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>Bulgaria: People’s Commissioners to European Commissioners?

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The Economist lays into Bulgaria’s Socialist Prime Minister for extraordinary plan to create forms of parallel political administration with the European Commission in which Commissioners would intervene directly (as opposed to indirectly) in the country’s government. A sort of Kosova-lite, in which the EU would quietly colonize Bulgaria – although seeing an election wheeze intending to shore up vastly unpopular domestic institutions and a vastly unpopular government, The Economist struck a eurosceptic note, by comparing it to Soviet oversight of the Bulgaria in the 1940s. And Bulgaria’s long serving communist strongman Todor Zhivkov did n more than one occasion reportedly offered to make Bulgaria the 16th Republic of the USSR. On the other hand, in 1930s and 40s didn’t Hayek and von Mises see collapsing weak, economically irrational national states with democracies all too inclined to sink into nationalist and populstic demagogy into a supranational federation run by well trained technocrats from Vienna as the best defence of liberal Europe?

>United Russia repesentative fails to impress EU far right

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Anyone who thinks Russia is on course for a new form of fascism will draw comfort from a EUobserver report about a meeting of EU far-right parties to co-ordinate their strategy against the Lisbon Treaty – it’s a very astute one, essentially do nothing and don’t go to Ireland, especially if you are Jean Marie Le Pen. However, who should be at the summit as an observer amid the Front national, Danish People’s Party and all the usual suspects but an unnamed representative of United Russia (ER) the loose pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin ‘party’ of local political bosses and ex- apparatchiks (and full marks to one of my student’s who noticed a parallel between ER and the Movemiento National in Franco’s Spain – perhaps they did know what they were doing sending an observer). Whoever he was he achieved the impressive feat of being seen as a crackpot by the assembled EU far right: “We had some hilarious discussions with the person they sent… he believes we should all join a bloc with Russia against the United States, which is hardly our position” one of the co-ordinators is reported as saying.
The new EU was represented mainly by Bulgaria’s Ataka which following the electoral collapse of the Greater Romania Party last year is the only really electorally dynamic extreme radical right grouping left in the region, although the Slovak National Party and Slovene National Party seem to be hanging on in there.

>Czech eurosceptic parties see confused light of day

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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.

>Czech thinktank publishes details of financing

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Czech e-government and anti-bureaucracy thinktankE-stat publishes its annual report on its financing for 2008 – it has an income of around 17 million crowns, mostly from foreign and Czech business donors, mostly spent on salary costs. Would they approve of it becoming the backbone of a Libertas style Czech movement or party? Is it enough cash anyway to sustain a entry into electoral politics? Probably not.

>Topolánek: From TotalPolitics to total meltdown?

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TotalPolitics.com very flatteringly email me to ask for posts to the survey they have carried out among MEPs. A ‘staggering’ 70 per cent of British and Irish MEPs and the majority of MEPs across Europe believe they are less respected than their domestic legislators. I was less than staggered.
Rather more interesting, however, is the magazine’s interview with Czech PM Miroslav Topolánek on the prospects of the Czech EU Presidency, especially as I had the bad luck to miss Topol’s lecture at the LSE yesterday due to dose of flu.

TotalPoliticsgives a fair summary of the awkwardness Klaus-Topolánek relationship, but rather overlooks the fact that with the Czech EU Presidency virtually upon us the Topolánek government and President Klaus do not seem to have worked any modus vivendi or division of labour about who will do what in terms of representing the CR during the six months it will be at the head of the EU.

The Total Politics report’s comment that “[t[he Czech Republic is the first of the Warsaw Pact countries to take on the Presidency” also grated a little: strictly speaking true, of course although Slovenia was actually the first post-communist CEE new member state to preside, Presumably is a piece of Czech spin.

What the Czechs – or, at least, Topolánek and various government ministers – wouldn’t give for some dull-as-ditchwater Slovene style consensus? I mean there is actually quite a lot of consensus on European and foreign policy issues across the political spectrum, Communists and Klaus apart, but the rumbustious and adversial nature of domestic Czech politics just now is rocking the boat even more than the Klaus crusade against Lisbon and the chimera of a European superstate.

