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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 October, 2004, 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK
Czechs delay constitution vote
By Rob Cameron
BBC News in Prague

Outlining the debate in the Czech Republic over the EU Constitution is straightforward: there is no debate.

At least, there is little real debate over the nuts and bolts of the constitutional treaty itself. Not yet.

Germany's Gerhard Schroeder with Czech Prime Minister Stanislav Gross
Gross (right) says the Czechs will be slow to hold a referendum

Instead, Czech politicians argue over seemingly trivial aspects of the document and the referendum to ratify it: when should a vote on the constitution be held? Who should sign it?

But these apparently insignificant arguments provide a key insight into the different streams of opinion in the Czech Republic, a country whose attitude to EU membership is complex and sometimes contradictory.

Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, who leads a fragile and often fractious centre-left coalition, said in Brussels recently that the Czech Republic could be among the very last countries to hold a referendum.

Waiting game

A referendum will probably be held alongside parliamentary elections in 2006.

Why wait so long? Analysts say the reason is simple: the government hopes that by 2006, most EU members will have already have voted "Yes".

Czechs, they say, will not want to rock the boat.

"The government is relying on the fact that Czechs are not the most courageous of nations," says political analyst Jiri Pehe, who was an adviser to former President Vaclav Havel.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus
President Vaclav Klaus has refused to sign the EU Constitution

"They can be almost sure that if all European nations approve the constitution, the Czechs will not say 'No' because they won't want to be the spoilers.

"It's an efficient and effective strategy, but it's not the most courageous one."

But not everyone is content to cross their fingers and hope for the best. Both pro- and anti-EU campaigners are already drawing up battle plans.

"I think the constitution is a good thing because it will make European decision-making more efficient and more democratic," says Monika MacDonagh-Pajerova, co-ordinator of the NGO Yes For Europe.

The group campaigned heavily before the June 2003 referendum on joining the EU and is planning a similar campaign for the next referendum.

Pros and cons

Mrs MacDonagh-Pajerova admitted that getting a largely apathetic public to care about the constitution was a daunting task.

But she is still confident the Czech people will vote "Yes" in 2006 if presented with a simple list of pros and cons.

A very controversial document, and worthy of great debate
President Klaus on EU Constitution
Tomas Jirsa, deputy leader of the eurosceptic Young Conservatives, is also readying for battle.

"I think the European constitution is the product of a process which is not beneficial to the European Union," he told me over coffee at Prague's Cafe Louvre.

"Without any discussion with the inhabitants of the member states, this very systematic change to European integration is happening. And I don't think this is good."

He hopes the Czech people will reject the treaty.

However, groups like Yes for Europe and the Young Conservatives exert only marginal influence on public opinion. A far more important role will be played by major political parties and - perhaps crucially - President Vaclav Klaus.

Czech politics present something of a paradox. The government is a strongly pro-EU coalition of three parties. All three parties support the EU Constitution. All three are likely to campaign heavily in favour.

But President Klaus is a Thatcherite economist and outspoken eurosceptic (he prefers the term "euro-realist"). He is also highly popular.

What he says - and what he does - ahead of the referendum could be of great significance.

Nation 'in peril'

On 1 May 2004, the Czech Republic joined the European Union. Prague's historic skyline was lit up with fireworks, and government officials cracked open the champagne.

President Klaus marked the occasion in a rather different way.

Delving deep into Czech mythology, at the stroke of midnight he delivered a live televised speech from the top of a hill called Blanik.

According to legend, Blanik is home to legions of slumbering knights, who will arise only when the Czech nation faces mortal peril.

As symbolic gestures go, that one was hard to beat.

But six months on, he has made another, highly symbolic gesture, this time on the EU Constitution. He is refusing to sign it.

'Division of labour'

The president says his signature already appears on the country's EU accession treaty, so there is no need for him to go to Rome this week and sign the constitution.

"I consider [the EU Constitution] to be a very controversial document, and worthy of great debate," Mr Klaus told a TV discussion programme last month.

"In the interests of the division of labour, I'll leave signing it to someone else," he said.

Instead the document will be signed by Prime Minister Stanislav Gross.

In truth it does not matter who signs the constitution on Friday. What matters now is that the Czech Republic must ratify it in a referendum.

And by refusing to put his signature to the document, President Klaus has left the government in an extremely awkward position: persuading the people to vote for something their own president won't sign.

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