At the new year, France will hand over the EU presidency to the Czech Republic. In addition to a probable marked decline in summits (Mr. Sarkozy’s specialty as of late), the incoming Czech leadership has many European bureaucrats worrying: the French successor, Czech president Václav Klaus, is a fervent Euroskeptic.
Now the Czech Republic is about to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union and there is palpable fear that Mr. Klaus will embarrass the world’s biggest trading bloc and complicate its efforts to address the economic crisis and expand its powers. His role in the Czech Republic is largely ceremonial, but he remains a powerful force here, has devotees throughout Europe, and delights in basking in the spotlight.
By all accounts, Klaus’ relatively little power as Czech president mean his ability to negatively influence EU policy will be minimal. The problem is more Klaus’ uncanny talent for irritating Brussels officials. To them, and perhaps correctly, he embodies a small but growing sentiment of Euroskepticism throughout the EU, most evident in the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by Irish voters last June:
While even many of the world’s most ardent free marketeers acknowledged the need for the recent coordinated bailout of European banks, Mr. Klaus lambasted it as irresponsible protectionism. He blamed too much — rather than too little — regulation for the crisis. A fervent critic of the environmental movement, he has called global warming a dangerous “myth,” arguing that the fight against climate change threatens economic growth.
Perhaps his greatest ire has been reserved for the European Union. In 2005, he called for it to be “scrapped.” Now, he is a vocal opponent of the Lisbon Treaty, which aims to help Europe become more of an international player, but which he argues will strip countries of sovereignty.
Two developments only add fuel to his critics’ fire. On a state visit to Ireland in November, Klaus met with Declan Ganley, whose Libertas movement campaigned against the Lisbon Treaty in the run-up to Ireland’s referendum. Then, at a recent luncheon of EU ambassadors in Prague, he erupted in anger over questions about the EU’s future. Charlemagne of the Economist:
[Klaus] was politely asked about EU policies and how they might be handled when the Czechs take over the rotating EU presidency on January 1st. Each time the president growled that he was against the EU, so had no reason to answer such questions. The Czech presidency was an insignificant event, he added, because the EU is dominated by its big founding nations. Mr. Klaus turned to the envoy from Slovenia, a former Yugoslav republic that was the first ex-communist newcomer to hold the rotating presidency, earlier this year. Everybody knows the Slovene presidency was a charade, he ventured. It was scripted by big countries like France or Germany.
His exchange with Irish MEP Brian Crowley was particularly heated. All this raises two questions, says Stanley Crossick at Blogactiv: “How does it augur for the Czech Presidency? What will be its effect on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty?” He worries that such Euroskeptic behavior, like Klaus’ anti-Lisbon remarks and the previous “unpleasant antics” of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, will dilute the prestige of the EU Presidency.
However, Crossick’s fears, and those of Brussels, are overblown. Klaus will not usher in a new period of European disintegration, for several reasons. For better or worse, history has shown the EU to muddle through such dilemmas. In 2005, both France and the Netherlands rejected the EU Constitution, the precursor to the Lisbon Treaty, in referenda. And earlier this year, polls showed the British public overwhelmingly opposed to their country’s participation in the Lisbon Treaty. Still, all three of these countries have now ratified the treaty. Moreover, Ireland’s own experience with the Nice Treaty is an example where initial resistance to EU reform is followed by eventual passage.
As noted above, Klaus does not form Czech foreign policy in his role as president. So, embarrassing as he may be to Prague, he does not possess the ability to somehow derail the EU. Finally, the situation within the Czech Republic itself will influence Klaus’ presidency. Charlemagne on the governing Civic Democrats (ODS) party that Klaus founded:
Inevitably, domestic politics play a part in all these machinations. Mr. Klaus wants [Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek] to be toppled as ODS leader during a party congress starting on December 5. The latest signs are that Mr. Topolanek is safe, for a year at least. But human frailties play a big role too. Inside government circles in Prague, the mood is oddly reminiscent of a family preparing for a wedding that is opposed by an outspoken patriarch. Some hope that the grumpy uncle will put family first, and stay quiet. Others note anxiously that his anger is sincere. Combined with the patriarch’s love of attention, the fear is of a scene in front of the guests.
Mr. Klaus would doubtless reject any such homely analogy. He sees himself as a statesman defending Czech interests and the wider cause of liberalism. But with an EU presidency looming, his outspoken rudeness looks more like a gift to European enemies of liberalism. That is neither agreeable nor clever.
Over the weekend, Topolanek defeated the leadership challenge brought forth by the anti-Lisbon wing of ODS, significantly boosting the chance that the treaty will be ratified in parliament as early as Tuesday. It looks like he, and the EU, are safe for now.
Peter Cassata is an assistant editor with the Atlantic Council.