Before I can discredit myself any further, however, the discussion happily turns to Czech culture – not with me obviously, several students from the SSEES Czech Seminar have shown up – so there are some useful recommendation of things to read and listen to, including Czech-Moravian folk updaters Čechomor – as well as the news that the veteran rockers, who inspired Charter 77, Plastic People of the Universe will be visiting SSEES on 15 December. Politically speaking, I also learn that Cameron ally Greg Hands is chair of the parliamentary Czech and Slovak group and can speak both languages. Another interesting element in the unusual mosaic of the European Conservative and Reformists group that colleagues at Sussex University and I are following with some academic interest.
A very relaxed and interesting conversation moves from how you say ‘letters of accredition’ in Czech (pověřovací listiny) and ends up on Russian poetry. The ambassador needs to go. As a Senior Lecturer, I, naturally, get to stack the dishwasher. There’s no one around. The building is almost deserted. Time to go home.
>Inwardly, I never quite thought it would do it, but stony faced and behind closed doors he did. Václav Klaus signed the Lisbon Treaty and so the whole ratification shermoz is over – at least fo rnow and until they realise that the whole hybrid federal-confederal confection that this the EU political system needs some further reform and we do the whole thing again.
A second crumb that may cause the Czech President a wry smile is that his decisions dumps British Tory leader David Cameroon, whose touchy-feeling, bluey-greem modern conservatism he is known to abhore, acute political difficulties as he will be under acute pressure tfrom his party’s eurosceptics o deliver on his ‘cast iron’ guarantee of a British referendum on Lisbon. Cameron’s only personal opt-out clause from keeping his promise – that he wouldn’t do it if the Treaty had already been ratified and was in force when he entered office may cut little ice there.
The report is on an interview with Klaus published in Lidové noviny two days earlier in which VK makes clear he doesn’t want a new Treaty that would have to be re-ratified by all 27 member states; that he ‘cannot and will not wait for the British elections’ even though David Cameron wrote to him in July urging him to do so (or, actually, in Mr Klaus’s careful phrasing the letter’more or less suggests something to this effect (více méně neco v tomto duchu naznačuje) ‘; as you might guess the letter did not say ‘Hang in there, Václav’ or something to that effect). Most importantly, the interview conceeds that the Treaty will come into force because ‘the train has picked up such speed that it cannot now be stopped or turned back…’ but it is not the end of history: ‘the dispute over freedom and democracy in Europe will surely continue. It must continue, otherwise things will turn out very badly for us’. Lutta continua.
But check out carefully what he says, or rather doesn’t say. He doesn’t say he will sign the Treaty or even mention himself signing it. This might, of course, be simple facing saving. The iimage of Europe’s arch eurosceptic and last man standing putting his name to the hated document may simple be too much to put into words, especially for those who make up Klaus’s (now rather limited) domestic political base. It is perfectly conceivable, however, that the President himself is pragmatic and hardheaded enough to do having stood out against it as Last Man Standing and dragged out final ratification for a few more months. Klaus has in the past been prepared to do pragmatic deals with domestic political opponents including the Czech Republic’s reviled Communist Party, so why not with the rest of Europe? In the interview, he certainly realistically – and for the first time – accepts that Treaty is likely to come into force. Perhaps he has made an assessment that the countries main parties will get their act together and sink their differences sufficiently to constitutionally strip him of some powers, if he holds out too long. His departure as leader of ODS in 2002 showed a similar sudden pragmatism when he realised the odds had clearly shifted against him.
The five question interview i(no probing interrogation, this; more of a brief audience) however, a classic piece of Klaus position shifting (he accepts the Treaty will probably come into force) combined with well crafted ambiguities that seem to say one thing, but – on closer reading – don’t actually. Domestically, will he actually sign the Treaty or perhaps negotiate for some form of ratification without his signature? There is, as mentioned, a view (and a fewlegal precedents) for legislation and international agreements coming into force without a presidential signature? He is and will not be waiting for the British elections (consciously or a tactic) but what if things happen to end up dragging out that long anyway despite VK’s newly reasonable and realistic views as confided to Lidové noviny ? The Czech Constitutional Court needs to rule (decision slated for 27 October and it can (although probably won’t) surprise, the EU’s politicians still have to negotiate a quick fix to Klaus’s objections at their summit. Will they be quick enough? Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico has already suggested that it the Czechs get a Beneš Decrees opt-out, well, darn it, the Slovaks want one too. Cue Slovak-Hungarian difficulties.
