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Czechs used to bucking the system

European Union leaders have been forced to acknowledge that the Czech Republic may have difficulties passing the Lisbon reform treaty. From Prague, the BBC's Rob Cameron explains why the Czechs have a problem with it.

Four years ago, when the Czech Republic became a member of the European Union along with nine other nations, I asked a Czech friend what she thought of her country joining the EU.

"What do I think?" she said. "I think now that we're in, we'll start destroying it from the inside."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (l) and Czech Republic Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek
Not singing in the rain: France tries to convince the Czech prime minister

She was joking, sort of. But it is a sentiment I've heard on a number of occasions over the last four years, in varying degrees of seriousness.

Czechs have long had a habit for subverting the system, a survival instinct born of centuries of foreign domination.

Jaroslav Hasek astutely identified it in his novel The Good Soldier Svejk, where the little Czech corporal drives his Austro-Hungarian superiors to distraction.

Rightful place

They cannot decide whether he is a troublemaker intent on sabotaging the war effort or a half-witted fool.

It is never made clear, but Svejk manages to avoid the trenches, which is of course the main thing.

Prague city centre (file image)
The Czech people have a long history of resisting authority

Czechs later endured six years of brutal Nazi occupation and four decades of Soviet domination with the same half-hearted displays of fealty to their overlords.

Which brings us to the EU.

Make no mistake, the Czechs always saw their rightful place in the European Union.

During the demonstrations that preceded the fall of communism, a common slogan read: "Back to Europe".

But now they are in, they are not sure they like what they see.

"We were fighting the Lisbon Treaty in the Czech Republic," says Petr Mach, executive director of the Centre for Economics and Politics, a right-wing think tank established by now-President Vaclav Klaus in 1998.

Mr Mach tells me he does not like the label "Euro-sceptic", preferring that I call him "Euro-realist", like his mentor, Mr Klaus.

"What is the purpose of voting in parliament? The purpose of voting in parliament is to pass bills or treaties and not to bully someone. And once the Irish people rejected the treaty, it is clear that it cannot come into force," he told me.

'Do not resuscitate'

Petr Mach believes the Lisbon Treaty is dead in the wake of the Irish No vote, and that it would be absurd for the Czechs to continue with ratification.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus
Czech President Vaclav Klaus defines himself as a euro-realist

Mr Klaus, emerging from hospital on crutches this week after a hip operation, repeated that the Irish No vote meant Lisbon was finished.

Only patients - not EU treaties - should be resuscitated, he said.

Of course, it is not what Mr Klaus says that counts.

The Czech president must sign international treaties submitted to him by the parliament; to refuse would be to cause a major constitutional crisis.

But will the Czech parliament even ratify it?

The Senate decided in April that the Lisbon Treaty needed to be vetted by the Czech constitutional court before it could vote on it.

That process could take several months. The idea to send it to the court came from senators from the governing Civic Democrats - the party founded by Vaclav Klaus in the early 1990s.

Senate Chairman Premysl Sobotka - himself a senior Civic Democrat - told the BBC on Thursday that he agreed with Mr Klaus.

"My view is that this treaty is dead," said Mr Sobotka.

"The whole EU needs 27 Yes votes and now we have one No."

The EU's "concession" to the Czech Republic - that Prague cannot continue with ratification until the constitutional court decides - is unlikely to change much for Vaclav Klaus or indeed Premysl Sobotka.

It will merely be seen as the EU giving more time to Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who took over as Civic Democrat leader when Mr Klaus stepped down.

But, with a Civic Democrat president and a Civic Democrat Senate both utterly opposed to Lisbon, time for what? And for how long?



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