Czechs in the EU: Klaus and Zeman

Václav Klaus

All Czech presidents got the chance to address the European Parliament during their time in office. Some of their speeches received a standing ovation, others stirred controversy. In today’s instalment of our five-part series “Czechs in the EU”, we look back at how Czech heads of state presented themselves in Brussels and Strasbourg. My guest is Viktor Daněk, former Czech Radio correspondent in Brussels, now Deputy Director of the Europeum Institute for European Policy.

Viktor, in our previous episode of this mini-series, we spoke about the indelible stamp that Václav Havel left on the European Union. This time, however, let’s turn our attention to his successors in office. How was Václav Klaus perceived in the European Parliament? Because he was a very different figure from Václav Havel.

Václav Klaus | Photo: © European Union 2011 - EP

“Definitely, yes. Unlike Václav Havel, Václav Klaus had only once chance to deliver a speech in the European Parliament -that was in 2009. I think that his speech actually became quite historic because never before and probably never after has it happened that MEPs would boo the head of state. Václav Klaus was actually using his invitation to the European Parliament to criticise the direction of European integration. He also criticised the Chamber because in his view, there was not enough room for a plurality of opinions, and he also criticised the new Lisbon Treaty.”

Václav Klaus: "The solution is neither to add fuel to the melting pot of the current type of European integration, nor to suppress the role of the member states under the slogan of a new multicultural and multinational European civil society."

"Some MEPs showed their discontent by leaving the assembly hall during his speech. I think that at that time, the views of Václav Klaus were well known -- he was known for his criticism of the European Union. Nonetheless, this speech had political repercussions, because it was delivered at a time when Czechia held the Presidency of the European Council.”

Václav Klaus | Photo: © European Union 2011 - EP

Well, Václav Klaus was generally known as a euro-sceptic, wasn’t he? Although he liked to call himself a euro-realist... And he never addressed the European Parliament after that first speech. His successor Miloš Zeman also got just one opportunity to address the assembly. That was in 2014 at the start of his first mandate. How was that speech received?

“Miloš Zeman did not called himself a euro-realist but rather a euro-federalist. He showed this at the beginning of his presidency, for example by hoisting the European flag at Prague Castle alongside the Czech flag. However, later he became known for his criticism of the European Union. When he delivered his speech in front of the MEPs though, it was still at a time when MEPs were expecting a pro-European speech. They did receive it, but we must say it was in his very personal style - for example when Miloš Zeman entered the room, the first thing he looked around for was an ashtray. He delivered his speech in English, without any notes. He cracked a lot of jokes, and he was also very critical of some things."

Miloš Zeman at the European Parliament in 2014 | Photo: Sebastien Bozon,  European Union 2014 - EP

Miloš Zeman : “My European dream does not include the crazy movement of MPs between Strasbourg and Brussels and back again. My European dream does not include nonsensical directives such as the directive about economical light bulbs. I have one of them at my cottage and it looks like a cemetery or a mortuary. So I speak from my own experience. My European dream does not include Brussels so-called ‘European architecture’ which sometimes looks like an amplified shoe box. And it does not include the steak at the European Commission centre which looks and tastes like bubble-gum.”

"In his speech, he called himself a supporter of the Euro; he described the EU as a good thing in its core, but he said he would support only the direction of European integration that would preserve Europe of many “tastes and colours”. I think that in Czechia his speech was received controversially mainly because of the very strong accent he used in his speech.”

Turning now to the present day and the incumbent Czech President Petr Pavel. He has only spoken once to the European Parliament, also at the start of his mandate. What was his message to the MEPs?

Petr Pavel | Photo: Alain Rolland,  © European Union 2023 - EP

“Yes, Petr Pavel referred to Václav Havel on many occasions during the speech but unlike him, he was quite practical, I would say. He didn’t speak about any long-term visions but rather focused on searching for practical solutions to today’s problems -- for example in the case of war in Ukraine where he advocated as strong support as possible. On top of that, he spoke about the upcoming elections to the European Parliament and the threat of populism.”

Petr Pavel: “We should refrain from simplistic solutions and empty promises. The temptation to manipulate realities for short-term political gain will be enormous. We all have a huge responsibility to articulate problems as they are.”

“Petr Pavel spoke in English most of the time, but also in Czech and French, and he received a standing ovation. By the way, apart from Czech presidents, some other high-level politicians from Czechia had the opportunity to deliver a speech in front of the European Parliament. Among them was Andrej Babiš, who was prime minister at the time, but he decided not to use this opportunity because of the controversies he had with the European Union.

Petr Pavel | Photo: Daina le Lardic,  © European Union 2023 - EP
Authors: Viktor Daněk , Daniela Lazarová
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