Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg is to head an EU mission to the Middle East on Sunday, the Foreign Ministry has confirmed. Its task is to work towards a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli air strikes have killed close to 400 people in an unprecedented offensive against Hamas radicals. Mr. Schwarzenberg has been consulting the matter both with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and EU foreign ministers. The mission is expected to include EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and the French and Swedish foreign ministers. The delegation will first visit Egypt, then move on to Israel and Palestine. Jordan is to be the last stop on the mission’s journey on Tuesday.
The Czech state deficit in 2008 was just below 20 billion crowns, over 1 billion US dollars, the lowest in the past eleven years. The Finance Ministry initially anticipated a deficit of 70.8 billion crowns and even raised the estimate to 71.3 billion crowns over the summer. Last year’s deficit of 19.4 billion crowns is the lowest since 1997, when the government of Václav Klaus posted a deficit of 15.7 billion crowns. The country’s public budget deficit in 2008 was 1.2 percent of GDP, fulfilling one of the basic conditions for the adoption of the euro.
Around 150 people gathered outside the Israeli embassy in Prague on Friday to demonstrate against Israel’s ongoing bombardment of the Gaza Strip. The meeting was staged by the Muslim Community in Prague, whose demands were joined by other Palestinian and Muslim organisations. Chairman of the Muslim Community in Prague Vladimír Sanka said earlier that Israeli attacks had been planned long ago and timed to coincide with the parliamentary elections in Israel. The Israeli air strikes have killed close to 400 people so far. Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg on Saturday supported Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Bernd Posselt, the leader of the Sudeten German Landsmannschaft, has called on the Czech Republic to rescind the Beneš decrees that lead to the expulsion of Czechoslovakia's Sudeten German population after the war. Mr Posselt said the Czech Republic should take advantage of its EU presidency to lift the “anti-European and racist” decrees. He added that the act would enable the Czech Republic to come to terms with its own history. Landsmannschaft is the largest organisation representing Sudeten Germans.
The Defence Ministry will propose a compromise plan on the deployment of Czech troops in foreign missions for this year. The plan, which is to be made public on Monday, envisages cutting back on the number of Czech troops in the ISAF peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan and gradually withdrawing the country’s troops from Iraq. The government coalition in December failed to push through the original proposal on the deployment of Czech troops in foreign missions in 2009. The government then used its constitutional right to maintain the forces abroad for a period of two months.
The Czech government should reach agreement with the opposition on a plan to minimize the effects of the global economic crisis, President Václav Klaus said in an interview for the daily Hospodářské noviny. Mr Klaus pointed out that he had also reached agreement with the opposition ten years ago, in order to avoid a drawn out political crisis. He suggested that the government should suspend the greens’ right to block the construction of highways in an attempt to ease the economic recession.
The Czech Republic will start issuing visas to Vietnamese nationals again in January following a temporary suspension over alleged corruption. The government in November suspended the issuing of visas and long-term residence permits for all Vietnamese nationals in reaction to the rising levels of counterfeiting and tax evasion allegedly committed by members of the Vietnamese community. The Czech embassy in Hanoi is to launch a new system for accepting visa applications in order to guarantee fair and equal treatment. The Vietnamese, who are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the Czech Republic, have not been included on the list of countries whose citizens can apply for a green card to work in the Czech Republic.
A record 6.32 million people visited Czech web sites in November, which is an increase by 2.5 percent since October, according to the data published by the NetMonitor research agency. The figures for December, which will be available at the end of the month, are expected to be even higher. The most popular web site is Seznam.cz, the country’s biggest internet search engine, with nearly 65 million users, followed by the news sites iDnes.cz and Novinky.cz with around three million visitors each.
Zdeněk Bakala, one of the Czech Republic's richest businessmen and owner of the media company Respekt Media, wants to buy the Polish dailies Rzecpospolita and Parkiet. Mr Bakala said his vision was to establish a large, diverse multimedia company in central and Eastern Europe. Respekt Media, publisher of the liberal weekly Respekt, has already submitted its offer to the Polish finance ministry, the majority-owner of the two Polish dailies.
The Czech Republic took over the rotating EU presidency from France on Thursday for a six month term that will involve dealing with the global economic crisis and renewed conflict in the Middle East. The motto of the Czech presidency is “Europe without Barriers”, expressing a wish to advance the free movement of people, goods and services around the EU. On January 6th the government will present its priorities which have been dubbed the three Es – economy, energy and “Europe in the World” which entails a three-pronged approach to the EU’s foreign relations. A delegation of the European Commission is expected to visit Prague on January 7th when an official launch of the Czech presidency will take place. On January 8 Prague will host an informal meeting of EU ministers.