"Entry forbidden to Austrian citizens" says a note on the door of a shop in the Czech town of České Budějovice, according to Austrian state television. The reason for this rather stern and disturbing warning: the blockade of the Austrian-Czech border in Wullovitz by Austrian activists who are protesting against the activation of Temelín, the controversial Czech nuclear power plant.
Temelín is only some 30 miles away from the Austrian border, and there have been long-standing concerns about the safety of this Soviet-style installation only partly (and, according to some experts, dangerously) modernised by the adjunct of Western technology.
Demonstrations or blockades
Austrian environmentalists have gained wide support for their protest among the population, but Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman has expressed his anger at what he sees as the unwillingness of the Austrian goverment to intervene to end the blockades. "We make a distinction between demonstrations, which we have nothing against, and the blockade of borders," Zeman said.
Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross held fruitless talks on Wednesday with his Austrian counterpart, Ernst Strasser. The Czech Republic decided on Friday to bring the matter in front of the European Commission in Brussels.
According to Czechs, the blockades contravene the free circulation of goods and persons guaranteed by the association agreements signed by the country with the EU in 1995. Yet, Strasser, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and Environment Minister Wilhelm Molterer have all excluded the use of Austrian police forces to lift the blockades, arguing that this would constitute an unacceptable breach of the population's "right of association."
Turning into revanche
The situation looked set to escalate further on Friday and Saturday, after Austrian Economics Minister Martin Bartenstein announced in an interview with Neue Krone Zeitung that he had decided to forbid the import of energy sources from the Czech Republic. On the Czech side, Ivan Langer, the deputy leader of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), stated that the Czech government should introduce some administrative restrictions for Austrian citizens who travel to the Czech Republic.
The problem is the way the politicians on both sides have, for political reasons, turned the issue—initially an "environmental" one—into a symbolic and "national" question.
In the Czech Republic, a conspiracy theory already claims that the border blockades are a "revanche"—a way for Austria to punish the Czechs for their support of the EU political sanctions against the People's Party-Freedom Party coalition.
In Austria, a country notoriously sceptical towards EU enlargement, the rhetoric about the ecological dangers of a Czech nuclear plant sometimes sounds like a good reason to justify a deep-rooted opposition to Czech membership. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that protesters of the Land of Upper-Austria received a visit on Friday from and the support of a certain Jörg Haider, intent on making the closure of Temelín a prerequisite to the Czech Republic's EU membership.
Closing—what gates exactly?
More worrying for the Czechs, however, is the cross-party consensus that has emerged in Austria on the issue, and the opposition Social Democrat and Green parties have both bemoaned the Czech decision to put Temelín online and have called on the government to adopt a strong anti-nuclear (if not anti-Czech) stance.
For instance, it was the Green environment spokesperson, Eva Glawischnig, who first suggested on Thursday that "economic pressure" could be exerted on the Czech Republic, in order to force Temelín's closure. Also, Chancellor Schüssel and his foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who have repeatedly argued in the past that the nuclear safety question would not lead to an Austrian veto on Czech membership, seem suddenly not so adamant about their stance.
The fact is that Austrian-Czech relations are at an impasse, and bilateral contacts have remained extremely limited. This is even more striking if compared to the close diplomatic relations that Austrian and Hungary enjoy. Ferrero-Waldner and Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi, for example, launched the idea this week of a "strategic partnership," which commits Austria to support Hungary's application to the EU and Hungary to help increase Austria's links with NATO.
But there are, nevertheless, several elements which could brighten this somewhat gloomy picture.
First, contrary to what some Austrian and Czech media would like to believe, the anti-nuclear movement is Czech as well as Austrian, and a group called "Mothers Against Nuclear Peril" has been established in České Budějovice (incidentally, the same town where anti-Austrian notes have been put on the doors of shops).
Secondly, some politicians in both countries have adopted a moderate stance, which should ultimately help to diffuse the tensions. Most significantly, Czech President Václav Havel remarked that allowing the activation of Temelín was the "greatest mistake" of his career as President. Austrian President Thomas Klestil, whose "moral" and apolitical stature has increased considerably since the swearing-in of the so-called "black-blue" coalition at the beginning of the year, has not spoken on the issue so far, but could perhaps play a useful mediating role if necessary.
How to solve a neighbourhood problem
Zeman and Schüssel have both asked for the arbitration of the European Commission, but Brussels is in many ways unlikely to be perceived as an "honest broker" by either of the two parties.
The solution to the present crisis, as Erhard Busek, the Austrian government's special envoy on EU enlargement, hinted at in a direct critique of Schüssel's (and Zeman's) approach (Format, 10 October 2000), is to be found in the establishment of a long-term dialogue between Austrian and Czech leaders.
Temelín, a "neighbourhood problem," should be an opportunity for the two neighbours to settle their differences and emphasise their mutual interests rather than their divergences.
Nothing, however, could illustrate the fundamental (and largely historical) misunderstanding at the heart of Austrian-Czech relations better than a recent comment made by Ferrero-Waldner: "Austria was the only country which showed some understanding for Czech dissidents in the times of Communism. And, now, the Czech Republic has no understanding for the concerns of the Austrian population. This is not acceptable behaviour between neighbours."
Magali Perrault, 16 October 2000
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