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14th Apr 2024

Prague seeks get-out clause for EU laws in new treaty

The Czech Republic wants a new EU treaty to include a clause allowing groups of EU states to opt out of Brussels legislation, in a plan set to re-ignite the debate on a two-speed Europe.

Prague's negotiator on the disputed EU constitution Jan Zahradil told EUobserver the new-look version of the treaty should "introduce a measure that would allow a group of states to withdraw from particular European policies."

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  • Prague - opposed to more EU integration (Photo: European Commission)

The treaty clause, recently proposed by Prague in confidential talks with the German EU presidency, would enable a minority group of member states not to sign up to EU laws agreed by a majority in the council, member states' decision making body.

Mr Zahradil said he would table the "collective opt-out" idea at a 15 May gathering of member state 'sherpas' - government appointees for talks on the EU constitution - in Berlin.

Prague believes the mechanism is necessary in light of the voting system proposed in the EU constitution, giving more power to big member states.

"[The constitution] strongly increases the voting weights of some big states - particularly Germany (...) - this creates the possibility that smaller states are more frequently outvoted in controversial issues, such as social schemes, environmental issues or a very fashionable issue of today - consumer protection," said Mr Zahradil.

Prague's latest proposals reflect the views of the government led by the centre-right ODS party which opposes far-reaching EU integration and dislikes Brussels legislation hampering the free market.

Mr Zahradil is himself an ODS politician and member of the European Parliament, in addition to his job as Czech sherpa.

Two-speed Europe

The Czech proposal is likely to fuel the debate on a two-speed Europe which has re-emerged in the context of the renegotiations on the EU constitution, rejected in French and Dutch referendums in 2005.

The idea of some member states moving faster than others is usually promoted by proponents of EU integration who are irritated by sceptics blocking progress.

The EU's current Nice Treaty already contains the possibility for "enhanced cooperation" allowing a group of at least eight states to go ahead on their own.

By contrast, opt out rights are reserved for some individual member states and are carefully negotiated, with Denmark, for example, enjoying an opt-out from the eurozone.

The Czech proposal for a group opt-out would allow a more structured "two-way flexibility", Mr Zahradil said, with Czech officials currently working out the details of the proposal.

Controversial

But the idea, characterised by Mr Zahradil as "probably controversial", is unlikely to get an easy reception with the German presidency unhappy at the prospect of reopening the institutional core of the EU constitution.

And Poland, which shares the Czech concern about Germany getting too much voting power in the EU constitution, reacted lukewarmly to the Czech idea.

Marek Cichocki, the Polish sherpa, said he had not seen the Czech plan, but signalled that Warsaw would prefer to stick to its more fundamental opposition to the voting weights in the constitution.

"We are above all interested in a general solution to this problem, rather than solutions to particular circumstances," he said.

Warsaw is promoting its own alternative voting model which would give Poland more power, particularly relative to Berlin.

Mr Cichocki added that the Czech plan also runs the risk of "dividing" Europe into "different groups" in "different areas."

"That is something we would like to avoid."

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