Czechs draw the line at Slovakia

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ANOTHER barrier went up in Europe over the weekend with an agreement between the Czech and Slovak republics to introduce proper border controls between the two countries forthwith. The agreement, which came about essentially in response to the introduction of tough new asylum laws in Germany at the beginning of the month, was struck by Vaclav Klaus, the Czech Prime Minister, and Vladimir Meciar, his Slovak counterpart, at a fringe meeting during a gathering of Central European leaders in Budapest.

Hailing the deal as a 'fundamental breakthrough', Mr Klaus stressed that only people coming from third countries would be subjected to the controls and that Czechs and Slovaks would still be able to cross the border freely - as envisaged in the original treaties governing the 'velvet divorce' between the two countries at the beginning of the year.

The pressure to start policing the new border came entirely from the Czech side, terrified that with Germany now able to turn back would-be refugees arriving by land, Prague would be saddled with tens of thousands of Germany-bound migrants from the former Yugoslavia, Soviet Union and Romania who had simply entered the Czech Republic through the open border with Slovakia.

Unlike the Czechs, who have introduced tough visa requirements for visitors from former Soviet and Balkan countries, the Slovaks, who do not share a common border with Germany, still have much looser regulations. Until this weekend, moreover, Bratislava has refused to agree to controls along its border with the Czech Republic, arguing that such a move would be the equivalent of drawing a new Iron Curtain and that, in the words of one Slovak official, such a barrier 'would suggest that Slovakia is no longer part of Europe but is somewhere in the east'.

The agreement between Mr Klaus and Mr Meciar in Budapest was the most concrete achievement to emerge from the Central European Initiative (CEI) summit, which was also attended by the leaders of Hungary, Poland, Austria, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. While much time was devoted to fresh calls for a ceasefire in the former Yugoslavia, the CEI leaders also agreed to convene a convention on ethnic minority rights throughout the region and to admit Macedonia as a new member.

Even participants were a little confused as to what the role of the CEI, which was formed in 1989, could and should be. While some, such as Mr Klaus, want it to focus on improved economic ties, others seek a greater political role.