The Czech parliament has just, for the first time ever, rejected deployment levels in foreign peacekeeping missions, despite concessions to the Social Democrats over proposed troop numbers in Afghanistan. Two Greens and one Christian Democrat abstained, while Communist and Social Democrats were solidly against. And, literally as I write, the opposition has just voted through the abolition of charges for prescription medicines. This time, reports aktualne.cz three Civic Democrat deputies long opposed to Topolánek on a mixture of personal and ideological grounds (pro-flat tax, anti-Lisbon) Vlastimil Tlustý, Jan Schwippel, Juraj Raninec, absented themselves from the Chamber, as did a further ODS deputy Jan Klas and one Christian Democrat, Libor Ježek. The Christian Democrats have long held reservations about charging for medicines, although a deal was supposed to have been reached a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats are trying to play hardball about some form of political truce or understanding with the government to allow the Czech EU Presidency to pass smoothly. They will do it, they say, in return for early legislative parliamentary elections next year. Given the state of the polls – which suggest the Social Democrats would win so handsomely they might even to able to govern as a single party majority government – this invitation to commit political suicide stands no chance of being accepted.

The scrapping of charges will, of course, be overturned by the Senate, where the government still has a reliable majority, and 400 or 500 Czech troops will go on serving in Afghanistan under some kind of ad hoc emergency arrangement, but, the goverment looks pretty shaky. For some the temptation to just press head and destabilize EU2009.cz regardless if it meaning finishing off Topolánek must be enormous….

>Libertas.eu unveiled, Libertas.cz unseen

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So, Declan Ganley has extended his Irish-based anti-Lisbon Treaty NGO-cum-lobby group Libertas into an EU-wide political movement Libertas.eu intent on fighting next year’s euro-elections in a host of EU states including, interestingly for me, the Czech Republic.
The only countries where Libertas.eu is not recruiting ‘high calibre candidates’ are France, and Denmark, – presumably as they are already well equipped with purpose-made eurosceptic parties and movements, such as the June Movement of veteran campaigner Jens Peter Bonde – and Ireland, where Mr Ganley’s Libertas organization is already well advanced in plans to field a list. Apart from the links for Estonia, Sweden and Poland all the recruitment ad are in English, suggesting that there is perhaps not a well organized network of Ganley supporters waiting to take the EU polticial stage. Libertas.eu thus seems more akin to a political franchising operation following the modus operandi established by the late Sir James Goldsmith’s UK-based Referendum Party, or in a slightly different way, Silvio Berlusconi’s launch of Forza Italia. Indeed, academics have already identified both a ‘franchise party’ and ‘business firm model’ of party emergence, only the Europe-wide nature of the franchising is novel.

The irony of a eurosceptic (and, in fairness, I should say that like most eurosceptics, he refutes the term) founding the first EU-wide political party is, of course, not lost on commentators, but a more interesting question, but there is a certain logic to it. A more interesting question s whether local eurosceptic groups will relish being invited to send applications to the Ganley’s Dublin and Brussels HQs for approval . Not surprisingly, the well established UK Indpendence Party feels Mr Ganley needs no UK branch. It’s also hard to imagine Václav Klaus or any of his very opinionated collaborators , who have been in the euroscepticism business much longer than Libertas, sending their CVs off to win Mr Ganley’s imprimatur.

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?

What Mr G does seem to have, of course, is money. Or perhaps the ability to tap the EU for campaign funding. This – and the imminence of European elections next year – seem to be the key reason that Libertas.eu has been launched as a political/electoral platform, rather than a civil society organization or pressure group along the lines of the original Irish Libertas.

>Klaus to quit ODS and back new eurosceptic grouping?

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And, as emerges in the daily papers, what Václav Klaus seems to have up his sleeve is the formation of a eurosceptic civic association-cum-party loosely modelled on the Libertas organization of Irish eurosceptic entrepreneur, Declan Ganley, which recently hosted the Czech President in Dublin. The new grouping, which seems likely to be based around the resources and personnel of the well-established Klaus thinktank, the Centre for Economics and Politics (CEPin), and is reported to be considering contesting in next year’s Euro-elections. The provisional name for the project is said to be Libertas.cz, although as this is the web address of a military re-enactment society, which re-stages long lost historic battles (is that an omen?) if the project ever did get legs, the grouping would have to come up with some more obviously resonant name.

The ever cautious Klaus has, it seems, left it to others to develop the project (although his leading thinktankers have all denied doing so) and feed the rumour mill rather in the same way that ex-Social Democrat leader Miloš Zeman has allowed a Friends of Miloš Zeman Society to be set up to promote his (probably non-existent) chances of gaining the Czech Presidency. However – equally characteristically – in an interview with MFDnes Klaus expresses qualified approval for the idea of a new eurosceptic right-wing grouping in Czech politics and when asked about his future in the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) said that he didn’t quite know his membership status (odd, since he is actually Honorary President of the party – apparently he doesn’t have to pay dues so his membership can’t lapse), but will be in it “for a few more days yet”. They can speculate about if that means he is leaving the party he tells them.