Perhaps Klaus will end up with his opt-opt signed, sealed and quickly delivered on on a plate, but ‘end up’ is really the key word here: Klaus is taking things move-by-move playing his way through an end game in a match that he knows he will probably lose, waiting for a sudden slip-up by tied opponents or a sudden turn of events which will generate a position that no one anticipatied
The interview – and,what it seems to say – is also a brilliant tactical move in deflating the mounting Europe-wide and domestic pressure, winning a brathing space and putting opponents off guard.
Checkmate in how many moves?
>As in all the best action thrillers, it comes down to this: one man holds the fate of Europe in his hands. Unfortunately – or for those of a certain ideological disposition, fortunately – that man is not Arnie Schwarzenegger or Claude van Damme, but Václav Klaus.
But still, the Czech President’s willingness (or unwillingness) to pick up a pen is (or soon will be) all that stands between final EU-wide ratification of the LisbonTreaty. Of course, as a dyed-in-the-wool opponent of Lisbon and the ill-fated Constitutional Treaty, Mr Klaus understandably does not want to pick up his.
But surely, sooner or later he has to? The Treaty was, after all, duly ratified in both houses of the Czech parliament several months ago, after all, and Klaus is merely an indirectly elected head of state of a small country with pretty every EU government (including his own) against him.
Constitutionally and politically, Mr Klaus – whose favourite metaphor for politics was for a long time that of an unfolding game of chess – still has a strong defensive position and few good moves left to make
On ordinary domestic legislation, the Czech president does not have strong powers. He has a weak veto on parliamentary legislation, which can be overturned by a simple majority vote of the lower house. His executive powers are also limited. Appointing judges and central bankers and choosing a Prime Minister designate to form a government after election is about the size of it.
However, when we come to international treaties things are bit different. Article 631b of the Czech Constitution states that the President “negotiates and ratifies international treaties”. But no one is quite sure if this means the President must sign treaties approved by parliament (directly or as with EU accession by delegating it powers to a referendum) or that he must to do for treaties to be ratified but may not if he chooses. Indeed, a lively debate on the subject has ensued in Czech legal blogs (see here, for example). Some have suggested that were the first interpretation to be followed, a refusal to sign would result in the Treaty passing into law anyway, but that would have to be tested out in the Constitutional Court with the certainty only of a long, complex and controversial case.
Point blank refusal is, however, neither legally nor politically necessary for Klaus to hold up the Treaty There seem, however, to be a consensus that the President can (and indeed should delay) signing a treaty if he thinks it needs further examination or it constitutionality needs testing out. How long can he reasonably do so? How long is piece of string?
Statesmanlike as every Mr Klaus has gone straight for this strategy of seeking minor (but, of course politically unfeasible) amendments to the Treaty in the fundamental interests of the Czech state: specifically he is concern that the Charter of Fundamenal Rights might allow could enable the European Court of Justice to revise the 1945 Beneš Decrees under which the post-war Czechoslovak government stripped its ethnic German citizens of property and citizenship. This demand is a clever move combining the President’s widely recognised but informal constitutional role of guardianship of the state role with a totemic and sensivity issue connected with national identity and demand which, viewed superficially, asks for no more than the kind of opt-out that old member states like the UK feel amply entitled to as a matter of course.
