Czech president labels himself an EU dissident

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK

The Czech president Václav Klaus is no stranger to controversy. A long-time opponent of EU integration, the president has signalled his opposition to many of the pillars that make up this organization – from the euro to the hotly debated Lisbon Treaty. On Monday, during a visit to Ireland, the rhetoric was upped a notch, with the president openly labelling himself as an “EU dissident.” But the comparison to the 1989 anti-communist dissident movement is likely to strike a chord with many.

Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
“I know that my predecessor Václav Havel also liked to meet with dissidents from various countries, so I am now meeting with a dissident of the European Union and I count myself to also be one of these people.”

That was the Czech president Václav Klaus talking to reporters in Dublin, Ireland where the head of state is on a three day official visit. The comments described Mr Klaus’s sentiments regarding not only himself but Irish opponents of the Lisbon treaty, the long-stalled agreement designed to further integrate the EU. Among such so-called “dissidents” is one Declan Ganley, the British-born head of a US defence contractor who also serves as the chairman of Libertas, an anti-Lisbon treaty advocacy group credited in part with the defeat in June 2008 of a nationwide referendum on whether to adopt the treaty. Mr Ganley currently resides in Ireland, and the two men are set to meet privately on Tuesday.

Czech President Václav Klaus with the Irish Presidnet Mary McAleese,  photo: CTK
The meeting, which the President’s office strenuously points out is a private unofficial affair, has nonetheless irked the Irish government, which remains keen to continue to foster EU integration, despite the results of the recent referendum. The impending Czech presidency of the EU has also complicated matters, with critics increasingly viewing Mr Klaus as a renegade figure pursuing his and not the government’s agenda. The official position of the Czech government is directly opposite from Mr Klaus’s – and although the Lisbon treaty has yet to be ratified by the country’s Parliament, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek has assured EU leaders that ratification would take place during the country’s EU presidency early next year. Nonetheless, the president has continued to walk a tightrope between representing state and conducting private business and his views are no secret from anyone.

Yet, perhaps far more biting is Mr Klaus’s use of the word “dissident” and the comparison to former President Václav Havel – a dissident under the former communist regime. This self-description is in keeping with the Czech president’s carefully cultivated image as a crusader against supra-national bureaucracies, socialism, political correctness and other such mantras. Mr Klaus and Mr Havel are famous for representing somewhat polar opposites of the ideological spectrum. Mr Havel, is widely viewed as the idealist, espousing a philosophical approach that embraced and nurtured civic participation, while perhaps falling short on pragmatism. Mr Klaus is widely characterized as the opposite – with little time for philosophy and far more of an emphasis on cold economic realism that perhaps fails to include a human face. Many are likely to view the “dissident” comments as a continuation of the ongoing rivalry between these two men. Whether critics or supporters will truly come to view Mr Klaus as a dissident is clearly a matter of perspective and also a matter of history.