Czechs delay Lisbon Treaty vote


PRAGUE — A sweeping reform treaty aimed at enhancing the European Union's political, legal and bureaucratic structures is being held up in the Czech Republic.

Ironically, the current imbroglio — where one or two small countries hold back the will of 475 million people — will be sharply curtailed under the plan, known as The Lisbon Treaty. Just about every EU action today requires unanimity among the member states. If the treaty is implemented, more action will be approved by simple or so-called super-majorities.

Among the other changes to be implemented under the planned treaty is the six-month rotating presidency, which, also ironically, the Czechs currently hold. In its place would be a European Council president elected to a two-and-a-half year term by the leaders of the 27 member states.

The Czech Republic is the only EU member state that has not acted on The Lisbon Treaty. This week the prime minister delayed a ratification vote for at least two more weeks because he could not ensure the measure would succeed if it went to a vote now.

The treaty is supported by the prime minister, his two governing coalition partners and the leading opposition party. Such a combination would seem to guarantee the treaty's passage, but Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek's Civic Democratic Party, known locally by the initials "ODS," is deeply divided over the issue. The communists — the third largest block in parliament — also oppose the treaty, which requires a constitutional majority in order to be ratified.

David Kral, an EU expert at the Europeum think tank here, is surprised by the ferocity of the debate — especially given that Topolanek consolidated his control over ODS at a party congress two months ago.

"I would have expected it would have been easier, especially after the December congress gave Topolanek a mandate," Kral said. "There was a sign of change, that the ODS would evolve into a more mainstream right-wing party."

Not only did Topolanek survive a challenge to his party leadership, but Czech President Vaclav Klaus — a founding member of ODS, and a strident opponent of deeper EU integration — formally left the party. Freed from their loyalty to the party's founder, ODS lawmakers were expected to fall into line behind the treaty. But it hasn't worked out that way.

"Hardcore euroskeptics could leave ODS," said Kral. But he added that he expects the treaty to be ratified, if not later this month then within the next two months.

Opposition within the ODS is especially strong in the Senate, where the party leadership has less sway over individual members. It's uncertain if they can muster the 49 votes needed in the 81 seat chamber. In the 200-seat lower house it appears they have the 120 votes needed.

At its root, opposition to the treaty stems from fear that more state power will be transferred to Brussels.

New laws passed in Brussels would be implemented on a state level once approved by the national government. At the behest of the ODS the parties are working on a parallel bill that would require any new laws from Brussels be ratified by the full parliament.

Of the 26 member states that have acted on the treaty, all but the Irish approved the reforms. The Irish are expected to vote on the issue again within eight months and the treaty is expected to pass.

Sebastian Kurpas, a Lisbon Treaty analyst at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, says euroskeptics exaggerate the power shift to Brussels that would occur under the treaty.

"The president of the European Council wouldn't be an Obama," he said, referring to the executive powers of the U.S. President. "The treaty doesn't give the person a whole lot of power. But it would provide continuity."

He says future EU presidents would do well to have a congenial manner, blended with a legislative mind. "The president should be media savvy, but also a consensus builder," he said. "With 27 national leaders you have a lot of egos in one room. You cannot impose your will on them."

Kurpas says the hyperventilating of some right-wing politicians in Prague is unwarranted.

"I don't see," he said, "a huge increase in EU power in the Lisbon Treaty."

Read more by Bruce I. Konviser.

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