It ain't over till Vaclav Klaus sings


BRUSSELS, Belgium — Anyone who figured the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty could cruise into force with Ireland’s “yes” vote last week must have forgotten about the eastern flank. Temporarily obscured behind the high drama of the second Irish referendum was the fact that the Polish and Czech governments have yet to formally ratify the treaty.

EU leaders may have helped give an overly optimistic impression that the treaty, which is aimed at streamlining the 27-member bloc's bureaucratic processes, was good to go.

Though plenty aware of what lies ahead, they nevertheless allowed themselves a brief celebration after the Oct. 2 result and led the slapping of Dublin’s back. Swedish Prime Minister Fredrick Reinfeldt, whose country holds the EU presidency, called it a “good decision for Ireland … a good decision for Europe”; Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament, kicked it up a notch, calling the vote a “great day for Ireland and a great day for Europe”; and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso proclaimed that now, all “member states of the European Union, by parliament or popular vote, have approved the treaty.”

Polish President Lech Kaczynski promptly said that the Irish "aye" would compel him to sign the treaty, which he is scheduled to do on Saturday, fulfilling 26 ratifications out of the 27 member states.

But all 27 are needed and Czech President Vaclav Klaus, a staunch opponent of the European Union, has not made such a pronouncement.

In fact, in the days just after the Irish vote, Klaus said as little as possible on the treaty, even refusing to take phone calls from Reinfeldt, who wanted to discuss Czech intentions. This struck such a chord with the Swedish presidency that it put out a press notice when Klaus finally did speak with Reinfeldt, on Thursday.

Meantime, Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer scrambled to fill the void. Fischer told EU leaders by teleconference on Wednesday that he was “fully and deeply convinced that there is no reason for anxiety in Europe. In the Czech Republic the question is not whether yes or no, the question is when.”

But Fischer’s optimistic pronouncement itself has a tinge of anxiety, and understandably so. After all, there is much talk about what the political cost, or “punishment,” would be to the Czech Republic, should Klaus really hold out. The European Parliament president, Buzek, said that while it’s crucial to allow the Czechs their independence, it’s also fair to make clear “how costly it is to delay this procedure.”

For the time being, Klaus actually has an excuse for remaining mum about his plans. Though both Czech houses of parliament have ratified the Lisbon Treaty, last week 17 opposing senators filed a motion in a constitutional court aimed at blocking it. The court could take weeks to  deliver its opinion, and Klaus says he must wait till then. (It’s a pretty small fig leaf, however, as this court has already rejected one attempt to declare the treaty unconstitutional.)

And Klaus has thrown up another late-breaking obstacle, suddenly announcing (to the surprise even of the prime minister, by some accounts) that he wants opt-outs for the Czech Republic regarding the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which he belatedly decided would give too much power to EU courts over national ones in deciding whether a country’s laws are compliant with the EU charter. Never mind the small detail that the Czech president does not legally have the power to negotiate treaties. Britain and Poland did negotiate some flexibility in advance and Klaus says the Czechs deserve the same.

The president mentioned this to the Swedish prime minister in the long-awaited phone conversation and Reinfeldt said he told Klaus immediately that “this is the wrong message at the wrong time. There have been many opportunities and plenty of time to put forward different views. I know I speak for many of my colleagues when I express this view.”

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner immediately spoke out for himself, rejecting Klaus’ wish out of hand. Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Kouchner declared: "We are not going to change the Lisbon treaty, it has been approved by the Czech parliament and by the Czech senate in the precise terms in which everybody has accepted it."

Kouchner added that he had “no doubt that President Klaus is going to invent many more difficulties,” but that he believed the Czech people, who are polled as supportive of the Lisbon Treaty, would press their president to sign it.

Nonetheless, Klaus is more than content to wait the process out. He is said to possibly be planning to try to extend the deadlock until 2010 when fellow EU opponents in Britain, David Cameron and the Conservative party, can try to win office and hold a referendum they envision would reject the treaty.

EU officials, meanwhile, wanted to have the required 27 ratifications in hand by the end of this month when heads of state come to Brussels for a summit. That's when they hope to begin talking seriously about the changes the treaty would usher in, most notably a permanent rather than rotating presidency, a foreign minister with a foreign service, and various adjustments to streamline the bureaucracy. At worst, Sweden wants that process to be well under way by the end of December, when it hands over the presidency to Spain, but Reinfeldt says he can’t begin in earnest without knowing what will happen in Prague. The fact that this massive operation affecting the governance of 500 million Europeans is held hostage by a handful of individuals has some saying that the reform treaty itself needs reforming. It is itself a reformation of the proposed constitution rejected by the French and the Dutch in 2005.

Joan Marc Simon, Secretary General of the Union of European Federalists, said the situation proved what his organization has been emphasizing as one of the major weaknesses of the EU’s experiment of “broadening” and “deepening” the union: the requirement for unanimity in decision-making.

“We have always said that working by unanimity is only going to block the European Union,” Simon said. “What Klaus is doing and saying is confirming our argument. This isn’t even one member state blocking — the (Czech) parliament is in favor, the prime minister is in favor — you have17 senators who can block the entire European Union with its whole democratic process, economic interests, climate change … . That’s not a very efficient way to function.”

Simon also pointed out an irony in the position of the anti-Lisbon camp, many of whom are also anti-EU in general: The treaty includes an article that establishes for the first time a mechanism for a country to quit the bloc. “Get Lisbon approved and they can leave the union!” he laughed.