There seem to be two immediate factors prompting the very Klausian piece of kite flying: 1) the Constitutional Court’s clearing of the Lisbon Treaty, which Klaus is vehemently opposed to as the first step on the road to an European superstate and extinguishing of Czechs’ right to rule themselves (see his speech to the Constitutional Court for a rehearsal of these now familiar arguments – parliament can now go ahead and ratify it and, despite the government’s minority status and whatever support Klaus might muster from some ODS deputies and senators, both chambers will ratify it by large majorities ; and 2) the increasingly obviously failure of mayor of Prague, Pavel Bém’s attempt to unseat PM Miroslav Topolánek at the Civic Democrats’ forthcoming congress. Bém was backed by Klaus and tried to sound some the right ideological notes with his call for a return to the party’s vote and some out-of-the-blue denunciations of the Lisbon Treaty, but VK’s endorsement is perhaps not a great recommendation to many sections of ODS party , who were, after all, desperate to rid themselves of Klaus in 2002 and with his hasty challenge to Topolánek after the regional and Senate elections clearly overplayed his hand.

With little support outside Prague – and of course, as Topolánek’s surprise election in 2002 and Klaus’s own emergence as leader of Civic Forum way back in 1990 show, it’s the regions that really matter – Bém’s campaign seems doomed. Various political allies have already deserted him and his power base in Prague is said to be crumbling. Some possibly dubious business dealing during his time as mayor, a slightly comic action man image (he took time out to climb Mount Everest) and the various very expensive watches he sported whilst claiming to value a thrifty and modest lifestyle have also done nothing to add to enhance his credibility. His decision to press on with the leadership challenge despite all this and force a vote at the ODS congress as a way of showing political toughness and resolution is interpreted by many as a sign of bad judgement and a quixotic temperament.

What chance does the new Klauspartei have? Well, if we think of it as a revamp of CEPin, it clearly has ideological resources to run a campaign and some basic organization and finance, would garner a lot of interest as a new force associated with the ever magnetic Klaus; and, especially, in a low turnout second order election like a euro-election might pick some chunk of the vote, perhaps 10-20%, who knows? However, despite Klaus’s profile and possible financial pulling power and the ability to perhaps draw in some ODS members, it would – as a small outfit with an annual income of 4.7 million crowns a year in 2007 and we can roughly estimate from its 2007 Annual report about 5-10 million in capital assets. The eStat thinktank originally founded to the reform and reduction public administration, but has recently taken an increasingly eurosceptic turn has also very publicly projected itself as a Czech Libertas and has links with Ganley’s movement. need a very quick injection of cash and organizational fight an effective national campaign. Not impossible – after all Silvio Berlusconi managed it Declan Ganley and his financial backers are said to be willing to put money into a ‘Czech branch’ of Libertas (although – especially if it were formally registered as a party – they would have to be careful to stay on the right side of Czech legislation). But a tall order nevertheless. In loosely comparable circumstances in 1998 the liberal anti-Klaus breakaway, the Freedom Union, lost a lot of momentum because of organizational weakness and problems of internal co-ordination in a four month run-up to election.

But, the experience of the 2002 parliamentary elections suggests, Europe is not a high salience issue for Czech voters and, crucially, most right-wing voters favour steps towards further political integration embodied in the defunct EU Constitution and nowreformulated in the Lisbon Treaty. Topolánek’s argument that pragmatically, Lisbon is the best deal the Czech Republic (any anyone else) can get and that the real choiie is not Prague versus Brussels, but Brussels versus Moscow – an imperfect by functional EU versus creeping Russian influence over fractured, disintegrating Union – is one that is likely to resonate more with many centrist and right-wing voters.

The real issue is perhaps the impact that Libertas.cz might have on the fracturing Czech right. Here the underlying issue is how wide, how ideologically pure and how militant the Czech centre-right should be: Topolánek in his bluff but practical way has worked out that it needs to be broad, pro-market but pragmatic; and work on accomodating itself in a meaningful sway to ocial forces and small parties it can’t shift aside, rather talking the purest Thatcherism and cutting haphazard deals on the side. The then Czech Foreign Minister and ODS Deputy leader Josef Zieleniec reached very similar conclusions in 1996 (and that without the failed intermezzo of trying to be a flat tax crusader that Topolánek inherited from Klaus and tried in 2002-6 – does anyone remember the Blue Chance programme?). Klaus, of course, thinks different and has over the years stirred some potent ingredients into his own distinct ideological brew (climate change denial, forays against multi-culturalism and immigration and so on).

