Will Václav Klaus unite Europe’s eurosceptics?
Yesterday the Czech media was all aquiver with front page news in the left-wing daily Právo – and its associated news server Novinky.cz – that former Czech president Václav Klaus was ‘seriously considering’ running for the European Parliament. And that he was planning to do for the Civic Democrats (ODS) – the party he founded in 1991 and led for many years before stepping down as leader in 2002 then leaving altogether in 2008 in protest at his successor’s embrace of the Lisbon Treaty.
What’s more, the story runs, as MEP Klaus, given his stature, would more or less automatically lead the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) group which brings together the British Tories, ODS, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) in what is intended to be a mainstream conservative anti-federalist bloc.
The newspaper quotes a ‘credible source’ while Klaus himself has said nothing publicly. But the ex-president is a cautious politician who likes to drop hints, fly kites and generally test the waters. So it’s plausible that someone in his entourage or Klaus himself did indeed tip the wink. Indeed, he has already hinted directly in an interview in December that he was thinking about running for the EP for his old party, when I was sceptical)
Could it happen? And could Klaus become a kind of EU-wide Leader of the Eurosceptic Opposition.
Reception among Civic Democrats of the idea of Klaus returning to lead the party’s Euro-election list in 2014 was mixed, ranging from delighted to downright hostile. Such reaction generally breaks down along predictable lines, although interestingly some erstwhile Klaus supporters like Boris Šťastný were lukewarm.
The European elections in the Czech Republic coincide with parliamentary elections so Klaus’s re-entry into would immediately make him a player in ODS’s internal politics and Czech domestic politics. The effect could be further fragment a divided party already on historically low poll ratings, which seems to fit to come apart at the seams.
Many Civic Democrats may remember that Klaus’s eurosceptic themed 2002 parliamentary election campaign to defend ‘national interests’ led to defeat and fear that – despite the inevitable barnstorming return – the result might not be substantially different this time. This might leave a rump ODS transformed into a Klaus vehicle – a party of Klausovci to match President Zeman’s Zemanovci
It would to impossible to prevent the ex-president rejoining the party and contesting the ‘primaries’ among members to select candidates – as any Czech citizen (with links to the old regime) can. And he would probably win handsomely. The party leadership would need to approve his candidacy, especially if he headed the party. But it would be very hard to say no. In short, if Klaus wants to go the EP he probably can.
(The small matter of Klaus possibly being tried in the Constitutional Court for treason for allegedly overstepping of constitutional powers – including delaying signing the Lisbon Treaty – has no bearing on his eligibility even if it did go ahead (uncertain as he is no longer president) and he was found guilty (which I doubt).
More division than unity?
He would also be the obvious leader of the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) – currently led by the Czech MEP and one time Klaus protégé Jan Zahradil. It would be hard to say no to an ex-president with a eurosceptic Thatcherite pedigree like that of Klaus.
But the arrival of Klaus in the EP might cause more division than unity. The ECR has already been a small and rather troubled grouping, with lots of resentments and rivalries between its three main parties.
British Conservatives may privately be nervous about ceding control of the ECR to such a high profile Central European politician. Klaus would a much more high-profile, controversial and more difficult to deal with figure than Jan Zahradil. His views on climate change (he is a sceptic/denier) or civil partnership and gay marriage (he is vehemently opposed) would also tend to reinforce splits between among British Conservatives. While some Tories would obviously lap them up, others would be appalled or fear that, as when the ECR formed, it would be a stick which domestic critics would undoubtedly ruthlessly use to beat them with.
The ECR has also drawn a clear dividing line between itself and more radical eurosceptics like UKIP and others in the Europe of Freedom and Democracy grouping. But this is in many respects Klaus’s natural constituency. As president he was happy to receive Nigel Farrage at Prague Castle only last year. Anyone who knows Czech politics will know that Klaus’s supporters span a gamut of people ranging from eurosceptic mainstream right through a variety of nationalist and conservative groups (Sovereignty, DOST) to those on the fringes of the far right. Again posing potential difficulties for British Tories.
Fifty shades of euroscepticism
The real question is, however, quite how powerful or united a force right-wing conservative eurosceptics Klaus might lead will be in the EP in 2014. They may not a very large bloc. Voters who are sceptical or hostile to the EU – or aspects of it like the management of the Eurozone – have a diverse range options to vote for across the spectrum including parties on the left (the Czech Communsts, Greece’s Syriza etc), extreme right and anti-establishment protest parties like Five Star. Indeed, in some countries like the UK, all major parties are talking eurosceptic – some in the British Labour party, for example, are happy to contemplate Brexit as the EU fragments in core and periphery.
Even on the conservative eurosceptic right, however, euroscepticism has become too diverse to be led by a single figure like Klaus. In the end, however, the biggest problem for Klaus as a prospective tribune for the forces of conservative euroscepticism is that conservative eurosceptics across Europe probably actually want different things – the British Conservatives and UKIP are now focused only on the British relationship with the EU and are less interested in the overall shape of a Union the UK would not (they hope) be fully participating – or participating in all.
From this point of view, while they might agree with Klaus’s views and cheer him on in the role of provocateur, a Central European politician he is ultimately a bit of an irrelevance to them.