Irish ire as Klaus causes diplomatic row over dinner with anti-Lisbon “dissident”

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK

The Czech president Václav Klaus has caused a diplomatic upset this week on his state visit to Ireland. His Irish hosts didn’t take kindly to comments at a press conference following a private dinner with British-born businessman Declan Ganley, who spearheaded the “No” campaign against the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. Reacting to the criticism, Mr Klaus accused the Irish foreign minister of “hypocrisy”.

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK
State visits are usually predictable, even dull affairs – the visiting monarch or president marches past ranks of soldiers, shakes a lot hands and plants the occasional tree of goodwill and mutual understanding. That seemed to be in short supply in Ireland this week.

The problems started when President Klaus – and around 80 other euro-sceptic politicians – attended a private dinner in Dublin on Tuesday evening organised by Declan Ganley, the British-born millionaire businessman whose Libertas group orchestrated the successful “No” vote against the Lisbon Treaty in June. The Irish government knew about the dinner in advance; what they weren’t ready for was what Mr Klaus told reporters afterwards:

Photo: European Commision
“You asked whether it’s part of the protocol or not. Well, I made a point of saying to the Czech journalists yesterday that I take Mr Ganley as a dissident – sort of, sort of dissident – in the EU setting just now, and I am very happy to be part of that. We were quite happy in the communist era when west European politicians were coming to us and met our dissidents at that time. So I’m meeting Mr Ganley in the same style and same way.”

Mr Klaus added that if Mr Ganley’s ambitions to form a political party succeed and he wins a seat in the European Parliament, he would be the first to congratulate him. The news conference caused anger among members of the Irish government. Ireland’s Foreign Minister Micheál Martin told Irish Radio on Wednesday morning the Czech president’s remarks were “inappropriate”:

“Quite frankly I found it a ridiculous assertion. This is no communist state, and if anything, the European Union was an instrumental factor in liberating the former communist countries of eastern Europe from the shackles of a totalitarian regime. If anything the European Union has been about pro-democracy forces, about liberating people from the shackles of dictatorship, totalitarianism, and ushering in an unprecedented era of peace on the continent of Europe.”

By this time President Klaus had left Dublin and was on his way to Cork, where he was hijacked by Irish reporters for his response to Mr Martin’s criticism:

“I didn’t visit someone who is against the state. I visited someone who is just opposing the government, and that’s a, that’s a tremendous…”

The minister of foreign affairs says your comments were inappropriate. You are a visitor to this country. What is your reaction?

“You are not…you are not serious.”

Would you describe this as a major political gaffe?

“No.”

President Klaus later accused the Irish foreign minister of “hypocrisy”, telling Czech journalists that when he didn’t like someone, he told them to their face.

The president’s rather undiplomatic trip to Ireland received a mixed reaction at home. Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek said Mr Klaus had the right to express his own opinions, even though he didn’t necessarily share them. But the president’s opponents – both within the cabinet and in the opposition – said Mr Klaus had embarrassed the Czech Republic abroad.

Observers are now bracing themselves for the Czech EU presidency, when the outspoken Mr Klaus will be on home turf - and free from the shackles of diplomatic protocol.