Czech Republic

There are all sorts of threats to the European Union’s unity, but something tells me that the biggest threat isn’t the Visegrad group.  This appears to be a view not shared by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

Speaking after the October 29-30 EU summit in Brussels, Sarkozy criticised the fact that the leaders of the four Visegrad countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – had held a pre-summit meeting to co-ordinate their positions.  “If they were to meet regularly before each Council, that would raise some questions,” Sarkozy said. Read more

The distance separating Britain’s perceptions of the European Union from those of its Continental partners is so vast that the English Channel might as well be the Pacific Ocean.  This was my first thought when I read not just David Cameron’s speech on what steps a future Conservative government would take to limit EU involvement in British affairs, but also the way the speech was reported and the reactions on each side of the Channel.

The Financial Times story, for instance, said Cameron’s speech set out “a very limited programme for European reform” – an interpretation which would raise howls of laughter across much of Europe, where the Conservative leader’s proposals are not viewed as “very limited” and are most definitely not seen as an effort at “reform”. Read more

It’s striking that the Czech constitutional court announced its approval of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty on Tuesday morning just as the prospect of another Russian gas import crisis began to loom on the EU’s horizon.  For even though the news from Prague is welcome, a moment’s reflection is all you need to remind yourself that the Lisbon treaty will, in and of itself, do very little to help the EU address its most serious foreign and economic policy problems.

The sheer sense of relief at adopting a new EU treaty – it’s taken eight years, required two different texts, gone through three failed referendums and caused endless trouble in countries such as the Czech Republic, Ireland and the UK – risks fostering the delusion that everything will be better once Lisbon is in force.  But this is to fall into the trap of assuming that process can substitute for substance (see Monday’s blog on how the same fallacy affects the EU’s approach to relations with other big powers). Read more

As the fuss continues about whether or not Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president, will sign the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to a detail that appears to have been generally overlooked.  It concerns Klaus’s demand for a special protocol or legally binding exemption from the treaty’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which, he says, is necessary to prevent a flood of claims on Czech property from the descendants of the roughly 3m Sudeten Germans expelled from the former Czechoslovakia after the second world war.

Leaving aside Klaus’s dubious assertion that the Charter could be exploited as the basis for such claims, the fact is that the Lisbon treaty already contains a special declaration by the Czech Republic on the Charter.  It is buried near the end of the treaty’s official text in a part called Final Act of the Intergovernmental Conference, Section C: Declarations by Member-States.  The Czech declaration, which is labelled No. 53, sets out the Czech position that “the Charter does not extend the field of application of [European] Union law] and does not establish any new power for the Union”. Read more

It was inevitable, I think, that Czech President Vaclav Klaus would take his last stand against the European Union’s Lisbon treaty on the Sudeten German issue.  This has been one of the most highly charged themes of Czech politics since the former Czechoslovakia threw off communism in 1989.  By raising it, Klaus aims to break out of the extreme political isolation into which his hostility to Lisbon has pushed him on both the Czech and the wider European stage.  But it is a step that smacks of desperation as much as of calculation.

The Sudeten German question touches a genuinely raw nerve among some Czechs.  It relates to the several million ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of the second world war at the behest of the Prague authorities, who were convinced – with good reason - that large numbers of the German minority had served as a Nazi fifth column.  Some Czech politicians have proved willing to play on the fears of ordinary Czechs that descendants of the Sudeten Germans may one day succeed, through legal action, in reclaiming the property of which their forebears were stripped. Read more

With Czech President Vaclav Klaus the chief remaining obstacle to final ratification of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, there has been a fair amount of loose talk about how the Czech Republic could – or should – be punished if Klaus refuses to sign it.  On the one hand, supporters of the treaty say it is intolerable that the EU’s eight-year effort at redesigning its institutions should be sabotaged at the finishing post.  If Klaus carries on his delaying tactics much longer, they warn, the Czechs should be denied a seat in the next European Commission.

On the other hand, opponents of the Lisbon treaty are painting the same scenario for quite different reasons.  Just you watch, they say.  The EU will reveal itself as an intolerant, anti-democratic machine, whipping the Czechs merely because they have the temerity to resist the imposition of a treaty they fear undermines their sovereignty. Read more

The early results look pretty conclusive: Irish voters have approved the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, possibly by a very large margin.  A poll by the opposition Fine Gael party suggests the pro-Lisbon forces may have taken between 60 and 65 per cent of the vote.

That would be a comprehensive turnaround from the 53.4 to 46.6 per cent victory for the No camp in the June 2008 referendum in Ireland.  Voters in Dublin seem to have given overwhelming backing to the treaty, according to RTE, the Irish state broadcaster. Read more

Now that José Manuel Barroso is safely re-installed as European Commission president for the next five years, it would be tempting to think that – from an institutional point of view, at least – all is well in Brussels.  Tempting, but wrong.

