Europe, Headlines | Analysis

EUROPE: Czech Presidency Promises Controversy

Analysis by Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Jan 5 2009 (IPS) - The rotating EU presidency has been taken over for the first half of the year by a country with a president who may refuse to sign the EU Treaty, and with a weak government that has more faith in the U.S. than in Europe.

The Czech presidency has come up with a list of proposals called Europe Without Barriers to promote free movement of persons and services, and increased competitiveness. But pressing current events are likely to overshadow Czech priorities.

The EU Lisbon Treaty on institutional reform is considered essential to the future of the EU. But only the Czech Republic and Ireland seem to be resisting its adoption.

EU leaders are irritated that the Czech are overestimating their diplomatic importance. They have criticised its stance on the treaty, hinting that an unpredictable country which has problems ratifying it should not be leading the EU for six months.

The Czech Republic also considers the enlargement of the EU to former communist countries a priority, but EU officials say this is impossible without the Lisbon Treaty, an opinion not shared by Prague.

“Why should we invite further states when we are not getting anywhere? And we cannot change Czechs for Croats or Serbs,” said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in reference to the two top candidates for membership.

The ruling neo-liberal ODS (Civic Democrats) is split on the treaty: about half opposes it and the other half gives it only cool support, while the entire party finds what it considers the excessive social guarantees contained in it disturbing.

The treaty was signed in Lisbon in 2007. It seeks to simplify the EU institutional structure while allowing for more decisions to be taken by a qualified majority, to the benefit of larger member states.

The treaty, which has been ratified by 25 of the 27 member states, will give the EU a stronger voice in foreign policy by creating posts of president and foreign minister.

In a unique procedure in Europe, the ODS sent the treaty to the Czech Constitutional Court, which last November ruled that it was compatible with Czech legislation.

The left-wing opposition and the ODS’s smaller coalition parties, the Greens and the Christian Democrats, support the treaty, and have strong disagreements with the ODS over the issue.

The Christian Democrats and Greens only got around 7 percent of the vote in the 2006 legislative elections but they are over-represented at the ministerial level, and it is thanks to their support that the government has one more deputy than the opposition.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek says the treaty could be approved in the first quarter of 2009, but he is still not sure he has enough support in parliament among his own deputies.

Some see the delay as convenient to the Czechs, as approval of the treaty would weaken the role of the presiding country.

Following disastrous results in the local and senate elections in October, the divided ODS also faces sinking support rates, calls for early elections by a strong opposition, and criticism of its former chairman, President Vaclav Klaus.

Klaus, founder of the party he now accuses of becoming centrist, abandoned his post of honorary chairman in December, and is considering participating in a new Eurosceptic and more right-wing political force.

When the Irish rejected the treaty in a referendum in June 2008, the President spoke out in their support, and saw in the result an opportunity to further propagate his Eurosceptic views to the Czech public.

Klaus, who calls himself a “European dissident”, is critical of what he considers the lack of debate on the EU treaty, which he says threatens freedom and democracy due to its excessive transfer of competences to an unaccountable supranational body.

He came under strong criticism from French President Nicolas Sarkozy Dec. 16 for refusing to hoist EU flags in the presidential palace.

“Czechs do not have much diplomatic experience. Fears of an unsuccessful presidency are founded, but not because of President Klaus who gets most of publicity at the moment,” Jan Drahokoupil, analyst at the Czech Economy and Society Trust, a Brno-based think tank told IPS. “Klaus is a strong personality with very idiosyncratic opinions but he has only a ceremonial role.”

The weakened prime minister, and foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg will also deal with the financial crisis and thorny foreign policy issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and relations with Russia.

“The problem is not only about the capability to lead, it is also about world outlooks that are rather distant from the European mainstream,” says Drahokoupil.

Topolanek, a staunch supporter of free markets, initially ignored the seriousness of the financial crisis, and is likely to oppose “regulatory solutions,” the analyst says.

Moreover, in foreign policy, leading Czech officials “are blindly anti-Russian and pro-American,” says Drahokoupil. “Schwarzenberg has for instance just expressed unqualified support to Israel, blaming Hamas for ‘getting what they deserved’ – now he will lead negotiations in the Middle East as an EU representative.”

Topolanek, who wanted to organise an EU-Israel summit but now admits he wants to include the Palestinians, once called Israel a “civilisation in the onrush of barbarianism.”

He has also sided unconditionally with Georgia in its latest conflict with Russia, and wants to build an extension to the U.S. missile defence system on Czech soil.

The government also wants to do a trade-off with the anti-radar left-wing opposition on the Lisbon Treaty: the government will approve it if the left agrees to the U.S. radar base.

“For the ODS, the geopolitical issue of locating the radar on our territory is so important that if it fails the ODS will seize up against the Lisbon Treaty ratification,” the prime minister told the press in November.

ODS politicians welcome the radar base as a counterweight both to Russian and EU influence, and many see the choice between Lisbon and the radar as one determining the country’s future orientation towards Europe or the U.S.

Energy security will be another issue dear to the Czechs, who want to reduce dependency on Russian gas, and lure countries in the Russian sphere of influence to the side of the West.

Analysts predict that Moscow will not show much respect for the Czech presidency the way it did for the preceding French one, considered successful in Russia and Europe.

The Czech public is also split on the treaty, but curiously it is mostly left-wing voters who oppose it.

Many Czechs fear the EU treaty could trigger a series of restitution proceedings from Germans expelled after World War II, as they could take precedence over the Benes decrees.

The Benes decrees were issued by Czechoslovak president Edvard Benes between 1940 and 1945 and through their enforcement over two million ethnic German and Hungarian Czechoslovak citizens were forcibly deported.

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