The country’s politicians and major parties could, in theory, cut through the Gordian Knot by curtailing the President’s powers, or indeed remove Klaus directly through some special constitional law or more indirectly by re-making the nature of the Czech presidency altogether through a constitutional amendment (as the Greens seem to suggest). However, given the present non-partisian caretaker government, which rests on a not altogether solid political agreement between the two major Czech parties, divisions in ODS and the unpredictable but Lisbon-unfriendly position of the Communists this seems unlikely. It might also be problematic constitutionally given that the Constitutional Court has akready rapped politicians’ knuckles for attempting similar jiggery-pokery with the Constitution to allow early elections. Article 65(2) of the Constitution also allows the indictment (and possible removal) of the President for high treason in the Constitutional Court following a Senate vote but, I suspect, even the most ardent europhile might balk at equating Klaus’s opposition to the Lisbon Treaty with this.
But is there any kind of end game available to Klaus? Even if he could, if he wished, lay into the current caretaker government’s lack of legitimacy (Who voted for Fischer or Fule?), even in the Czech context the indirectly elected Klaus lacks either the public backing or the political legitimacy to block the will of an elected parliament for ever and a day.
Help, however, is happily at hand in the form of the those old ideological confreres the British Tories, even if Klaus has been fairly contemptuous in the past of the touchy-feely, bluey-green conservatism of Dave Cameron and co. Trying to fudge the issue of Lisbon without facing down his party’s eurosceptics or re-open a very internally divisive issue, Cameron promised a British referendum on Lisbon (which would almost certainly reject it) – as a extra to the Treaty’s existing ratification by the British Parliament – if and only if the Treaty was still unratified elsewhere and so not in force.
So, all Mr Klaus has to do is string out his questioning of the Treaty another six months and fend off a disunited Czech political class and a government of technocrats until (as seems likely) the British Conservatives win a May 2010 election, hold the promised referendum and let the people speak. The will Brits democratically derail the Treaty, while Mr Klaus say innocently, but with some satisfaction as he did after the Dutch and French referendums rejecting the original Constitutional Treaty, that he knew it would all end in tears when the voters got in on the act, but all he was doing was acting presidential and thoughtfully examining the Treaty and watching out for Czech national interests like a responsible head of state
Dave must be delighted at the prospect.
Getting ready for your summer holidays in the Czech Republic? Perhaps wondering what to take? Sun hat? Sandals? A book? Some hay fever tablets? Good idea. Oh yes and could you perhaps also bring a ‘summer government’ of non-political experts to run the country for next few months. Just while the local politicos pass a quick constitutional law or two and fight it out in early parliamentary elections in October, you understand.
Yes, the main Czech parties have solved the political crisis that followed the collapse of the shaky centre-right minority government by drafting in a team of non-party technocrats to run things from next month until early parliamentary elections in October. Opportunity knocks. You too can be Prime Minister. At least if you are a previously obscure technocrat of a certain age and you haven’t blotted your copybook with any partisan commitments since 1989 (Communist Party membership in 1980s is OK, however: indeed it would tend to emphasize your excellent apolitical technocratic credentials). The interim summertime Prime Minister will therefore be…. Jan Fischer the head of the Czech Statistical Office. Come on down.
Fischer is such a grey but respected technocrat, whose high level political experience seems to be confined to sitting on various government advisory boards and fending off efforts to spin embarrassing figures (Communists I have met are invariably convinced that CSO fiddles the figures for political reasons – I suppose they should know). All other ministers in the new government will be high ranking officials or diplomats. It will take a month for this dream team to assemble, however, so the outgoing Topolánek administration gets a final month for its sadly pathetic swansong., so technically speaking following the formal appointment of Fischer as PM last Thursday the CR has two premiers.
The problem is you see under the Czech constitution dissolving parliament to hold early election is not the straightforward business it should be in a country usually incapable of generating stable majority government. Instead of a quick parliamentary vote or stroke of the presidential pen, officially Czech legislators are supposed to try to form a government three times and have three unsuccessful parliamentary votes and then and only then can the Chamber of Deputies be dissolved. Not surprisingly, as in 1998 the main parties decided to bypass all this and pass a one-off constitutional law bringing elections (scheduled for June 2010) forward to October.
