French Czech ministers to talk regularly to avoid spats

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Both foreign ministers agree to hold regular talks to avoid political misunderstanding, following recent media reports over disagreements between the two countries.

BRUSSELS – French and Czech foreign ministers on Monday promised to hold regular talks to ensure there are no political misunderstandings, after a row over protectionism.

"We have actually very close views," said Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

"There are rumours sometimes in the media that create a misunderstanding about French-Czech relations," he added.

His French counterpart Bernard Kouchner agreed: "What is sometimes published in the press" on disagreements between the two countries "is really not true".

Kouchner said his 20-minute meeting with Schwarzenberg prior to a meeting of all 27 European Union foreign ministers was "very friendly and positive".

Relations between Prague and Paris, the current and previous holders of the EU's rotating presidency, have curdled in recent weeks.

Earlier in February, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek accused French President Nicolas Sarkozy of protectionist measures which "may slow down and threaten the revival of the European economy."

Sarkozy had suggested in a televised interview that car manufacturing by French companies in countries such as the Czech Republic, should be relocated to France to create jobs there in the economic downturn.

The Czech Republic is not alone in its concern over perceived protectionist moves. Sentiment is growing in the eastern EU nations that their richer western counterparts are not doing enough to help them through the financial and economic crises.

Prague has also been riled by criticism by French officials, relayed through the press, accusing the Czechs of being too passive at the EU helm in the face of the global economic maelstrom.

There was also embarrassment in Prague in December over the leak of a document presented as a transcript of a meeting between Sarkozy and Topolanek.

All was sweetness and light in Brussels but Schwarzenberg added that "it would be better in the future to speak regularly to each other."

"We have decided to see each other, or at least talk, twice a week," Kouchner said.

"Honestly it's a pleasure to work with Karel Schwarzenberg," he stressed.

The two ministers also decided to travel together to Bosnia, said Kouchner, without giving a date.

To help rebuild relations, Topolanek and Sarkozy were due to meet in Berlin on Sunday, on the margins of a European preparatory summit ahead of a meeting of the G20 industrialised and emerging nations in London on 2 April.

However due to time constraints, the meeting didn't happen. Instead, the two leaders are due to meet in Brussels on Sunday on the sidelines of an EU summit.

Last Wednesday Czech Deputy Premier Alexandr Vondra, in Brussels for a think-tank debate, also sought to smooth relations with France, while defending his country's role.

"We have some dignity, some pride" and "we will immediately respond" to criticism, he said.

"We're not creating dividing lines, looking for conflicts, we want coordination, unity among the EU member states," in order to facilitate economic recovery efforts, he said.

"I believe that France is a very important part in finding those agreements."

Even before France handed over the EU presidency to the Czechs on 1 January, Sarkozy who led a hyperactive French EU term at the helm warned that he would not be satisfied to take a back-row seat in Europe.

"No one could think that it would be a positive thing for Europe for France to leave its chair empty now just because it has finished its six-month presidency. No! On the contrary, I will be taking action," he promised in December.

AFP / Expatica

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