What impact is Eurosceptic President Klaus likely to have on Czech presidency of EU?

Václav Klaus

On January 1, this coming Thursday, the Czech Republic takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union, becoming only the second ex-communist country after Slovenia to helm the 27-state bloc. However, some fear the Czech EU presidency could be overshadowed by the Czech president, Václav Klaus. Though his position is largely symbolic, Mr Klaus’s fiery anti-EU rhetoric has been receiving a great deal of international attention – and leading many to ask what impact he is likely to have on the Czech presidency.

While President Klaus has been an opponent of further European integration for some time, a couple of recent clashes have seen him make international headlines. On an official state visit to Ireland in November, Mr Klaus angered his hosts by publicly backing the anti-Lisbon treaty group Libertas. The Irish foreign minister, Michael Martin, described the Czech president’s views as ridiculous, shallow and bogus; Mr Klaus hit back by saying Mr Martin’s behaviour was an example of the hypocrisy and shortcomings of democracy in Europe.

That row was followed by a spat with senior MEPs over Mr Klaus’s refusal to fly the EU flag over Prague Castle during the presidency, and a spate of profiles in the world’s media; one was headlined “Grumpy Uncle Vaclav”, perhaps encapsulating his reputation.

Why has the Czech president been increasing his anti-EU rhetoric in recent months? Political scientist Petr Just.

“First of all, he always stressed the importance of the national state. So it’s nothing different, from his point of view…But many people think that he’s doing it more and more often, more and more intensively. And sometimes the intensity goes even further than people would expect.

“Many people think that he just wants to be visible. As he’s not connected to any political party now he needs to be more visible by his own activities.”

What picture do you think he’s creating of the Czech Republic abroad?

Photo: European Commission
“Well, generally the Czech Republic under the condition of the president competing with the prime minister or with the government on EU issues…is quite negative for the Czech Republic.

“If foreign partners, EU partners, see that in the Czech Republic the president and the government can’t agree on the major issues on the EU agenda then they may ask, how would this country like to preside over the EU, how would this country like to find a compromise among 27 countries, if they can’t find a common position between the two constitutional officers?

“So this definitely, not only Klaus’s behaviour, but generally the situation that Klaus and the government, Klaus and the prime minister, are in some kind of conflict on EU issues, brings quite negative attention to the Czech Republic.”

Ivo Šlosarčík is the founder of the pro-EU think tank Europeum. He says the idea that Václav Klaus is an “elephant in the room” of the Czech presidency has been overplayed, as has the president’s importance in general.

“Everyone talks about this elephant in a very intensive way…The role of President Klaus in the Czech [EU] presidency is pretty unclear. The Czech constitution has very vague rules and the current practice indicates that regarding formal activities to do with the presidency, the Czech president will have only a marginal position.

“The key decision making, key dealings, key European Council meetings, key ministerial meetings will be handled by the prime minister and his team.”

Ivo Šlosarčík concedes, however, that Mr Klaus’s anti-EU rhetoric could harm the Czech government.

“He will not make the Czech Republic stronger by his arguments, but will make Czech negotiators weaker, and will not enable Czech ministers chairing meetings to argue and lead negotiations as effectively as they could do without this rhetoric.

“And [he] will prevent the Czech Republic pursuing some of the policy objectives which I think are quite good, and the Czech Republic has something to offer as the six-month leader, chairman of the EU council.”

Recently, the divisions between the Czech president and the government deepened even further, when President Klaus announced his resignation from the governing Civic Democrats, complaining they had abandoned the right-wing politics on which he himself had founded the party.

Now Mr Klaus’s own think-tank, the Centre for Economics and Politics, is setting up a new anti-EU, anti-Lisbon treaty party. Here’s the centre’s Petr Mach.

“I would be grateful for any advice from the president but when you found a party it is an autonomous decision. So, I will be happy if President Klaus considers our party worth voting for, or for any kind of support, but he had no special role in establishing this new party.”

Perhaps not. But the new party’s policies will closely reflect those of the Czech president, and its activities – with elections to the European Parliament due in June – may prove a thorn in the side of the cabinet of Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek over the next six months.

Given the possibility he could make things difficult for them, will the government be able to restrain Mr Klaus during the EU presidency? Petr Just again.

“I think for the government it will be a hard task to keep Klaus somehow under control, and probably he will not be under the control of the government. So this is an even bigger question – how they are going to behave to each other. Not only how is Klaus going to behave towards the EU and European leaders and the EU agenda, but how the government and president will act together. How different their opinions will be.”

Could he embarrass the country, do you think?

“If he is doing some strongly negative steps and if they are not rationally argued or not rationally explained, I think he may embarrass the Czech Republic. But as I said, it’s not only his position but generally the situation that the president is on the other side from the government and now they should together preside over the EU. This could be even more embarrassing for the Czech Republic – not just Klaus’s personality.”

Finally, Ivo Šlosarčík says Václav Klaus’s portrayal in the international media is one thing – the reality of the Czech Republic’s presidency of the EU should be something else.

“I believe we will perform and be a more compromise finder, a more co-operative player than one could expect when reading newspapers in EU countries, or when reading or listening to some of the speeches of President Klaus.”