, the Czech Prime Minister, Vladimir Spidla, and his Polish and German counterparts, Leszek Miller and Gerhard Schroeder joined the celebrations in the border district of Trojzemi, a place where their three countries meet. From Trojzemi, Ian Willoughby reports.
"The Czech Prime Minister, Vladimir Spidla, and his Polish and German counterparts, Leszek Miller and Gerhard Schroeder have appeared together at a grand ceremony at the exact point where their three countries meet. On this historic day of the European Union enlargement, the three leaders along with the EU enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, delivered speeches at noon in front of many thousands of people from the border region and the assembled international media.
"The Czech Prime Minister was the last of the four to speak, describing EU enlargement as the definitive overcoming of the results of WWII. He rejected the division of the continent into "Old" and "New" Europe, saying the only "Old" Europe was a Europe which went to war against itself. As for the future, the Czech Prime Minister said a lot had been achieved and a lot remained to be done, though it could be done better in united Europe, working together."
Several hundred anarchists and right-wing extremists marched through Prague on Saturday in protest at the Czech Republic's accession to the European Union. The far right protesters called for a boycott of the European Parliament elections and the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla. The two groups of protesters clashed briefly in the centre of Prague but police managed to separate them.
Labour and Social Affairs Minister Zdenek Skromach has confirmed that workers from the enlarged EU will face no restrictions in the Czech Republic. Minister Skromach said that that the country would welcome all EU citizens who wish to live and work here, but that it would take steps to prevent people from abusing the country's social system and security benefits. Of the present member states only Britain, Ireland and Sweden have opened their labour markets to the ten newcomers.
A bomb threat led the authorities to close two border crossings between Germany and the Czech Republic on Friday, just hours before the historic enlargement of the European Union. For four hours police with sniffer dogs combed two crossings near the town of Rozvadov without finding anything suspicious. The closure resulted in long cues on both sides of the border. Police are investigating the bomb threat. Meanwhile, security is tight at the German border town of Zittau, where German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla and Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller are due to attend the festivities on Saturday.
The Czech national ice hockey team opened 2nd round action at the Ice Hockey World Championships on Friday with a 2-0 victory over Austria. Jaromir Jagr and Petr Prucha both scored while goaltender Tomas Vokoun earned his second shut-out of the tournament. The win put the Czechs top of their group.
Sunday is expected to be bright and sunny with daytime highs reaching 22 degrees Celsius.