Czech president and foreign minister clash over EU treaty opt out

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A war of words has erupted between the two Czechs charged with steering the country’s external relations: the president and foreign minister. The clash stems from concerns that the Czech opt-out from the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty demanded by President Václav Klaus might not be looking so solid.

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK
EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso was in a jubilant mood just under a year ago after European leaders agreed to give the Czech Republic an opt-out from the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

That was the price demanded by President Václav Klaus for agreeing to the EU’s reforming Lisbon Treaty. The Czech Republic, or more precisely the Czech president, was the last obstacle to getting the treaty agreed and its changes put into effect.

President Klaus objected to the charter, saying that it could be used by Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after WWII to reclaim their rights and property.

The Czech opt-out was not given immediately but offered down the line, tagged onto another international treaty which all the EU’s 27 members would have to sign up to. The most likely looking document on the horizon appeared to be the treaty ratifying membership frontrunner Croatia’s entry into the EU.

But that solid scenario for delivering the Czech opt-out now looks under threat, and President Václav Klaus is apparently unhappy that Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg is not doing enough to secure it.

Karel Schwarzenberg, photo: CTK
Wednesday’s edition of the daily Lidové noviny quoted the president as saying that he did not much trust his foreign minister to fight on such issues and accused him of being “on the other side of the barricades.”

Mr. Schwarzenberg, who comes from an aristocratic family, accused President Klaus of being steeped in unwavering prejudices and opinions, adding that some probably stemmed from 1950’s Communist propaganda against the nobility and Catholic Church.

The source of this undiplomatic spat, not the first and probably not the last between two men who mix like oil and water, follow suggestions from the EU’s Enlargement Commissioner, Czech Štefan Füle, that a debate is being waged in Brussels over the legal form the Croatian accession treaty and Czech opt out should take.

The Commissioner’s spokeswoman is Angela Filote.

“This is something the legal service of the council is looking into and is not something where the Commission has been consulted for the time being. I cannot give you any more details about this.”

The council is the decision making body where all EU states are represented.

Croatian newspaper journalist in Brussels Agustin Palokaj says this issue is a hot topic with his country’s membership negotiations coming to a close after five years of talks.

“The Croatian goal, which is shared by many EU member states, is to conclude accession talks by the spring and sign the accession treaty in June. But this is not certain because some of the remaining chapters which Croatia has to close are negotiations about the judiciary. Then Croatia also has to resolve the very painful issue of the restructuring of the shipyard industry.”

With Croatia likely to be the last country to be joining the EU for many years, there is a rush to tag all sorts of amendments to its accession treaty. Mr. Palokaj says that while an Irish opt-out to the Lisbon Treaty is certain to be tagged along to it, those of other countries look less assured.