I can’t see any of this taking much root in the CR, beyond perhaps some small and shorted lived minor party. Klaus should perhaps re-read some of his own speeches of the earlier 1990s warning against high faluttin’ ideological waffle and urging hard-headed pragmatism to deliver social and economic change on the ground. Still he may yet do for the Czech right.

Will his ultimate legacy be to destroy the party he created so successfully in 1990-2 ?

Update: HN reports Petr Mach, the Executive Director, of Klaus’s CEPin thinktank as saying that the foundation of Libertas.cz is a dead certainy (hotová věc), but that he has nothing to do with it. He is, however, considering founding a eurosceptic party along with former Klaus aide and ODS founder (now returning to the fold after splitting with VK in the 1990s) Petr Havlík. Their decision will be dependent on how things turn out at the ODS congress. More smoke and mirror? Well perhaps, although apparently, the difference between Mach et al and the initiators of Libertas.cz (whoever they are) is that they want to set up a party capable of contesting the 2010 parliamentary elections, not just a disponsible, one-off formation for the Euro-elections.

>Prague diary 2

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I fly into Prague in the evening – there aren’t that many people on the flight and the airport too seems strangely unhurried. One of my fellow passengers immediately gets on to his mobile and starts complaining about the crumminess of Gatwick airport and the unheard of and pointlessly draconian checks on the size of his hand luggage s kterým jsem procestoval půlsvěta.
The smaller, newer and modernized Ruzyne airport does indeed compare pretty favourably, but for some reason, I can’t get my battered old mobile to work, so I can’t tell anyone anything.

(…)

The next day I make my way the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. I had expected some kind of grand and imposing structure in keeping with the well rooted social welfare traditions, but it a large, but fairly unremarkable 19th century building tucked away a few streets away from the Rašin Embankment. For some reason, I always expect government ministries to be full of new furniture and sharp suits, but, as ever, both my interviewees are down-to-earth, business-like and friendly.

(….)

Getting off the tram by the National Theatre, I’m tempted to get out of the icy cold and write up some notes in the Slavia Cafe, the historic haunt of the Prague intelligenstia and in 1980s dissidents, which renovated and re-opened about a decade ago as a tourist trap cum upmarket coffee stop. However, as I go in, I notice the restaurant next door has halušky as dish of the day and my stomach quickly wins out over my intellectual prentensions. Halušky, coffee, mineral water set me back a modest 202 crowns. I flit between writing notes and watching the live coverage of the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the Lisabon Treaty on the TV over the bar. No one else is paying any attention to it. Unsurprisingly, the judges rules unanimously that that it is entirely constitutional and parliament can go ahead and approve. A sour looking Václav Klaus appears on screen saying it was a political decision and he expected it all along. We then get cameos from Prime Minister Topolánek and foreign Minister Schwarzenberg saying it’s a good thing and can we get on and ratify it now. Klaus probably still has a few tricks up his sleeve though, not least because he will have to sign it when the two houses of parliament do ratify it and the Constitution allows him to take his time.

(…)
The Chamber of Deputies has newer décor, but less friendly receptionists. Perhaps they don’t like the political complexion of the person I’ve come to speak to. On the other hand, it is eight in the evening and the remade, updated version of the classic 1980s Czech soap Hospital on the Edge of Town is showing and they’ve probably had a long day. A few people working late drift out. Using my brand spanking new Czech mobile, I finally sort out where I am supposed to be. and meet my interviewee. The parliament is a maze of unlit, sometimes unheated, corridors but eventually we get to the right parliamentary club’s offices, where a deputy gives me some thoughtful views about social policy.

>Klaus: Good for Ireland and good for Europe

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No sooner does Václav Klaus turn up in the Irish Republic, hobnobbing undiplomatically with local eurosceptics during a ‘private’ part of his presidential visit then polls appear showing Irish voters may back the Lisbon Treaty. It certainly can’t be because of the ruling party’s ‘Yes’ campaign, whose worthy but soporific efforts can seen by clicking the image above.



So, rather than being the EU’s leading ‘dissident’ as he suggests, a sort of Andrei Sakharov of European integration silenced and held under house arrest in Prague Castle, by totalitarian europhiles, the Czech President, it seems , is be more the Gorbachev of the eurosceptic movement. As soon as he turns up to show a little fraternal encouragement, things go spectacularly belly up Just think Mikhail Sergeyevich’s efforts to promote democratic socialism on visits to China and East Germany in 1989.

>EU acCESsion

>The Council for European Studies (CES) website at Columbia has an excellent selection of working papers on EU/European politics, most with social policy/political economy flavour.