Czechs soften approach to EU treaty but insist on dropping the "C" word

The Czech government appeared to soften its approach to a new European constitution this week - provided the EU doesn't call it that. This week the cabinet - dominated by the staunchly anti-federalist Civic Democrats - approved a fresh negotiating strategy, which appears to be a departure from its previously uncompromising stance. But as Rob Cameron reports, just don't mention the 'C' word.

The EU constitution is not popular in Prague, and efforts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to revive the failed document have not received a warm welcome. The constitution - famously described as "shit" by Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek - is once again back on the agenda. Mrs Merkel aims to secure agreement on outlining a new treaty by June, at the close of Germany's six-month presidency of the EU.

This is of crucial importance to the Czechs, for the simple reason that a new document must be approved by 2009, when the Czech Republic will hold the EU's presidency. The agenda for that presidency will be shared with Sweden and France over eighteen months, but in the first six months of 2009, the Czechs will be in charge. And they don't want to be in charge of a fiasco.

The Czech cabinet has therefore said it is ready to discuss a new treaty based on the failed document, rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands in 2005. So is this a U-turn? Martin Shabu, from the pro-EU NGO Yes for Europe:

"I wouldn't say U-turn, but there is of course some kind of movement, because of the fact that the Czech government is made up of three parties. Of course the prime minister is trying to find a consensus, and if you have a coalition partner like the Greens, with a strong pro-constitution attitude, then it's very difficult for him and the whole government to take an anti-constitution approach. So they've found a third way solution I would call it, and are also trying to employ the President of the Republic [Vaclav Klaus], to force the German presidency to withdraw the use of the word 'Constitution' as the title of the document."

Apart from the 'C' word, the Czech stance demands that the treaty is stripped of other terms creating the idea of a European super-state. The government also calls for a new or amended treaty to bring more transparency, clarity and simplicity. It's a departure from outright opposition to any discussion of reviving the failed treaty, but carefully calibrated to mollify Czech eurosceptics on one hand and serve as a basis for compromise with European colleagues. Martin Shabu says there is still time to ensure that the tricky issue of drafting a new treaty for Europe does not overshadow the Czech presidency in 2009.

"I think the preparatory work was limited, due to the government problems and the elections. So we have a slight delay. But I believe that if the government starts to work and prepare for the presidency right from this moment, we can have a successful presidency."