Once again, it is our old friend the Lisbon treaty that is the problem.  On October 2 Irish voters, who rejected the treaty in a referendum in June 2008, will have the chance to reverse their verdict.  Opinion polls indicate that the Yes camp will win this time.  But there is an unmistakeable air of nervousness at the European Union’s headquarters that the polls may not be a reliable guide to the eventual outcome. Read more

Say what you like about Nicolas Sarkozy, he certainly knows how to capture your attention.  At a meeting in the Elysée Palace last week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it appears that the French president recommended in no uncertain terms that Avigdor Lieberman, the hardline foreign minister, should be dropped from the Israeli cabinet and replaced with Tzipi Livni, the less abrasive opposition leader.

“Grave and unacceptable!” fumed Lieberman’s spokesman – how dare the leader of one democracy interfere in the internal affairs of another? Read more

Hello, hello, hello, what’s this, then?  Another attempt by Czech President Vaclav Klaus to derail the European Union’s Lisbon treaty?  Surely not!  Let’s take a closer look.  Oh, my God, yes, it’s true.  And how could we ever have doubted it?  Because the thing about Klaus is that if it looks like pork and dumplings, and it smells like pork and dumplings, and it tastes like pork and dumplings, then you can bet your life that it definitely is pork and dumplings.

The Czech Republic’s six-month EU presidency comes to an end on June 30.  This date once looked likely to mark Klaus’s departure from the EU stage.  Instead, it now appears certain that Klaus – who delights in being one of the least liked EU leaders of all time - will press on with his campaign to sabotage the Lisbon treatyRead more

Jan Fischer, the unassuming non-party technocrat who is holding the fort as Czech prime minister for the next few months, is getting his 15 minutes of fame on the world stage – but it’s certainly not going to his head.  He was sitting in his Prague office today telling me about his preparations for next week’s European Union summit in Brussels – an event he will chair – and somehow his background as a humble statistician kept colouring the conversation.

For example, when I asked him whether most EU heads of government supported a legally binding decision to nominate José Manuel Barroso at the summit for a second term as European Commission president, he replied that it was “50-50 … as regards the sample of people I’ve had a chance to speak to”. Read more

The closer the European Parliament elections, the sneakier the stratagems of British centre-right politicians and activists in Brussels.

As David Cameron made clear on May 18 when he launched the election campaign of his opposition Conservative party, the Tories are poised to leave the mainstream European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) group soon after the vote.  They plan to set up a new centre-right group in the EU legislature that would be strongly opposed to more EU political and economic integration. Read more

There is a wonderful scene in “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”, the 1979 movie that satirizes religion, in which two bungling terrorist groups, the People’s Front of Judea and the Campaign for Free Galilee, conduct simultaneous raids on Pontius Pilate’s palace and end up fighting each other rather than the Romans, their common enemy. This is the scene that comes to mind when one looks at the European Union’s recent diplomatic interventions in the Middle East.

The trouble started in January with the embarrassing spectacle of two separate European missions - one led by the Czech Republic in its capacity as holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, and the other led by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France – touring the region in an attempt to calm down the Gaza conflict. One or two countries, notably the Czechs, appeared distinctly more sympathetic to the Israeli notion of justified self-defence against Hamas than did the majority of EU member-states. Read more

The Czech hosts of Thursday’s European Union summit with six ex-Soviet states are not happy bunnies. The list of the EU leaders who couldn’t be bothered to show up for the Eastern Partnership event in Prague, a highlight of the Czechs’ six-month EU presidency, was embarrassingly long.

Let’s take them one by one. Read more

Just two hours after the Czech upper house of parliament passed the European Union’s Lisbon treaty on Wednesday by a comfortable margin, I found myself in the Prague offices of Mirek Topolanek, the outgoing Czech prime minister. Tired but in good humour, he clearly wanted to hammer home the message that his turbulent four months running the Czech Republic’s EU presidency had been more successful than his critics allowed.

Like his country, which is a medium-sized EU member-state, Topolanek is a figure of medium-sized Shakespearean dimensions – a Coriolanus, not a Hamlet. He has done the noble thing by helping to get Lisbon passed. But he will be out of power on Friday, and he doesn’t want or expect praise from the plebeians elsewhere in the EU. Read more

Here I am in Prague – a disappointingly wet Prague, for early May – as tensions mount ahead of a vote in the Czech Senate on the European Union’s Lisbon treaty. Officials in the government of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, which collapsed in March but will not finally leave office until Friday, appear confident that the Senate, parliament’s upper house, will approve the treaty – probably by late afternoon today (Wednesday).

But if that’s what happens, it won’t be thanks to any stirring oratory from Topolanek. Speaking to the senators just now, he’s said that he isn’t a passionate enthusiast for the Lisbon treaty, but ”it’s the price for membership of the club”. Read more