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Czech leader struggles to defy EU

Anti-EU protester at Prague Castle, Czech Republic (3 Oct 2009)
Czech Eurosceptics liken EU institutions to the communist past

By Rob Cameron
BBC News, Prague

Now the Irish have ratified the Lisbon Treaty, and with Poland expected to follow suit, all eyes are on one man - President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic.

The Czech parliament has approved the treaty, but Mr Klaus, a harsh critic of the European Union, has so far refused to sign it.

Czech ratification is currently on hold pending a new legal challenge to Lisbon. But the Czech president has given the first hint that his battle against Lisbon may finally be lost.

At the stroke of midnight on 30 April 2004, the Czech Republic joined the European Union. Fireworks lit up the night sky over Prague, their reflections shimmering on the River Vltava.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus in Prague (3 Oct 2009)
After today's Irish referendum there will never be another referendum in Europe
Vaclav Klaus

Politicians in tuxedos gathered in the gilded splendour of the National Theatre to clink champagne glasses and celebrate the crowning achievement of Czech foreign policy since 1989.

Vaclav Klaus, however, was not among them.

Instead, the Czech president was 80km (50 miles) away, hiking to the summit of a small hill called Blanik.

This is no ordinary hill. Blanik is the mythical resting place of another Vaclav - Svaty Vaclav, Saint Wenceslas, and his army of knights on horseback.

When the Czech people are truly in peril, so the legend goes, the knights and the horses will awaken from their thousand-year slumber and ride out to save them.

As acts of symbolism go, it was hard to beat.

Looser union

President Klaus's refusal to sign the EU's Lisbon Treaty, however, is anything but symbolic.

It stems from his heartfelt opposition to the model of Europe embedded within the treaty's 277 pages.

When Mr Klaus closes his eyes and thinks of Europe, he sees a community of 27 free and equal nations, bound together by little more than the desire to trade with one another and live in peace.

LISBON TREATY
Creates new post of EU president (President of European Council)
New post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs
More decisions by majority vote, rather than unanimity
Ratified by all member states except Czech Republic, Ireland and Poland
Only Ireland held a referendum on it
Took a decade of negotiations
Was intended to take effect in January 2009


Not a bureaucratic European superstate with a single currency, a joint foreign policy and a president at its helm.

He is not alone. As news of the Irish "Yes" spread throughout Europe, a group of 300 Czech Eurosceptics gathered in front of Prague Castle.

They waved banners: "We Support Our President!", "Berlin - Moscow - Brussels!". And they shouted slogans: "EU - Fourth Reich!", "Long Live Klaus!"

One sign showed the EU's ring of yellow stars encircling a communist hammer and sickle.

The crowd erupted into a roar when the president finally appeared, parting swiftly as he made his way up to the podium.

The 68-year-old economics professor gazed out at the banners they held aloft, squinting to read the words in the autumn sunshine.

"I understand these slogans," Mr Klaus told his supporters. "I feel pretty much the same way as you do - though as the president I have to water it down a little."

Then Mr Klaus said something unexpected.

"The Irish had the last chance to say something about Lisbon," he told the crowd.

"Because after today's Irish referendum there will never be another referendum in Europe."

'Too late'

The watching reporters frowned. What about a referendum in Britain, that great last hope for anti-Lisbon campaigners?

Opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron has promised that one of his first acts as prime minister would be to hold a referendum on the treaty if there is still a country left in Europe that has not ratified it.

Wasn't the Czech Republic - with its brave, Eurosceptic president who refuses to sign - supposed to be that country?

"I'm afraid that the people of Britain should have done something much earlier," Mr Klaus told the BBC afterwards, as a scrum of reporters surrounded him. Now, he said, it was "too late".

Has Vaclav Klaus given up? Has the Czech president decided that the battle of Lisbon is lost? Clearly he does not think there will be a British referendum, and for that, there seems to be only two possible explanations.

Either he has come to the realisation that he cannot delay signing the treaty until the UK election, that even his formidable determination will buckle under the combined political and diplomatic weight of Europe.

Or he believes that the chances of David Cameron riding to the rescue with a UK referendum are about as slim as the Knights of Blanik awakening from their eternal sleep.



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