17th Aug 2019

Prague faces head-on clash with pro-EU constitution camp

  • Prague's "starting position" on the constitution is diametrically opposed to that of Berlin (Photo: wikipedia)

The Czech Republic has emerged as a key opponent of the German EU presidency's plan to revive the European constitution, with its newly appointed negotiator Jan Zahradil telling EUobserver that Prague seeks to curb EU powers and re-open core parts of the charter.

Mr Zahradil, who was recently picked as the personal negotiator on the constitution of the new Czech centre-right prime minister Mirek Topolanek, said that "a new text is necessary" after French and Dutch voters in 2005 "vetoed" the EU constitution.

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The Czech PM's appointee - who also serves as a centre-right member of the European Parliament - is known as an opponent of far-reaching EU integration, promoting an alternative "Europe of Democracies" as the constitution was being drafted in 2003.

"I am here to find a constructive outcome but at the same time I am not ready to agree to everything that the German presidency is proposing," Mr Zahradil stated, referring to German chancellor Angela Merkel's efforts to salvage the bulk of the constitution.

"That would not be any good, not for my country, nor for the EU. What is now desirable is critical reflection on the current state of the EU."

All EU leaders were asked by Berlin to appoint so-called "sherpas" - appointees for confidential talks on the constitution - with Mr Zahradil so far being the only sherpa combining his job with that of an MEP.

The Czech sherpa directly challenged calls by Berlin to preserve the "substance" of the existing text - meaning the constitution's key institutional reforms and the inclusion into the text of the EU's charter of fundamental rights.

Curb on EU court

Asked what should be done with major institutional innovations proposed by the constitution - such as an EU foreign minister, a permanent EU president, and the removal of vetoes in justice matters - Mr Zahradil signalled that Prague would seek modifications.

"I think they [the reforms] should be discussed but right now it is too early to say which one of them should be deleted. This will be a question in the negotiations."

Mr Zahradil sees particular problems in the EU's charter of fundamental rights, which would get legal status as part of the EU constitution (currently it is a non-binding document.)

He said a legally binding charter would open the door to a further expansion of EU powers through jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in areas touching on citizens' rights - such as social security, health care and pension rights.

"If you make this charter legally binding, you open the possibility of European law to penetrate into national social and pension systems," Mr Zahradil stated.

"Clear arrangements should be made to ensure that nothing like this is going to happen," he said, adding that "this is a good example of how it remains completely unclear in the constitution how the division of powers is organised."

"A new text should be simpler, more transparent, more understandable for citizens and contain a clear definition of jurisdictions and competencies at the European level," he noted, summarizing Prague's "starting position."

Challenge to the constitution's friends

The strong Czech stance against the constitution comes just after a Madrid conference of 18 pro-constitution states last weekend issued a clear message in defence of the treaty's "fundamental content."

Mr Zahradil's comments reflect the mood in important parts of his own ODS party which took office in the government earlier this month - and which includes eurosceptic Czech president Vaclav Klaus as its most prominent member.

But the Czech Greens, the junior coalition partner of the ODS, are already unhappy with the anti-constitution noise coming from Prague, according to Czech press reports.

In the actual re-negotiations in the constitution, Prague is unlikely to go so far as to push for the radical ideas of president Klaus - who champions a new decentralised Organisation of European States replacing the EU.

"Seventy percent of what is included in the constitution is also part of the [EU's] Nice and Amsterdam treaties," said Mr Zahradil. "I do not expect we will deconstruct the current treaties."

The Czech resistance against a full-blown EU constitution is expected to be echoed by Poland, which has seen its conservative government voicing similar ideas with both countries' presidents discussing positions over the issue last week.

Some of the Czech thinking also bears resemblance to the debate in the Netherlands, where politicans are discussing how to curb EU powers amid ongoing talks on a new centre-left government.


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