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>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…

>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.

>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.

>Famous for E15 seconds…

> My views on the much maligned Czech presidency of the EU are quoted by the Czech online journal and then even get cited in the political commentary on Czech radio.
Fame at last

I am also available for weddings and barmitzvahs…

>SEI on EU


Sussex European Institute’s roundtable on the euro-elections tries to inject some early academic analysis into interpretation of last week’s election. The debate offers more than the sum of its parts. The underlying issue is not who’s up and who’s down, but how and why we should study the elections (the ‘so what’ qiestion): as a failing institutional device for addressing the democratic deficit in a multi-level EU political system?; as a set of case studies about ‘Europe’ in domestic politics; or 27 parallel ‘second order’ national electoral contests in which disenchanted voters give a pointer to the way that party systems are really going at an underlying level (the UK has is an 8 eight party system struggling to break out of a two-and-half party system.
There’s discussion of various factors influencing the results: the impact of economic crisis; national electoral cycles; the willingness of social democratic voters to vote for the radical left; the format of national party systems and so on… I wonder if it might be possible to cluster the 27 cases inro 4-5 configurations rather than picking out patchy trends or making qualified generalisations, or falling back on series of national stories.
Afterwards I duck into theUniversity of Sussex library. A library assistant in an anarcho-syndicalist T-shirt efficiently helps me find the book I’m after.

>CEE and the Euro-elections: Left behind?

>So the results of the Euro-elections are in.

Having missed out the chance of TV stardom on the BBC Euro-election results programme – half of SSEES seem to have been rung up by various BBC researchers looking for a pundit on Eastern Europe (in the end they did without one) – I can’t resist a brief bit of instant(ish) analysis.

The story as generally reported from a West European perspective is that centre-right incumbents have heldon; the centre-left – opposition or incumbent – has not made expected gains against the background of global recession and social insecurity; Greens, the far right and the anti-market left made modest gains, scooping what there was in the way of Europe-wide radical protest electorate.

A quick glance suggests that CEE suggests that region looses mirrors this trend: only Robert Fico’s Smer in Slovakia (as ever) has really bucked trend of social democratic under performance. Most surprisingly for me -was the performance of the Czech Civic Democrats who managed to avoid the predicted photo finish with the Social Democrats and win the Czech euro-election comfortably with 32% of the vote. The Czech Social Democrats (ODS), however, recovered from the electoral meltdown of 2004 and pulled in a more than respectable 24%, which should enable them to walk a bit taller in the depleted Socialist Group in Brussles. (They will, I suspect, be rather harder to beat in the October parliamentary elections, but, hey, this is the Czech Republic we’re talking about, so the smart money should perhaps be on political deadlock).
However, closer examinations suggests something of parallel narrative in CEE. Indeed, the much discussed erosion of Social Democracy in Western Europe does not seem (as yet) to playing out in the region. Although the Hungarian Socialists were predictably whacked (losing 4 MEPS) and the Estonian social democorats too seem to have lost a seat, other social democratic parties in the region seem to have more or less held their own: as noted, the Czech Social Democrats won’t be crying into their beer too much and leaders Slovakia’s Smer could reasonably crack open the champagne. The Bulgarian Socialists held their own as did the Romanian and Slovenian social democrats. Even the marginalised post-communist left in Poland has undergone a minor revival.

This may perhaps be because there are few if any centre-left parties in the region can really claim to authentically social democratic. But to my mind the regional disparity seems more to interpretable in terms of CEE’s less post-industrial, fragmented and multi-cultural societies posing less acute strategic dilemma.

The grand narrative of social democratic decline/crisis has been academically well set out in Herbert Kitschelt’s 1994 classic The Transformation of European Social Democracy and put across in more digestable form by academic commentators such as Simon Hix in commentaries on the Euro elections. The basic story is this: social change, globalization and economic restructuring are generating competition pressures in the political arena as the big centre left parties struggle to cope with the break up of helectoral coalitions that underpinned them: Greens eating into their support among left-liberal public sector professionals, the populist far-right (and in some places workerist radical left) making inroads among working class voters in deindustrialized, credit crunched former heartlands.

