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New Czech president hoists European flag for first time

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(PRAGUE) - The European Union flag flew over the Czech president's seat for the first time in history on Wednesday, a pronounced shift to a more EU-friendly administration under leftist President Milos Zeman, who replaced eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus in January elections.

Several hundred anti-EU protestors rallied as the 27-member bloc's navy blue flag studded with a circle of 12 yellow stars went up the mast at Prague Castle to the EU's anthem, Ludwig van Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

The ceremony was attended by European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.

"It happened a bit late, but thank God it has happened. This is our allegiance to the mainstream of European integration," Zeman told reporters.

Describing himself as a euro-federalist, Zeman also signed an amendment to the EU's Lisbon Treaty paving the way for the eurozone's new rescue fund.

His predecessor Klaus had refused to do so, dubbing the amendment a "monstrous and absurd thing."

The so-called stability mechanism only applies to the debt-laden eurozone. Zeman has said he expects Prague to adopt the crisis-hit euro five years from now, at the earliest.

Both the symbolic flag-hoisting and bailout endorsement were unimaginable under Klaus's staunchly eurosceptic decade in office, which began just a year before the ex-communist country of 10.5 million joined the EU in 2004.

"It was this president (Zeman) elected directly by the citizens who took the initiative regarding the raising of the European flag together with the Czech flag," Barroso said, referring to January's first presidential election by popular suffrage.

Previously, Czech presidents had been elected by parliament to a five year term.

"Shame" and "Barroso, go home", chanted a group of around 100 Klaus supporters outside Prague Castle as they rallied against the highly symbolic move.

"The EU is imposing pressure to control our country economically," protester Martin Vojta, a businessman from the western town of Sokolov, told AFP.

Heavily dependent on car production and exports, the Czech economy contracted by 1.2 percent last year amid drag from the eurozone debt crisis and is forecast to shrink by 0.3 percent this year.

"It has snatched the right to decide what we can produce and buy. I don't know why someone in Brussels should decide in my name," he added.


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