The agreement of a stopgap non-partisan caretaker government was unexpected but is not exactly unfamiliar territory in the CR. Such a “government of officials” (uřednická vláda) is a familiar holding device in Czech politics which date back to 1920s, reflecting a Czech veneration for The Expert (bring in odborník and all discussion ends) A similar caretaker administration under central bank governor Josef Tošovský was formed in 1997 in the wake of the ignominious collapse of an earlier minority right-wing government. Jan Fischer et al get a chance for 15 minutes fame largely the result of a deal between Topolánek and Social Democrat leader Jiri Paroubek, who, while they may be at each other’s throats politically, still know how to do a deal when they need to.
And why did they need to? Well, for the Social Democrats it’s about showing who’s boss and giving the right a good kicking when they’re down. And for Topolánek it’s about showing who isn’t boss by stitching up a deal: President Klaus. He’s got a deal for stable majority-back government signed and sealed before VK can start playing a more active role and floating prime ministerial nominees and projects of his own.
They say the new government will be non-political and non-partisan, but parties are nominating ministers for specific ministries and there’s a certain whiff of a Grand Coalition in the deal that hasn’t pleased everyone. Having initially signed up for it, the two junior partners in the outgoing coalition, the Greens and Christian Democrats have quickly gone off it. Both parties’ executives quickly threw it out demanding – as had been explicitly not agreed – that the Topolánek government continue until the end of the Czech EU Presidency on 30 June.
Very stateperson-like? After all, this latest domestic denouement does put the kibosh on the Czech Republic’s tottering Presidency of the EU, which still has two months to run. There won’t be any immediate disruption. The Topolánek government continues in a caretaker capacity for another month but is the lamest of lame ducks. And the inexperience and limited shelf life of the caretaker government will finally choke whatever limited capacity the CR once to play a political co-coordinating role at the head of the EU.
Well, no not really, ODS-CSSD collaboration immediately deprives the small parties of power and leverage and given the combined parliamentary and political weight of ODS and CSSD, minor party objections ultimately count for little so lofty concern about the direction of Europe also coincides with self-interest. Christian Democrat deputies are split over whether to back the caretaker government – a ‘blue’ wing of more pragmatic and economically liberal KDU leaders led by outgoing Finance Minister Kalousek are backing it, although these people seem destined one way or another to join ODS. Green leader Martin Bursík, another loyal ally of ODS, also seems to be actively supporting the project, mainly in order Klaus-proof the caretaker government as much as possible the choice ministers.
For, it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. As last man standing, Klaus will play a more prominent role in foreign policy. As well as chairing the forthcoming EU-Russia summit (as agreed earlier – VK is something of Putin fan so no feathers likely to be ruffled there), Klaus may chair the upcoming EU-China summit and the June EU summit, unless Jan Fischer has unexpected chutzpah and cojones The June summit will discuss Ireland’s ratifying the Lisbon Treaty and the EU position for December’s Copenhagen climate conference. As a rampant climate change sceptic/denier and fierce opponent of Lisbon, Klaus will no doubt have some views about how to handle both agendas.
The Czech Senate is, however, likely to vote on the Lisbon Treaty in early May and the Treaty is likely to be narrowly ratified: they need a mere seven (of 36) ODS Senators to join the other pro-Lisbon parties (everyone apart from the Communists) and it will finally be ratified. We know that 4-5 Civic Democrat Senators will definitely vote for the Treaty, so that means that only another 2-3 need to back it (or indeed merely not turn up, lowering the vote for the required majority) and it will go through. Indeed, who know, perhaps some juicy side offer to the Communists from the Social Democrats – who are very keen to show that business in Prague is continuing as usual – may induce a couple of them to leave the building for a while.
The new government won’t have a lot to do. Just (just?) to prepare a budget for next year, revise the existing one in the light of the downturn and implement some anti-crisis measures to keep the Czech economy afloat. Here, interestingly, the caretaker government may provide useful political cover for compromise by the big parties on anti-crisis measures to fight the economic crisis. The National Economic Council set up in January was supposed to play such a consensus building role, but the Social Democrats cold shouldered it, given a distinctly right-wing complexion. After the fall of Topolánek, however, some piecemeal economic measure were surprisingly quickly agreed by ODS and CSSD legislators. Still, their current fall out about the implementation of the previously agreed car scrappage scheme suggests that such compromise may not be that easy to reach, given their ideological differences.
