>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.

3 Responses to “>British voters: Václav Klaus needs you!”

  1. Joe Litobarski 14 October 2009 at 11:49 am #

    >A week is a long time in politics… will Klaus really be able to avoid signing for more than seven months?The Czech constitutional court has said it will rule on Lisbon quickly. If (as is expected) it rules that Lisbon is constitutional, then Klaus will be standing up alone to both the Czech parliament and the Czech constitutional court. He will be negotiating an international treaty on behalf of the Czech Republic, entirely on his own.He will be under pressure not just internally, but also from European allies.

  2. Sean Hanley 14 October 2009 at 5:43 pm #

    >Well, I tend to agree that Constitutional Court will, conscientiously rule quickly and rule the Treary constitutional, which leaves the question "Surely, Klaus will have to sign in the end". But having thought many times in the past "Surely, Klaus can't/wouldn't …" and then watched him brazen and manoeuvre is way through precisely the obstacles I though would block him, I wouldn't bank on him signing. Or rather I would bank on him raising further issues of Czech national interest to think about and haggle over. The presidential oath commits him to uphold the laws and constitution of the CR – which don't seem to say he has to sign all treaties parliament approves – and that he will be faithful to the country, act in the interests of the whole people according to his conscience. That does seem to suggest acting entirely on his own is not only OK and even constitutionally required…Prague bookies have obviously been reading up ion this too as they currently offering good odds that he won't signhttp://tinyurl.com/klaussazkaSo perhaps the only hope for the Treaty is actually my bad record of punditry on Czech politics. Wow, vould it be me that saves the Lisbon Treaty?

  3. Joe Litobarski 14 October 2009 at 7:07 pm #

    >Hehe! Well – we'll have a better idea at the end of this month, I suppose. I doubt we'll hear any progress until the Czech court has made its ruling, and then there will probably be some wrangling over the opt-out/footnote/clarification Klaus has requested.The fact that he's using this business with the footnote as a pretext for not signing means he at least feels there has to be some constitutional reason to delay signing. After seven months, he may very well run out of constitutional reasons.But never underestimate the man.

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