Havel to MEPs: no contradiction in dual Czech, European identity

Václav Havel, photo: CTK

Former president Václav Havel gave a speech at the European Parliament on Wednesday, and the reception was a marked contrast to that given to his successor Václav Klaus earlier this year. Mr Havel received warm applause from MEPs for his words on European identity and integration, and also asked for Europe to be patient with its often troublesome newer members from the former communist east.

Nine months ago there were boos and walkouts as President Václav Klaus addressed members of the European Parliament and compared the European Union to the Soviet Union. On Wednesday, there was applause and words of praise for his predecessor Václav Havel, who addressed the parliament on the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism. Mr Havel spoke openly and honestly about the legacy of communism in the region, a legacy that meant former communist countries were not always dependable as European partners.

Václav Havel, photo: CTK
“These countries from time to time cause [the European Union] all sorts of trouble, and that’s perfectly understandable. Democratic political culture and behaviour isn’t created or born overnight. It takes a long time, and throws up all sorts of unanticipated problems. Communism ruled just once in modern times; hopefully it was the last time. But as it was the first time, it was also the first time we dealt with post-communism, and we had to confront the consequences of the rule of fear that lasted for so many years and all the dangers relating to redistribution of property in a way that had never happened before. I think we can ask two things of Europe: understanding, and indulgence.”

Václav Havel also delivered a well-aimed barb at his successor Václav Klaus, who has railed at the loss of sovereignty contained in the pages of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, a treaty he was recently forced to sign after much opposition.

Václav Klaus
“[Europe’s] shared affiliations are the origin of shared sovereignty. At each level of our identities we have a certain measure of sovereignty, but at none of them do we have absolute sovereignty. I’m sure that you have some idea of why I’m saying this at this time. The debate about the European Constitution and the Treaty of Lisbon has in large part centred on the issue of the balance between national and European sovereignty. The answer is clear: the two must complement one another. Just because I’m a European, doesn’t mean I cease to be a Czech. On the contrary, as a Czech, I’m also a European.”

For many of course Václav Havel was preaching to the converted, and reaction to his speech in the Czech Republic can predictably be divided along the old faultlines of pro-Havel or pro-Klaus. But Mr Havel did pose some thought-provoking questions on EU institutional reform, suggesting, for example, the creation of a second assembly alongside the European Parliament where each state would have an equal voice.