Czech President furious at comments by Euro-MPs

President Vaclav Klaus, photo: CTK

The Czech President Vaclav Klaus has found himself embroiled in a huge row with leading members of the European Parliament. Earlier this week two Euro-MPs, including the parliament's deputy president, Alejo Vidal-Quadras, accused Mr Klaus of using unfair means and lies to deceive the Czech public into rejecting the planned European constitution. They warned that he was leading the country into isolation, and they argue that he is the only anti-constitution head of state in the whole union. The Czech President himself has reacted with fury. David Vaughan joins me.

President Vaclav Klaus, photo: CTK
"The two Euro-MPs, Alejo Vidal-Quadras and Jo Leinen are both passionate defenders of the European constitution which has so far been approved by around a third of EU member states. They certainly didn't mince their words at a press conference where they effectively accused Mr Klaus of being a liar - distorting the real meaning of the constitution. The Czech president is well known as one of the constitution's most vocal opponents. He has consistently said that he is in favour of the EU, as a grouping of sovereign states - implying on several occasions that it is nothing more than a regrettable necessity - but that he sees the constitution as a clear step towards a European federation, and not just a means of making it run more smoothly."

And presumably he wasn't too pleased...

"That's an understatement. Mr Klaus is absolutely furious. He calls the comments a crude attack on the Czech Republic's sovereignty and on its democratically elected head of state, and he has formally demanded an apology - sending a letter of complaint to the European Parliament's president. In the letter he describes the accusations as unprecedented in EU history."

How serious is all this?

"I think there is a lot of theatre in the whole affair. Mr Klaus is a very clever politician, and he relishes being in the political fray. He is also very good at setting the agenda for discussion. Recently he very publicly published his so-called "Ten Commandments" as to why the constitution should be ditched. Although some of the points he makes - such as the claim that the constitution de facto creates a European superstate - are highly contentious, he has succeeded in creating the public impression that he's the one in this country who knows most about the constitution. Pro-constitution politicians here really have been lagging behind in this respect. And I think the latest incident is giving Mr Klaus just the kind of publicity he wants."

So you're saying that it was pretty much an own-goal by the Euro-MPs who criticized him?

"Almost certainly. Opinion polls in the Czech Republic suggest that most people are far more pro-European than the president himself, but at the same time Mr Klaus is currently enjoying a wave of public support - especially given the self-destructive infighting between some other Czech politicians. Whatever Czechs may feel about the constitution, most, I think, will rally around their head of state, when they feel that he is being attacked unfairly. Interestingly, even people who are strongly pro-constitution, like the Czech ambassador to the EU in Brussels, Jan Kohout, have described the comments as highly unfortunate."

So could this affect the outcome of the planned Czech referendum on the constitution?

"I certainly think it won't have helped general perceptions of the EU in the Czech Republic. Although Mr Klaus has stressed that he is not anti-EU per se, I think that generally people in the Czech Republic tend to see the debate as being more black and white: either you're pro- or anti-Europe. Ironically, Mr Vidal-Quadras, and Mr Leinen will probably have helped to reinforce the stereotype of the EU as a body dictating from Brussels, what people should say and think. And generally speaking - for historic reasons as much as anything else - Czechs are very sensitive to outside interference. On the other hand I suppose you could turn that argument on its head and say that the row is proof that the EU is gradually turning into a forum for just the kind of lively - and highly political - debate that it used to lack."