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Maverick Czech President Brings Critical Gospel To EU

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Czech President Vaclav Klaus claims that "those who dare think about a different option are labeled enemies of European integration."

Czech President Vaclav Klaus claims that "those who dare think about a different option are labeled enemies of European integration."

There was a whiff of the proverbial sulfur in the air when Czech President Vaclav Klaus stood recently before the European Parliament in Brussels.

Klaus did what was expected of him. His speech was another uncompromising broadside against the EU, its policies, institutions, and philosophical underpinnings.

His argument, in a nutshell, was that proponents of ever-deeper political integration have hijacked the European Union. The advocates of further integration have turned their views into an "uncriticizable dogma," Klaus said, which now rules at all EU institutions. Even the European Parliament, the EU's directly elected legislature, is in thrall to that dogma.

"Here, only one single option is being promoted and those who dare think about a different option are labeled enemies of European integration," the Czech president told his audience.

"The enforcement of these notions by those who consider themselves -- to use the phrase of the famous Czech writer Milan Kundera -- 'the owners of the keys' to European integration, is unacceptable," Klaus said.

Taking The Bait?

A smattering of EU deputies left the hall in protest during Klaus's speech. The president of the European Parliament, Hans-Georg Poettering, responded by telling Klaus that he owes his freedom of speech to the EU. Klaus could only say what he said, Poettering argued, because "we live in a European democracy where everyone can express his or her own opinion."

Poettering then pressed his advantage in a way some might think rash by telling Klaus that in a democracy, "it's the view of the majority that counts."

Poettering rounded up his countercharge by noting that without the European Parliament, "Europe would be in the hands of bureaucrats." Poettering arguably had left himself vulnerable, given that he has spent the last 30 years as a deputy in a legislative body whose competence is largely confined to matters relating to the EU's internal market. Real power in most areas remains firmly in the hands of the member states.

The EU's real powers-that-be fail to take the bait and respond to Klaus. Partly, this is because it would be a diplomatic faux pas for one EU government to criticize the head of another. Mostly, though, it's because Klaus, in European politics, is a maverick.

Klaus's ideas go against the very grain of mainstream EU political thought -- so much that they can seem perverse to his potential interlocutors.

For example, Klaus noted that the distance between the ordinary voter and their representatives in Brussels is much greater than is the case in individual member states, resulting in a "democratic deficit," an absence of sufficient accountability on the part of EU politicians and bureaucrats.

Extrapolating from this, the Czech president said that as there is "no European demos," attempts at union-wide representation are misguided and counterproductive.

"This defect cannot be solved by strengthening the role of the European parliament, either," Klaus said. "This would, on the contrary, make the problem worse and lead to an even greater alienation between the citizens of the European countries and Union institutions."

Genuine Alternatives?

Such thinking flies in the face of political common sense in much of the EU. Cooperation within the bloc, though spearheaded by member states, is seen as having acquired an independent and broadly beneficent dynamic that must be consolidated by means of direct representation, no matter how imperfect.

Many EU core members also see it as one of the bloc's functions to overcome national differences among their publics and promote a "European" identity. This goes back to the traumatic experience of the two world wars in Europe in the 20th century, and is in particular applicable to France and Germany.

Klaus also attacked the principle of solidarity at the heart of the EU's not unsubstantial efforts to redistribute wealth among member states and regulate its common market in ways intended to minimize socio-economic risks to its citizens.

In Brussels, Klaus said "the present economic system of the EU is a system of suppressed market, a system of a permanently strengthening centrally controlled economy." This, again, is a view that does not resonate with the publics of most of the EU's richer member states.

The alternatives the Czech president advocates are none too clear. What he appears to want is a wholesale reversal of the EU's political and economic projects as they are conceived today.

In their place, Klaus offers a vision of an EU where barriers to travel and commerce are removed but "joint care of the public goods" -- which remain unspecified -- is confined to projects that cannot be "effectively carried out through bilateral negotiations of two (or more) neighboring European countries." A loose borrowing from the neoliberal "night-watchman concept of the state," Klaus's vision is deeply unpopular in a continent that prides itself on its social-democratic heritage.

The Czech president's style also does nothing to endear him to western European audiences. His claims to expound "elementary principles" of European civilization, "rational thinking," and precepts grounded in "the whole 2,000-year history of European civilization" chafe most ears.

For his own government, Klaus is something of an embarrassment for the duration of the Czech EU Presidency -- one it has no option but to suffer, according to Czech Prime Minister Miroslav Topolanek.

"You know very well that the president is not answerable to the government for his international speeches," Topolanek said. "President Klaus, on a parliamentary level, has the right to state his views. And anyone who tries to deny him that right -- and I may not agree with [Klaus's] views -- will have to clash with me and with all democrats in this country."

In the end, Klaus is perhaps best measured against his mold-breaking predecessor, Vaclav Havel. He seems to lack Havel's charisma, but also his vision.

Havel had the power to move the goalposts in the broadest intellectual debates and force his interlocutors to engage him on his terms.