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EU leaders criticise eurosceptic Czech president

Published on December 17, 2008

STRASBOURG -- European Union leaders, led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on Tuesday criticised the Czech Republic's eurosceptic president, Václav Klaus, weeks before his country assumes the EU presidency.

Among the main bones of contention is Klaus’s unwillingness to let the European flag fly from public buildings during a recent diplomatic meeting between Klaus and a delegation of EU parliamentarians visiting Prague.

"I am sometimes a little astonished by certain comments by the president of a large European country," said Sarkozy Tuesday. "We were upset when all the European flags were withdrawn from public buildings."

Sarkozy approved Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek actions, which differ to Klaus. Apparently, Topolanek, not Klaus, will be leading the EU presidency under the Czech constitution.

Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra later stressed that "European policy is the domain of the government," not the president and assured that "there was, there is and there will be the European flag" flying where he works.

In Prague, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said it was not the role of a head of state to criticise the Czech president.

"Prague Castle is a symbol of the Czech state and not the European Union," he said, referring to the presidency headquarters.

While the European flag, a circle of 12 gold stars on a blue background, does not fly at the Prague Castle, it is visible at many ministries.

Klaus said the flag issue reminded him of Soviet policy, whereby his country was made to fly the Soviet flag from all public buildings.

"When someone compares the European Union and the Soviet Union, he doesn’t understand what the Soviet Union was and he does not understand what democracy is," said EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, also in Strasbourg.

EU parliament president Hans-Gert Poettering recalled an incident last Friday during a closed-doors meeting between Klaus and visiting members of the European Parliament.

Czech chancellor, Jiri Weigl, said Klaus had reacted to "extreme provocation" by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a French born German Greens deputy.

After the president had already said he would limit EU symbolism wherever possible the European Parliament delegation presented Klaus with an EU flag on arrival, suggesting he hoist it above the presidency headquarters throughout Prague’s six months in the role.

A transcript of the exchange, made from a recording, was distributed to the press in Prague.

Poettering complained that making such a recording "is not usual in a democracy."