The Czech Republic is a country where everything seems to work, except for the political system. I once lived here, but hadn’t returned for eleven years. Almost everything looks better than it did in 1998, and almost everything looked better in 1998 than it did in 1989, the year of the Velvet Revolution. The Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004, culminating a remarkable transformation from one-party Communist rule to liberal democracy. Yet despite all of this, the Czech Republic has been suspended these past few days in a bizarre political crisis.
The crisis concerns not only its ten million citizens, but quite possibly all five hundred million citizens of the European Union. The Czech president, Václav Klaus, has threatened not to sign the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union.
From the outside, it may take some work to see the drama of this. The Lisbon Treaty is something like an ersatz constitution for Europe. It has to be ratified by all twenty-seven member states of the EU, and as I write all except the Czech Republic have done so. The Czech government has signed the treaty, and both houses of parliament have approved it. The high court has already ruled once that the treaty does not violate Czech law, and will almost certainly rule the same way on October 27 in response to another challenge by seventeen Czech senators. Thus all that really remains for the Lisbon Treaty to become the law of Europe is the signature of one man, President Václav Klaus. In the first half of October, as the Irish approved the Lisbon Treaty and the Polish president signed it, Klaus stood alone in refusing to sign it, claiming that it interferes with Czech sovereignty. Declining calls from European leaders, he flew off to Moscow for a visit with his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev and to promote his new book that denies global warming. (The Russian edition was published with the help of the Russian oil giant Lukoil.)
Václav Klaus is a strange and interesting man. An economist, he made his name as a politician in the early 1990s by claiming to be a technocrat who could deliver Czechs from the confusion of the communist inheritance. As an economist he is less than distinguished, but as a political tactician he has no local rival. He has been either prime minister or president of the country for much of its existence—and as president has extended the limited powers of that office with some success—from the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 until today. When the Czech Republic joined the EU in 2004, he did not celebrate. Instead he hiked the mountain associated with the legend of a saint who would rescue the nation in its time of peril, a saint who as it happens bears the name Václav.
Now, if many Westerners had to pick the political saint among the Czechs, they would choose a different Václav: Havel, the playwright, dissident, and the previous president, rather than Klaus, who has been far more important in shaping the political institutions and culture of the Republic. Klaus knows this, and to all appearances resents it very much. On the main geopolitical question of the twenty-first century, though, Havel was wrong and Klaus was right: Klaus opposed the invasion of Iraq, which Havel enthusiastically supported.
But Klaus was right, as people can be, for the wrong reasons. He opposed the invasion of Iraq because he holds a very simple view of state sovereignty. The world is divided into nations, those nations have states, those states have governments, and those governments have sovereignty: regardless of how unjust or tyrannical those governments might be (Klaus being of a rather authoritarian disposition himself).
This obsession with state sovereignty exemplifies a new political problem in Europe: precisely because small European states have so little true sovereignty and their leaders so little true power, they are tempted to resort to empty and indeed absurd nationalist gestures. The Lisbon Treaty is perhaps the solution to this problem. National populism is on the rise in Europe because of the “democratic deficit” of the EU. The EU does have a great deal of authority in the world, but it is not democratic. National governments are democratic, but in most cases have little clout. Once the Lisbon Treaty goes into effect, European citizens will have greater say in Brussels.
This, however, is the essence of Klaus’s objection. He simply does not accept the legal existence of the EU. He believes that only the traditional sovereign state is real, or can be real, in international law. (History tells another story. In the millennium of Czech history, from the Bohemian kingdoms through the Habsburg monarchy through the twentieth century, there was a sovereign Czech nation-state in this traditional sense for only eleven years, from 1993 through 2004.)
So before signing the Lisbon Treaty, Klaus wants the EU to assure him, in a binding document, that the large number of Germans expelled from the Czech Republic after World War II will not be able to appeal to European law to reclaim their property. Few things in European political life are more sensitive than the question of forced population displacement during or after the war. Under the Benes decrees, Czechoslovakia did indeed expel (with the support of the Americans, British, and Soviets) some three million Germans, nearly a quarter of its own population. Their property was then taken by Czechoslovak citizens. The Germans who were expelled generally found themselves in a democratic and prosperous West Germany, while the Czechs who took their houses lived under Communism for decades.
Very few Czechs or Germans could say much about the details of the Lisbon Treaty, but almost all would have an opinion about the Beneš Decrees. However we might evaluate them today, they are part of the legal basis for the property rights of a significant portion of the Czech population. Meanwhile, Germans today do indeed try to get their property back: not generally “theirs,” but rather that of parents or grandparents. The Christian Social Union of Bavaria keeps this issue alive in German politics; claiming that Germans suffered far more in these expulsions than was in fact the case. If property claims of the children and grandchildren were honored today, a significant proportion of the Czech population would lose their homes, and a large number of Germans would get summer houses in northern and western Bohemia.
As usual, Klaus chose his political target well. He can say, with some justice, that no one knows how future European courts will adjudicate these issues. Best to get a guarantee now. If Czechs have to choose between Europe and no Europe, they choose Europe. If they have to choose between Europe and Europe plus property assurances, they choose the latter. So here is what will likely happen: Klaus’s highly demagogic and legally dubious maneuver will have to become the negotiating position of the Czech government. The Czech Republic will ask the EU to include in the next major treaty (probably the accession treaty for Croatia expected some time in 2010) a provision affirming the property rights of Czechs. The EU will accept this proposition at its quarterly summit on October 29, the Czech high court will affirm the legal validity of the Lisbon Treaty, and Klaus will sign it by the end of October. He will have made his point, and will be able to claim victory.
There is also a nightmare scenario. If the EU agrees to add a formal protocol on Czech property rights, it will be placing a formal limit on something called the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is now an integral part of the Lisbon Treaty. But when the Czech high court approves the Lisbon Treaty, it will be approving the treaty as it now stands: that is, without those limitations that Klaus himself is insisting upon. Klaus may then say that he still cannot sign the treaty, because the Czech high court has not approved the changes he demands.
This (or some similarly cynical maneuver) would require enormous bad faith on Klaus’s part, but not more than he has already mustered. Klaus cannot stop the process of European integration; he can only damage his country’s position within Europe. Czechs were not well served by barbed wire under communism, and they would not be well served by walling themselves off from the European Union now. (Note to Americans who think that the EU means the welfare state means socialism means communism: the only party that supports Klaus’s anti-Europe stand is the local Communist Party.)