As the Czech Republic's membership of the EU draws nearer - with entry expected in 2004 - the country would be expected to be speeding up accession negotiations. But instead the process seems to be slowing down, just as public support for EU membership is also falling. Vladimir Tax has the details.
When coming to power, the Czech Social Democratic government promised a "legislative storm" to bring Czech legislation into line with the EU's Acquis Communautaire as fast as possible. While the year 2001 was a crucial stage in the accession process when most chapters were closed, this year is also important as negotiations have to be complete for the Czech Republic to be ready to join on January 1st, 2004. However, Prague has only managed to close one chapter so far this year - the chapter related to regional policy. Czech chief negotiator with the EU, Pavel Telicka, says the slow down is not critical.
"Frankly speaking, we did not expect any better result. What is most important is that we are out of the wood and have gotten near the end of the negotiations. We could have closed the economic competition and transport chapters, but postponing them for a few months is not a real problem. Overall, we are near the finish line. I think our partners on the EU side could have worked faster in certain stages, but we have had some delays, too."
The Czech Republic still needs to conclude negotiations on agriculture, which is perhaps the most difficult chapter. On this issue existing member states are themselves having difficulty finding common ground. Mr. Telicka says the Czech Republic is pushing for the EU to present a joint position on agriculture at the June summit in Seville, and if not, then at the October summit in Berlin.
Meanwhile, opinion polls suggest that the number of Czechs who oppose their country's membership has been increasing and if a referendum on EU accession were held now, slightly less than half would vote in favour. A more worrying statistic for EU negotiators lies in the number of people who actively oppose membership. Polls suggest that the figure has risen by 12 percent to one third.
Observers say that growing opposition to EU entry is partly due to a lack of information and subsequent rumours spreading among ordinary people. On the other hand, top Czech politicians have their share of the responsibility, too. In the run-up to next week's parliamentary elections some of them have been very vocal in claiming that EU membership could undermine national identity and sovereignty.