It’s tough being an entrepreneur in the EU with a new franchise to launch, especially when you’re a political entrepreneur like Declan Ganley whose eurosceptic Libertas.eu movement plans to take to the political field across the Union in the June Euro-elections. The Czech Republic, awash with right-wing euroscepticism since the early 1990s (well, if you read the papers) seemed like a great place for a national franchise: the Ganley-Klaus relationship
However, now ex-TV station owner, Euro MP and founder of the eurosceptic populist Independent Democrats grouping – who flopped in the 2006 parliamentary election, despite a surprise success in the lower-than-lower-turnout 2004 Euroelections – Vladimír Železný, who is a sort of Czech Berlusconi manqué, has stepped into the fray. Mr Železný has gone and nicked Mr Ganley‘s brand, but registering a party called Libertas.cz without Mr Ganley’s approval or knowledge. So far, an Libertas.eu seems to have got no further along the road to creating an official Libertas.cz (given the Irish connection, perhaps we should talk about a ‘official’ and a ‘provisional’ wings of the movement) than translated the appeal on its website for supporters in the CR into Czech (Good start). Ganley, Železný has told the Czech press that could be a ‘Pan-European Obama, if he wasn’t so naïve’, but has proved too a talker, not a do-er and besides Czechs have their own Eurosceptic tribune in Václav Klaus, who hasn’t commented so far, it seems. On the other hand, Železný’s version of Libertas doesn’t so much as have a web page and there’s no a word on the subject on his otherwise up-to-date website about his activities as an MEP.
As, although one poll suggested that 22% might vote for the provisional Železný-led Libertas.cz, commentators suggest that this reflects the Czech electorate’s usual short-lived enthusiasm for novelty parties and is unlikely to last or to be translated into at the ballot boxes. The entry of colourful old stager like Mr Železný, they think, will probably put the kiss of death on Libertas.cz as a serious force.
In the meantime, Czech eurosceptic right-wing voters (actually, rather few in number) can always turn to the newly founded Party of Free Citizens (SSO) founded by Klaus thinktank protege Petr Mach. The SOS whose committee include the philospher Miroslav Bednář and former member of parliament Jiří Payne – both (ex-?)ODS members – as well as more marginal figures like anti-EU gadflies, writer Benjamin Kuras and political activist David Hanák, both of whom were active in the fragmentary campaign No vote in the EU accession referedum in 2003. So, not exactly a star-studded line-up. Hanák’s views, in particular, are part of a would-be conservative-nationalist revival just adjacent to the far-right, which no self-respecting (neo-)liberal like Mach should probably want to go near.
We also get the big political and personal moments in Havel’s life: his election and re-election as President in 1993 and 1998; the death of his first wife Olga; his own cancer; re-marriage to Dagmar Veskrnková; the Rudolfinum speech laying into the record of the Klaus government; the electoral victory of the Social Democrats.
As a personal portrait of Havel (no mere citizen, of course) it’s ultimately rather unrevealing: Havel didn”t like formality, but manged the role of Head of State role; liked a drink and a cigarette; had passable, basic English; was indeed too much of a intellectual, given to viewing politics in philosophizing and moralizing vein; was politically hostile to Václav Klaus; got a bit distracted by symbolic issues like the re-opening of the Slavia cafe ; had limited political power; was a basically decent and popular President.
I look forward to watching Citizen Klaus in 2013 or so…
Politically, there is the also the question whether a Europe-wide platform is really quite the way to go for forces which say that they value diversity and national sovereignty. On a pressure group level there are plenty of precedents of national groups forming EU-wide platforms, but whether political euroscepticism can reduce itself to narrow set of lobby demands is rather dubious. Put bluntly, who needs a European level eurosceptic platform – beyond Mr Ganley that is?