The Czechs will probably ratify the Lisbon treaty this year

The Czechs will probably ratify the Lisbon treaty this year

02 October 2009

by Charles Grant

Any prediction about the timing of the Czech Republic’s ratification of the Lisbon treaty must be heavily qualified; politics in Prague are so complex and opaque that many Czechs find it hard to understand what is going on. But having just spent a couple of days talking to politicians and officials in Prague, I think it likely that the Czechs will ratify this year.

The republic’s maverick president, Vaclav Klaus – who shares the passion of his idol, Margaret Thatcher, for free markets and bashing Brussels – is doing his best to delay the ratification of the Lisbon treaty. Last year a group of eurosceptic senators allied to Klaus challenged the treaty in the constitutional court, with six specific complaints about the document. After seven months the court approved the treaty and earlier this year the parliament voted for it, but Klaus has delayed signing the law of ratification. On September 29th the eurosceptic senators mounted a second challenge to the treaty in the constitutional court, thereby giving Klaus a good reason not to sign.

If the Irish approve the treaty in their October 2nd referendum, Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, is likely to sign his country’s law of ratification. The Czech Republic would then be the only EU member-state not to have ratified the document.

The general view in Prague is that the court, based in the Moravian town of Brno, will once again approve the treaty. It is an independent institution and nobody thinks its judges are particularly eurosceptic. But how quickly will it rule? Klaus has admitted receiving a hand-written letter from David Cameron, the leader of the British Conservatives, apparently stating that they are with the Czech president in his fight against the treaty. If Klaus can delay his signature till the Conservatives take office in Britain – after the general election that is due by next June – Cameron will hold a referendum on the treaty. The result would almost certainly be a No, and that would be the end of the Lisbon treaty.

Nobody knows how long the court will take to consider the treaty. Although it took only ten days to rule on a recent case concerning early parliamentary elections (the court insisted that the current parliament continue to the end of its term), it will need to give a full and considered response to the new challenge to the Lisbon treaty. However, one senior figure I spoke to was confident that the ruling would be “in weeks not months”. The case for a quick ruling is that the court has already spent time on the treaty, dealing with last year’s case, and that “the court does not exist in a political vacuum”. The judges understand, apparently, that there is much at stake for the whole of Europe. The chairman of the court has said that he and his judges will prioritise this case and that other matters will be put on hold. The predominant view of people I spoke to was that the court would rule by Christmas.

But could Klaus’s friends in the Senate seek to delay the treaty further, by mounting a third legal challenge? The leader of the eurosceptic senators, Jiri Oberfalzer, is reported to have said that they would not do so. Oberfalzer has also said it is unlikely that the president himself would start a new case before the court. Indeed, at a recent dinner of leaders of the Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), Klaus apparently said that ratification was like a train in motion that could not be stopped.

So long as Klaus jibs at signing the ratification, he will face mounting pressure from other EU governments. And he may face threats from France and/or Germany. In Paris there is talk of punishing the Czech Republic for delaying ratification, for example by making sure the next Czech commissioner gets a non-job or by blocking Czech participation in international bodies. In the Commission and the European Parliament some people say that the Czechs could lose their commissioner altogether: if the next Commission has to be appointed under the rules of the Nice treaty – so that the number of the commissioners must be less than the number of member-states – the Czechs should be the ones to lose out.

That kind of threat would probably be counter-productive. Klaus is famously stubborn and is never happier than when standing up for a little country against bullying by big member-states. Czech officials worry that France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy – renowned for his impulsive comments – could put his foot in it with a stinging attack on the Czechs.

It would be wiser to let the Czech people themselves put pressure on their president. Klaus is out of tune with Czech public opinion, which is predominantly in favour of the Lisbon treaty. All the main parties except for the Communists support the treaty. The recent decision of President Barack Obama to scrap plans for an anti-missile radar in the Czech republic has weakened the hand of those Czech politicians who argue that the American alliance is more important than European integration. Indeed, since the US decision on missile defence there has been more talk in Prague of boosting the EU’s role in defence. The best course of action for Europe’s leaders is to wait patiently for the court to rule and keep their fingers crossed.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.