Archive | October, 2009

>Sweet ‘n’ sour legacy of the Czech EU Presidency


A sad little footnote to the Czech Presidency of the EU. Právo reports that three tonnes of sugar lumps complete with individual wrappings with Czech Presidency logo and slogan – We’ll Sweeten Europe (if only, but a Czech did invent the sugar lump in 1843), y’know – are now left over at government ministries in Prague. Czech civil servants may have to put up with all manner of cutbacks, but at least they can rot their teeth having their coffee and tea as sickly sweet as they like…

>BNP on Question Time: Kilroy wasn’t here


I sat in the front of the TV with one eye on a sheaf of article from the Czech press and one eye on BBC TV’s widely billed, controversial edition of Question Time, it flagship panel discussion programme featuring British National Party leader Nick Griffin: the first time the far-right has been accorded the accolade of such recognition, although the BNP has had relatively easy access to the airwaves with its representatives regularly being interviewed on the radio. And, of course, British far-right parties have regularly been exposed and infiltrated by TV documentary makers since 1970s.

To make up for the howls of protest, the programme makers decided to make Nick Griffin’s appearence on their programme the central issue, so the format largely shifted from multiple current affairs questions and familiar party ding-dong to a series of critical uestions about the BNP and its leader: specifically were its views whacky, extreme and racist and its leader someone who cannot explain away his earlier public record as neo-fascist and Holocaust denier.

The answer, of course, is that they were and he couldn’t. All in all, it was reassuringly unimpressive performance by the BNP leaders, lacking not only any credible answers but also professionalism, poise or personal charm. I remember once watching Jean Marie Le Pen comprehensively outmanoeuvre a left-wing opponent on TV discussion with a mixture of sure footing cunning and avuncular bluster on French TV in the 1980s. Happily, the BNP leader clearly wasn’t in this league.

I was just about to turn back to Prague municipal politics, however, when suddenly I caught flash of the kind of leader the British radical populist far-right probably does need and the kind of politician we probably should fear: it was Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson for home affairs – up to that point a grey and totally forgettable presence on the panel, – launching into an eloquent tirade about how Britain should have closed its borders to citizens of new (that is predominantly, East European) EU member states for as long as possible and wasn’t it awful that the government that the government didn’t do this and lots of them came over here… Open borders in an opern liberal Europe. What a disaster.

For a fleeting moment, I though Mr Huhne, an unsuccessful contender for his party’s leadership in 2007, was making a pitch for the BNP leadership, which to judge from his poor performance Nick Griffin might soon be vacating. Then I realised, of course, that, having slipped out of anti-fascist mode, he was simply illustrating the well established truth that immigrant-bashing and playing up to the public xenophobia is OK provided you are a respectable person from a resepctable mainstream party. And, Mr Huhne, – public school, Oxford, the City, economist and financial journalist, long-serving MEP, policy expert – is certainly that.

And then it struck me that, here – not necessarily in the person of Mr Huhne – but some of some ambitious, well educated, well spoken, reasonably well known figure public figure gone maverick that the real threat of more articulate, credible and dangerous far-right lies. No of burden of neo-fascist pedigree or a penchant for anti-semitism tor seeing the positive side of Hitler that, fortunately for us, encumbers Nick Griffin (and later held back Le Pen and Joerg Haider). Political or media skills already honed. Stock of political respectability already laid in.

Such figures seem to be media personalities with a certain political-cum-academic commentators (Pym Fortyn, Robert Kilroy-Silk) or frustrated members of existing parties, who turn maverick or decide to air views on race, minorities or immigration they have previously kept to themselves. Interestingly, Liberal parties, typically often under electtoral pressure from bigger competitors of left and right, whose identity is often a rather unstable mix of anti-establishment, pro-market, pro-market and pro-little person/geographical periphery appeals, seem especially vulnerable to such occasionally odd mutations: Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party was originally a liberal grouping, controversial anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders was once an MP for Holland’s Liberals the VVD; Germany’s FDP was hit by accusations of anti-semitism in 2002-3 because of statements of one its then rising stars, the late Jurgen Molleman; in the mid-1990s factions in the FDP associated with the nationalist Neue Rechte intellectual (unsuccessfully) sought a Haider-style transformation of the party.

I don’t, of course, expect to see Mr Huhne leading the BNP or indeed some populist confection (although I’m sure he’d do an excellent job if he did), but as the comedian Alan Davies pointedly pnoted on the This Week programme that followed Question Time‘s BNP-fest, Griffin’s party are not a hugely successful or professional outfit and don’t deserve high profile controverst treatment and still less the back-handed compliment of being banned from Question Time.

The real threats lie elsewhere. We clearly had a lucky escape when ex-Labour MP and chat show host Robert Kilroy-Silk proved too maladroit and egomaniacal to take over the UK Independence Party in 2004. Celebrity populists and mavericks peeling away from already opportunistic mainstream seem a potentially far more potent force than the wafer thin veneer of respectability and normality of a welfare chauvinist niche party that can’t escape its neo-fascist roots like the BNP.

>Klaus relents on Lisbon – but how far?


Today’s Times reports that Václav Klaus has relented – or is about to relent – and will sign the Lisbon Treaty in the coming weeks if some Irish-style deal to assuage his concerns about possible legal challenges to the 1945-6 Beneš Decrees expelling and expropriating Czechoslovakia’s three million strong ethnic German minority under the Charter of Fundamental Rights which forms part of the Treaty are specifically ruled out.

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?

>Czech Republic and Lisbon: The wisdom of crowds?


Anyone in any doubt about the mobilising power of the Lisbon Treaty as an issue in the Czech Republic should check out the size of the crowds in the recent demonstrations (for and against President Klaus) outside Prague Castle.

>Universities: A Wordle in your ear…


I read an article in the new giveaway Evening Standard on the train yesterday. It was by Steve Smith, Chair of Universities UK, writing about the future of higher education. At first just it seemed a meaningless jumble of jargon and buzzwords. Now, however but having fed it into, I find I understand it perfectly.

>British voters: Václav Klaus needs you!

>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.

Actually, it’s only the fate of the Lisbon Treaty that Mr Klaus may hold in his hands, but as the Czech President has increasingly struck a Masarykian pose over the past few years coming up grandiose personal visions of a Europe re-made (or rather unmade) as a loose alliance of nation statse states bound by common values and free markets, he might prefer the former billing.

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.

Despite the optimism of the Czech Republic’s caretaker technocrat Prime Minister Jan Fischer and his Foreign Secretary, Stefan Fule, that the Czech ratification of the Treaty would come by the end of the year (and what else, could they say?), this is, however, far from clear.

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.