The Czech Republic and eight other EU members joined the Schengen border free-zone at midnight Thursday. The lifting of border controls has created a vast border-free zone for 400 million Europeans in 24 countries stretching from Spain to Estonia. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended celebrations at the border crossings Zittau-Friedenstrasse-Hradek nad Nisou, where the three countries’ borders meet, hailing the Schengen expansion as an important step to a one-tier Europe.
The Schengen expansion has taken years of preparation and the European Union estimates that about one billion euros (1.4 billion dollars) has been spent on improving security on the zone's new outer frontiers. The Czech Republic has no outer frontiers, bordering only with other Schengen members but its international airports have all introduced tighter security measures.
The legal battle between the Czech Catholic Church and the state over the ownership of St. Vitus Cathedral is set to continue. The Catholic Church on Friday appealed the district court’s most recent verdict according to which St. Vitus rightly belongs to the state. The dispute over Prague’s famous 14 century cathedral has dragged on for 14 years. The case will now go to the Prague City Court for the third time.
Moscow and Prague remain at loggerheads over the US plan to site a US tracking radar on Czech territory and interceptor missiles in neighbouring Poland within its missile defence system. Visiting Russian commissioner for relations with the EU Sergei Yastrzhembsky said he had not heard a single logical argument in support of the plan. However he said he was pleased to find that the Czech Republic was very open to negotiations and committed to resolving the conflict. I found no anti-Russian prejudice and that is a good platform for cooperation, Mr. Yastrzhembsky said. Deputy Prime Minister for EU Affairs Alexander Vondra said once again that the radar base was not aimed against Russia and that the Czech Republic regarded Moscow as a partner.
A Eurocity train from Hamburg to Vienna was derailed as it was leaving the railway station in the Bohemian town of Kolin on Friday afternoon. Fortunately the train was only going at about forty kilometres per hour at the time and there were no injuries. Czech Railways spokesman Ondrej Kubala said the cause of the accident was being investigated. The damage has been estimated at around three million crowns.
The package of fiscal reforms approved by the centre right government will take effect on January 1, despite complaints to the Constitutional Court filed by opposition politicians. The Constitutional Court has said it would not be able to rule on the complaints by the end of the year. The reforms which parliament approved in the summer of this year will radically change the tax, social and health care system in view of reducing the steep deficit in public finances.
President Klaus is refusing to be drawn into a live televised debate with his sole rival for the presidency Jan Svejnar. Mr. Klaus recently rejected Mr. Svejnar’s offer of an American-style one-on-one debate about crucial domestic and foreign policy matters on the grounds that his views were well known and he had already proved himself in office. Pressed by the opposition Social Democrats to accept the challenge, Mr. Klaus said it would be more to the point if the Social Democrats were to present Mr. Svejnar as their presidential candidate and tell the nation why they had chosen to back him.
An opinion poll conducted by the STEM agency indicates that more than half of Czechs - 57 percent - believe that the government should be doing more for families with children. Respondents suggested possible measures such as lowering taxes for families with underage children, supporting flexible work hours for parents and loans for newly-wed couples. STEM says there is growing dissatisfaction with the government’s social policy and that is likely to increase next year as the government’s cost cutting measures take effect.
The price of cigarettes is expected to grow faster than anticipated in the coming year. Price bulletins show that the price of a pack will rise by eight crowns instead of the announced seven, the daily Pravo writes in its Friday edition. Excise duty on cigarettes will grow from the current 1.64 crowns to 1.92 per cigarette. In previous years producers reacted to price growth by cutting margins. Philip Morris, the dominant player on the market, has changed its strategy and will now raise the margin. Rival companies are preparing to do the same, Pravo says.
Czechs are celebrating the country’s entry to the Schengen border-free zone with fireworks, street parties, concerts and sports events. The eastward expansion of Schengen to nine new states at midnight on Thursday will lift border controls between the old and new EU members, creating a vast border-free zone for 400 million Europeans in 24 countries stretching from Spain to Estonia. The expansion is described as a symbolic “tearing down of the last remnants of the Iron Curtain”.