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EU Tells Czech President To 'Respect' Europe

  • Ahto Lobjakas

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (right) welcomes Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer to EU headquarters in Brussels on October 13.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (right) welcomes Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer to EU headquarters in Brussels on October 13.

BRUSSELS -- It's an understatement to say that the European Union's executive arm in Brussels is piling pressure on the Czech Republic to become the last member state to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, the document that aims to streamline the EU's decision-making and centralize its foreign policy.

Almost everything the visibly exasperated European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, had to say after an emergency meeting in Brussels on October 13 with Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer boiled down to a single point: The EU should not be in this situation; not 10 days after Ireland had passed the Lisbon Treaty at a hard-fought repeat referendum, and just after the formerly recalcitrant Polish President Lech Kaczynski had ratified it.

Barroso appears to harbor no sympathy for Czech President Vaclav Klaus or his reasons for not signing the Lisbon Treaty. Barroso repeatedly hammered home the view in Brussels that, after the Czech government signed the treaty and the Czech parliament approved it, only the Czech Constitutional Court -- and not the president -- can further delay the process.

The Czech court will convene on October 27 to examine last-gasp objections to Lisbon filed by a group of 17 Czech senators.

"Provided the Constitutional Court comes to the conclusion [that] there is no [contradiction] between the Lisbon Treaty and the constitution of the Czech Republic, we consider that there are no reasons for the Czech Republic not to honor its commitments toward all the other member states and toward the European institutions," Barroso said.

Klaus, Barroso said firmly, must "respect" Europe.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The Lisbon Treaty -- the EU's attempt at large-scale modernization after it took on 12 new member states in the middle of the decade -- has been seven years in the making.

The defeat of its more ambitious predecessor, the Constitutional Treaty, in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005, pushed the bloc into a debilitating political crisis.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus at a demonstration in Prague of self-styled "euroskeptics" on October 3.
The defeat of the Lisbon Treaty in the first Irish referendum, in June 2008, further aggravated the situation. The Irish "yes" less than two weeks ago was assumed by advocates, with relief, to signal an end to the crisis -- until Vaclav Klaus intervened.

On October 9, Klaus indicated that he would not sign the Lisbon Treaty before legally watertight assurances were given to the Czech Republic that the treaty's terms would not overturn post-World War II laws -- known as the Benes Decrees -- stripping banished Sudeten Germans of their property rights.

The demand came as an unwelcome shock for both the Czech government and other EU governments. Protests that the Lisbon Treaty would have no bearing on national property regulations have had no effect on Klaus.

The Czech government, operating in a caretaker capacity since spring this year, now finds itself in a difficult spot. Prime Minister Jan Fischer told Barroso in Brussels that the government will work to get the treaty ratified by the end of the year.

"I assured the president of the European Commission that the Czech government will do everything to make sure that the ratification process in the Czech Republic is properly completed, bearing in mind not only the joint [European] project but also the reputation of the Czech Republic," Fischer said.

But there are signs the internally weak Czech government is bowing to pressure from Klaus. The Benes Decrees enjoy uniform support across the Czech political spectrum, and most Czech commentators perceive Klaus's position to be strong.

No Guarantees

Fischer confirmed that he wants to raise Klaus's demand at the October 29-30 EU summit in Brussels. Sweden, the EU's current presidency, has been apprised of the plan and is conducting discreet, behind-the-scenes talks with other EU governments.

Fischer said "the plan on the table" is to attach a political declaration to the Lisbon Treaty stating the Benes Decrees are safe. A legally binding protocol would later be added to the first convenient EU act of primary legislation -- most likely the Croatian accession treaty.

Anything more would mean changing the treaty itself -- requiring the EU to reopen the ratification procedure from scratch. In Brussels, Fischer said that would be "completely out of the question."

Barroso described such an eventuality as "completely absurd, completely surreal."

The question the rest of the EU will be asking as it contemplates Klaus's demand might well be: Can the Czech president be trusted to leave it at that?

Fischer was not overly convincing on that point on October 13. He said he had asked Klaus the previous evening for a "guarantee" that the president would raise no new objections but had nothing to show for it by the time he met with EU representatives.

Klaus adviser Ladislav Jakl said the president would not offer the government any guarantees.

Officials in Brussels and other EU capitals have hinted that they regard the Benes Decrees condition as a red herring, and that Klaus is playing a longer game -- and may in fact have no intention of ever singing the treaty. The maverick Czech president's blistering criticism of EU integration suggests he believes it to be an inherently bad thing.

The "Times" of London on October 13 quoted Klaus as recently telling his supporters, who had asked if he plans to sign the treaty, "Don't worry, I won't." Premysl Sobotka, the speaker of the Czech Senate, was present during Klaus's remarks and denies any such statement was made.

Drastic Measures

Swedish officials appear to be proceeding from an assumption the issue will be resolved later, rather than sooner. They say privately the new the top positions created by the Lisbon Treaty will not be filled at the October summit, as originally planned, but in December.

But Klaus could also be gambling on the British Conservatives, now in opposition. Almost certain to win the next general elections, which must be held no later than May 2010, Britain's Conservatives have pledged to put the Lisbon Treaty to a referendum should it not be ratified by that time. It is generally accepted that, given the chance, British voters would reject the treaty.

Klaus's motives, meanwhile, remain inscrutable. Far from the fray in Brussels and seemingly unfazed by it, the Czech president travels to Moscow on October 14, where his euroskeptical stance has been warmly welcomed.

The EU's longer-term strategy is, at this point, limited to the hope that the Czech government will be able to contain Klaus. Barroso pointedly observed that a "president elected by the parliament" cannot go against that same parliament if it has already approved the Lisbon Treaty.

The Belgian daily "Le Soir" wrote on October 13 that some deputies in the Czech parliament were thinking of stripping Klaus of his treaty-signing powers and conferring these on the prime minister.

The Czech Greens have called for Klaus's impeachment, but no other party has backed the idea.

Under the Czech Constitution a president may be impeached only if he commits high treason. It is highly unlikely that parliament would pass such a measure under Jan Fischer's interim government.

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