Holed up in his office in Prague Castle, Václav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, is standing firm in his refusal to sign the Lisbon Treaty. President Klaus, the last obstacle to ratification by all 27 EU member states, has been denounced and vilified as a crank, a misanthrope and a dinosaur. Prime ministers and presidents are pursuing him to try and persuade him. But he is not taking their calls.
Lisbon’s supporters argue that it will streamline EU institutions and make Europe work more smoothly and efficiently. Klaus and other doubters retort that such streamlining will impinge on sovereignty and further the inexorable march towards a federal European super-state.
“I fear a deepening integration of the European Union. For me this is something of vital importance. The idea that I can forget what I said is not well-founded,” he argues. The treaty will certainly reduce some of the hard-won freedoms and independence enjoyed by the post-communist nations after 1989. Europe will boast its own president and foreign minister, national vetoes will be reduced and justice and home affairs will be further centralised.
Klaus’s unease is shared in neighbouring countries: after centuries of foreign rule, there are mounting questions in the new member states as to why they now have to surrender so much sovereignty to Brussels. But a leader of a small, newly independent country stands against the Brussels behemoth at his peril. There is now increasing talk of “persuading” the Czechs to impeach the president or remove him by other constitutional means. A German diplomat told The Sunday Times of London: “If the president is obstructing the democratic process and opposing the decision of parliament as well as the will of the people, he is moving beyond the law and will need to face the consequences.” Such talk may yet backfire and boost President Klaus’s support. The days when Germany can depose and impose Mittel-European leaders at will are – supposedly – long over.
Nor is it certain that the “will of the people” demands a European super-state. In 2005 France and the Netherlands held referenda on adopting the proposed EU constitution, a precursor of the Lisbon Treaty. Voters in both countries said no, causing consternation in Brussels. The constitution was dropped but many of its provisions are now included in Lisbon. In Britain the government reneged its promised referendum. In June 2008 Irish voters rejected Lisbon. Dublin was forced to hold a second referendum this month. This time, the Irish voted yes.
But pressure is also mounting in Prague. “Václav Klaus is president of the Czech Republic, not Ireland, France or the Netherlands,” says Jirí Pehe, a political analyst and former chief adviser to President Klaus’s predecessor, Václav Havel. “The Czech Parliament has approved the treaty, the courts ruled that it does not violate the constitution. He should follow the democratic order and constitutional rules of the Czech Republic.”
For now President Klaus has a brief respite. Euro-sceptic senators have challenged the treaty in the Constitutional Court. A ruling is expected on 27 October and will likely give the go-ahead. But whatever the verdict, as long as Klaus is ensconced in Prague Castle there are no guarantees.