Czech troubles with the Lisbon Treaty

The Czech Republic is one of seven EU countries which haven’t yet ratified the Lisbon Treaty. Its ratification has become a divisive issue between the eurosceptic and moderate wings in the government’s strongest party, the Civic Democrats. In this edition of Talking Point, we look at the controversies surrounding the treaty’s ratification in the Czech Republic.

The country’s top politicians had a lot of explaining to do at an EU summit in Brussels ten days ago that dealt with the issue whether the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty should continue following the Irish NO. In the Czech Republic, as in Germany, the ratification of the reform document is pending a verdict by the Constitutional Court on whether the treaty is in line with the constitution. Deputy European Affairs Minister Marek Mora describes what happened at the Brussels summit.

“This issue was only discussed at a dinner on Thursday [June 19]; there were speeches by all the heads of government. Of course, the eyes of some member states were set on the Czech Republic where the treaty has not yet been ratified. But the dinner was ok, every country voiced its opinion, and at the end we proposed that the ratification process should continue in other member states but made it clear that the Czech Republic cannot go ahead with its ratification until the constitutional court makes a positive verdict about it. When the final text of the summit’s conclusions was discussed on Friday, this issue was not brought up at all and it was taken for granted.”

Věra Řiháčková
The delay caused by the Constitutional Court review, has won extra time for the Czech government. What the Belgian Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Olivier Chastel described as “unwillingness to listen to reason” on the part of Czechs is rather an internal battle between two camps in the ruling Civic Democratic Party – the followers of the former party leader, the passionately eurosceptic President Václav Klaus, and the supporters of Prime Minister Topolánek. He signed the treaty in Lisbon and even linked his career to its ratification. Věra Řiháčková is an analyst for the Prague-based Institute for European Policy.

“The position of the Czech government is difficult, and it’s kind of ambiguous because on the one hand, it was this government which signed the Lisbon Treaty and which is bound by EU rules to continue with its ratification, as decided by the European Council in June. But on the other hand, there is this very complicated internal development, both within the Czech government and within the senior ruling party, the Civic Democrats. The issue of the Lisbon Treaty was referred to the Czech Constitutional Court even before the Irish No.”

President Václav Klaus declared the Lisbon Treaty dead only hours after the results of the Irish referendum were announced. The head of the president’s political department, Ladislav Jakl, even compared the treaty to an “iron shirt” for Europe. I asked Civic Democrat MEP Jan Zahradil if he thought Europe needed the Lisbon Treaty at all.

Jan Zahradil
“Frankly speaking, I don’t think so. I think we can live, at least for some time, with the current Treaty of Nice, and perhaps we can prepare some mini-amended treaty later on. My feeling is that whole concept of the constitutional treaty - now the Lisbon Treaty is – so greatly damaged by the three NO’s – first in the Netherlands and France and now in Ireland – that we should take this seriously and we should think twice before we introduce some new measures or changes or European treaties.”

The major objections to the treaty, according to Jan Zahradil, concern the transfer of powers from national states to the European level; the change to the EU voting system in which the Czech Republic would lose a third of its current votes, and the subordination of Czech law to European law. Věra Řiháčková says Prime Minister Topolánek will have a tough time convincing eurosceptic Civic Democrat lawmakers to ratify the document.

“It’s not only Václav Klaus who is against the Treaty –it is also opposed by some Civic Democrat senators in the upper chamber of the Czech Parliament. It was in fact a group of these senators who referred the Lisbon Treaty to the Czech Constitutional Court. They represent a stream within the Civic Democrats that is not under the control of the current Prime Minister, Mirek Topolánek. He is not sure how these senators would vote, if the Lisbon Treaty is put to ratification in the Czech Parliament.”

Jan Hamáček
Social Democrat MP Jan Hamáček, the head of the lower house’s foreign committee, describes the situation in the rival party even harsher.

“I believe that the problem lies within the strongest government party, the Civic Democrats, or the conservatives. The party seems to be torn apart – there is a fairly strong eurosceptic group whose spiritual leader, so to speak, is the current president. They just oppose further integration. I think that for them, the Irish NO came very handy and they are trying to use it to bring the process of ratification to a halt.”

The Constitutional Court is not bound by any time limit within which its judges have to rule on the conformity of the treaty with the Czech law. It is generally expected, however, that they will produce a verdict by October, in time for the next EU summit which will debate how to deal with the situation in Ireland. The Czech government hopes any concessions made to the Irish would also make it easier for the Czech Parliament to ratify the treaty, if the Constitutional Court rules the document does not contradict Czech law. Deputy European Affairs Minister Marek Mora says a delay in ratification is to be expected anyway.

“I think the Czech Parliament will ratify the Treaty if the Constitutional Court says yes. But I could imagine that the bodies which will decide on the ratification, be it either of the two chambers of Parliament or the president, might wait for the solution which will be found for Ireland. Because if something is proposed that would require a new ratification in all 26 member states, it would simply be reasonable to wait for whatever changes are made and then to ratify it. So I think that a possible delay is quite likely.”

Either way, the Czech Parliament will not vote on the Lisbon Treaty until the ruling of the Constitutional Court no matter how much pressure the country comes under from European politicians. On the contrary; their pressure might be seen in Prague, to paraphrase the words of another famous European statesman, as a missed opportunity to remain silent.