'New Europe' threatens space centre veto

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Divisions between old and new Europe were reignited yesterday as the Czech Republic went into battle against western European countries over the site of an EU space agency.

The dispute, which threatens to derail a summit of European leaders tomorrow, has echoes of previous bitter arguments over the allocation of EU bodies - which bring prestige as well as millions in revenue.

This time the authorities in Prague have threatened to veto any decision which hands the new authority supervising Galileo, the EU's satellite navigation project, to an old EU country.

Cardiff is a front-runner from old Europe - one of 11 potential sites including Barcelona and Munich.

The horse-trading that surrounds the siting of European agencies is legendary and has provoked spectacular bust-ups.

On one occasion the former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, blocked Finland from gaining a European food safety agency, claiming "Finns don't even know what prosciutto is".

After deadlock over the site for the Galileo supervisory authority at a meeting yesterday, Prague accused old EU countries of reneging on a deal under which the new, mainly former Communist, nations were promised priority over future decisions.

The Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolanek, plans to raise Prague's candidacy for the agency at tomorrow's meeting of the European Council, where all 25 EU heads of government will gather. He points to a pledge made by EU heads of government in 2003, when they agreed to carve up sites of a host of agencies among themselves, shortly before the 10 new member states joined the union.

At the time, the EU leaders said that as far as future decisions were concerned, they would "agree to give priority to acceding states".

The Czech Transport minister, Ales Rebicek, said yesterday the deal had been called into question by "all of the countries that are candidates" and by "a group of old member countries". Jana Reinisova, the deputy ambassador of the Czech Republic to the EU, said that in "some way it will be raised at the [European] council".

Two other new member states have put forward potential sites for the authority: Slovenia, which proposed Ljubljana, and Malta, which bid for Valletta. Jan Kohout, the Czech ambassador to the EU, said Cardiff's bid was the strongest from old Europe.

The Czechs are angry that some old member states have raised the issue of security for the agency. Galileo is the rival to the US global satellite navigation system and the inference is that the new member states might allow America access to secret information.

Finland, which holds the EU presidency, said it would try to avoid making Galileo a summit issue. It knows that debate could degenerate into an angry dispute.

Susanna Huovinen, Finland's Transport minister, said the 2003 decision to prioritise the new nations should apply unless EU heads of government overturned it. "The matter will not be on the agenda of this week's summit," she said.

Though the presidency can control the agenda, it cannot prevent a head of government raising any issue he or she wants.