Will Czechs have a referendum on EU accession?
With the date of the Czech Republic's accession to the European Union - the year 2003 - drawing near, preparations and discussions are no longer concentrating only on the various economic, political and legislative requirements for membership. Another issue has arisen - whether, and if so, how the Czechs will have a chance to express their opinion about EU membership. Olga Szantova asked Senator Edvard Outrata why the issue was arousing so much controversy.
"It has to be realized that there is no formal requirement for a referendum in the constitutional setup of the Czech Republic. There is a common understanding that there should be a referendum."
That is for EU accession?
"For EU accession, yes. Whether there should be a special act for that one referendum all by itself, or whether we should institute a new institution of referenda and then run the referendum on accession under that general law is really the essential problem. The Cabinet seems to put itself squarely on the side of trying to get an overall referendum act through. Now in the Senate we generally took the other approach. We believe that there is going to be a big argument about the general law and we don't know the result. However, there is more or less agreement on having a referendum for the case of the EU, so let's go ahead with preparing the referendum on accession and resolve the problem of the general referendum at leisure."
There is a time limit as far as EU accession is concerned.
"It is only an implied limit, there is no constitutional requirement even to have a referendum, not to say when to introduce the act."
Could we join the EU without a referendum?
"Yes, indeed. It would be within the traditions of the Czech Republic and of Czechoslovakia."
Would it be within the traditions of the European Union?
"The European Union doesn't say anything about this. Every nation uses its own constitutional rules for accession, and there indeed are several states that entered without a referendum, certainly Germany, for example."
So what's behind the force of introducing such a, for the Czech traditions unique form?
"The idea underlining the whole thing is that entering into the European Union is a unique instance of the nation deciding on limiting its sovereignty. All political parties have agreed that there should be a referendum in this instance."
What about the population? Is the general population ready for a referendum?
"People have accepted that they would vote in a special referendum for accession. What happens, when the actual act comes out is a question and of course there is a big danger in the way the act will be formulated. There is a problem about the manner in which the votes are going to be counted, because, if we use a model under which people who do not participate end up being counted as negative, we'll get, of course, a different result than if we do it the normal way of just counting the positive and negative votes. I'm a bit afraid that without the experience of referenda and the problems of what happens if you use one or another model, we are in danger of passing a document that will produce a result with which we then will not want to live."