Central and Eastern Europe’s Greens – never a very strong electoral force – seem again to have bombed entirely. This was in part – but only in part – due to the smaller populations and hence smaller numbers of of MEPs elected in CEE states which raised the effective threshold of votes. But even in a largeish state like the Czech Republic where a mere 5% would have done the trick the Green Party (SZ) failed. The SZ gained miserable 2%, as internicine factional infighting seemed at last to have taken an electoral toll – although cynics will note that the political support of Václav Havel, which always turns out to the kiss of political death for any new party.

To get back to centre-left, CEE social democrats have it a little easier. They face little competition from eco-liberal parties – whose support is small and would probably not have gone to them in the first place – leaving economic populists and anti-establishment novelty parties as the main challenge. There is also perhaps a larger constituency demanding social protection making brusingly pro-welfare positions a safer political bet (at least when campaigning in elections). There is, I suppose, less of ‘core vote’ to fall back – the Czech Social Democrats’ vote, for example, has rollercoasted wildly over the past decades despite the engrained social market preferences of a huge chunk of the Czech population – but in sense the lack of one is perhaps almost an advantage. After all, what you don’t have can’t be eroded.

I am fed up being rung up by journalists and asked about the far-right in CEE, so I’m not going so say much about this particular dog that doesn’t bark (much) Given the very healthy vote for the Front National, Danish People’s Party, Austrian Freedom Party, Dutch Freedom Party and, of course, and our own BNP, I am eagerly awaiting Polish and Hungarian journalists getting onto the phone up to ask wave of right-wing extremism of sweeping Western Europe threatens democracy in the region.

>I can’t believe I just did that…


I can’t believe I just did that…

Secluded in the polling booth, pencil poised over ballot papers for local and European elections, on impulse I voted for a despised minor party. I mean I should have known better. All that ‘British Jobs For British Workers’ stuff was obviously rubbish and, yes, the party’s leadership is a bit thuggish. But, you know how it is , mainstream media vilification does push some poeple into protest voting for fringe parties – and I was truly fed up with both the big parties locally.

For the first time in 21 years, I voted Labour.

>Ill again… with Euro election fever


It’s a sure sign of middle age, but I’ll admit it. I am interested in the upcoming elections, to the European Parliament. And not just in the UK or the Czech Republic, but pretty much everywhere. I guess it must have been that bump on the head (the doctor did ask me if I had been behaving out of character) or perhaps it’s just the broad comparative panorama of of the EU 27. Over the last two days, when not marking essays or reading PhD drafts, I’ve been glued to the Predict EU site compiiled by Simon Hix and colleague at LSE, which runs polling data from the 27 member states through a predictive statistical model. The overall picture, as ever, is not much change. Shifts to the left in one country tending to be cancelled out by shifts to the right in another. Green and the Communist/Green Left, however, seem set to do badly: the UK Greens, for example, are predicted to lose both of their seats, although the Czech Greens (bearing up surprisingly well in the polls despite internicine internal party warfare) are predicted to gain one.
Britain’s far-right BNP is also predicted to gain one MEP, which would be its first elected representative above sub-national level. The Euro-election prospects of the BNP – surely the most over-reported minor party in Britain – are analysed in detail by an excellent Radio 4 documentary, which comes to broadly similar conclusions.

I also discovered the EUProfiler website, which like a range of similar sites quizzes you about your views on the issues and plots your position in two dimension political space. The difference here is that you can plot yourself in relation to parties from one or all EU states to guide your choice for the upcoming EU elections. I emerge as a social liberal or social democrat with mildly pro-EU leanings. In UK terms, the site tells me, this means I should vote for the UK’s Liberal Democrats, advice I will ignore, and in Czech terms that I am more or less in the liberal centre of Czech politics, although. I ran the other EU 25 states to see if there is a party in some other countries that reflects my views exactly. The Dutch and Swedish social democrats come close, but, as it turns, out there’s only party for me: Estonia’s Greens. Vale Euroopale roheline tee!

I don’t know what that means, but if I did, I’m sure I’d believe it.

>Summertime special: two Czech prime ministers for the price of one


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.