Klaus: storm in a teacup over European integration remarks

Klaus in Brussels, photo CTK

In just over two years time the Czech Republic hopes to become a full member of the European Union. Czech diplomats have been spending days locked in talks with EU officials, and also devising ways to bolster lukewarm support for membership among a rather sceptical Czech public. But there is still much debate as to what EU membership will really mean, and this week Vaclav Klaus, one of the countrys most senior politicians, reinvigorated that debate with a vengeance. Rob Cameron has more.

Klaus in Brussels, photo CTK
In just over two years' time the Czech Republic hopes to become a full member of the European Union. Czech diplomats have been spending days locked in talks with EU officials, and also devising ways to bolster lukewarm support for membership among a rather sceptical Czech public. But there is still much debate as to what EU membership will really mean, and this week Vaclav Klaus, one of the country's most senior politicians, reinvigorated that debate with a vengeance. Rob Cameron has more.

Vaclav Klaus, speaker of the lower house and leader of the right-of-centre Civic Democrats, is a controversial figure in Czech politics: his caustic remarks and intimidating interview style have earned him both hatred and admiration. So it comes as no surprise to find him at the centre of controversy once again, this time over remarks about one of his pet topics - European integration.

Speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, Mr Klaus spoke out against what he called "the creeping, silent unification of the continent," and said the EU should consider halting the process of European integration. The remarks were immediately seized upon by his political opponents: he himself describes the reaction as "a storm in a teacup." With Mr Klaus in Brussels was his senior adviser Jiri Weigl. He says the speech has been blown completely out of proportion:

"No Czech politician had a chance to know in reality what was really said. Nevertheless the reactions were so hard and so exaggerated that I think it says something very sad about the political atmosphere in the country."

And those reactions have been fierce. President Vaclav Havel - one of Mr Klaus's harshest critics - has called on the lower house to provide an explanation, demanding to know whether Mr Klaus was speaking for himself or the Czech parliament. Others have accused him of sabotaging the country's relationship with the EU. Nonsense, says adviser Jiri Weigl. He told Radio Prague the time had clearly come for a proper debate on the meaning of European integration:

"The future of the European Union has not been the subject of any public or political discussion in this country. There is no parliament declaration or any official document which would bind anybody to follow certain ideas, certain visions, there is nothing like that. So I think it's legitimate to express views which are in full accordance with Czech national interests."

And what's more, Jiri Weigl says Mr Klaus's comments about "the creeping, silent unification" of Europe are shared by the majority of ordinary Czechs:

"I think that most of the Czech population shares this view. I think nobody can say that they're in favour of such silent, behind-the-scenes tendencies, which predetermine the future of Europe and predetermine the future of our country in such a grouping. So I don't see anything controversial in this statement."

Jiri Weigl, a senior adviser to Vaclav Klaus. But his opponents were not impressed with his comments, and had the following message for him: say what you like about European integration - but do it in private, not on the floor of the European Parliament. Ivan Pilip is an MP for the opposition Freedom Union:

"We appreciate the fact that in our country anybody can have an opinion on anything but it makes a difference whether that person is speaking on his own behalf or on behalf of an institution."

Ivan Pilip says he and many MPs in the lower house simply feel Mr Klaus went too far.

"There is a feeling among many members of the Chamber of Deputies that Mr Klaus' speech surpassed certain limits. Many people here think that his speech was - if not downright abuse of his position - then a case of overstepping the rights and responsibilities that Mr Klaus has as speaker of the chamber."

Support for EU integration in the Czech Republic is lukewarm. A recent poll showed around 45% of people were in favour of joining the European Union, with 20 against.

The majority of politicians may be angry with the outspoken leader of the Civic Democrats, but there is no contesting the fact that Mr Klaus's "Eurorealism" - he dislikes the term "Eurosceptic" - is shared by many ordinary people here. But as MP Ivan Pilip points out, the Czech Republic is trying desperately to join an elite club of nations: savaging that club in public is downright foolish.

"My opinion at least about what he said in Brussels has not changed, and my party remains very critical of what happened in Brussels. If one happens to be applying for membership in some organisation it would be more polite to tone down one's criticism of that same organisation."

Freedom Union Ivan Pilip, ending that report on Vaclav Klaus's controversial comments on European integration.