Josef Zieleniec - political survivor with European ambitions

Josef Zieleniec

Rob Cameron's guest this week is Josef Zieleniec, senator, former Foreign Minister, and one of the three Czech representatives on the Convention on the Future of Europe, the body which drew up the draft EU constitution. Josef Zieleniec has been involved in Czech politics since the fall of Communism, and is sometimes described as an "eminence grise".

Senator Zieleniec, you were born in Moscow to Polish parents. Presumably that meant you had a rather unusual childhood.

"Not so much. I was born in Moscow but never lived there. My parents were employed there at that time, but I left Moscow at the age of six months, so I don't remember anything, I don't speak Russian. It was an episode in my parents' life, not mine. I'm Polish, but during my childhood we moved here to Prague and I studied all the schools here, so I'm Polish by my parents but Czech by my life."

Some might say that appointing a Pole as a Czech foreign minister was a rather odd choice.

"It's not my role to analyse my activities as a foreign minister: I served as a foreign minister for six years and had top acceptance ratings in public opinion polls, so these are objective results. I had a lot of critics because I'm a politician - every politician has critics - but I don't remember this type of argument."

Your decision in 1997 to resign not only as foreign minister but also as a member of the right-of-centre Civic Democratic Party of Vaclav Klaus was a fateful one. Many people would trace everything that followed - Vaclav Klaus's eventual resignation as prime minister, the collapse of the government, early elections in 1998 - to your decision to resign because you were unhappy with the financing of the party. Is that a decision that you have ever come to regret since?

"No, never. I understand that it was an important decision. I also understood at that time that it was an important decision, but from my point of view it was not a political decision: it was a personal and moral decision. This was the reason why I also refused to continue in other parties. I never joined the Freedom Union, which was created on the basis of the crisis I started with that step. Because I wanted to strongly demonstrate that my decision was not connected with some political plans, but was connected strictly with what I declared: I refused the way in which the party that I co-founded started to finance itself. When I discovered the hidden financing, I demanded a solution. I demanded a solution for almost one month, at every meeting of the [Civic Democrat] presidium, and when I was finally refused by most other members of the presidium, I decided to step down."

And presumably your personal friendship with Vaclav Klaus never recovered.

"Sure. It's always difficult to put together politics and very close personal ties, and sometimes you face that kind of choice. I was always convinced that for a public figure it's important to keep your word to the public. Solidarity with the voters, with public opinion, with your public commitments is the most important, and all other things should be considered from that point of view."

As well as being a senator you were also one of the three Czech representatives on the Convention on the Future of Europe, the body which drew up the draft EU constitution. How confident are you that the work of the convention will succeed in creating a constitution that all 25 current and future members are going to approve? The whole could thing could end in failure couldn't it?

"Could end in failure, you are right. But this would mean, from my point of view, the failure of European integration. And paradoxically, this is the source of my optimism. When I worked in Brussels on this constitution I strongly realised one thing: there are various views and interests in Europe, there are various visions of the future Europe. But there is a culture of consensus, which works. There is a culture of success. Despite the problems with the new draft, and critical points, almost everyone agrees that the constitution will have to be approved."

You've also expressed interest in becoming a member of the European Parliament. That is an institution which enjoys low support across Europe - are you any more confident that the Czech people will understand what the European Parliament is and why it's important?

"The low interest in the work of the European Parliament was one of the crucial points why we decided to prepare this constitution. It was one of the missions of this Convention, to deliver a system with more democracy. More democracy means also more powers to the European Parliament. And if the European Parliament has more powers, there will be more interest. More democracy, more transparency and more efficiency, this was the motto of the Convention."

You're sometimes described as an "eminence grise" in Czech politics. Is that an accurate description do you think?

"You have no choice in these descriptions. It's some type of journalistic simplification. I don't think the picture described by journalists is important. It's important what people and voters think about you. And what I feel is that sometimes there is a discrepancy between this picture you mentioned and my image among the people. I don't want to speak about my communication with the people, but when I ran for the Senate as an independent candidate, I won a landslide - more than 50 percent in a Prague constituency. So this is for me the best evidence that I am accepted by the Czech people, by the Czech voters, and it's much more important than any attempts of journalists to find one word for my political activity."

Senator Zieleniec's webpage -