EU treaty closer to ratification after Czech deal agreed
By Honor Mahony
The EU came a step closer to full ratification of the Lisbon Treaty after it managed to agree to a sensitive demand by the Czech Republic on the new institutional rules without upsetting other member states.
"The European Council has been able to take a decision and agree on what has been asked for by the Czech Republic," said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, currently heading the EU, at the end of the first day of a two-day summit in Brussels on Thursday (29 October).
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The proposal was "accepted by neighbouring countries," said Mr Reinfeldt who added, "the road to ratification stands open."
The institutional debate, which elbowed other issues such as climate change from the negotiating table, centred around a recent surprise move by Czech President Vaclav Klaus to make obtaining an opt-out from a rights charter a condition for his signature of the Lisbon Treaty.
Mr Klaus said the Charter of Fundamental Rights, a part of the treaty, would expose the country to property claims by the 2.5 million ethnic Germans and their descendants who were expelled from the then Czechoslovakia after World War II under the so-called Benes Decrees.
His mentioning of the emotive issue and linkage with the rights charter raised alarm bells in Hungary and Slovakia particularly. Ethnic Hungarians were also expelled while Slovakia feared an imbalance in legal protection between it and the Czech Republic. The two countries separated peacefully from one another in 1993 but Slovakia was also covered by the Benes Decrees at the time.
After intense discussions between all of these countries, and plenty of back and forth diplomacy by the Swedes, the Czechs received an opt out similar to one already obtained by Poland and the UK, and no mention is to be made of the Benes Decrees or anything to do with the past.
The Slovaks got a declaration that simply confirmed that the Charter is "addressed ...to the member states only when they are implementing Union law." The solution pleased both Bratislava and Budapest, who both sold it as a victory at home for different reasons. The opt-out will be ratified after the Lisbon Treaty has gone into place and probably as part of a future EU accession treaty.
The Czech president, the instigator of the political headache, is apparently also happy with the deal.
"Vaclav Klaus was content with the text. He has been informed about all modifications ...and does not have a problem with it," Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer said after the meeting.
Mr Klaus, an ardent eurosceptic who dislikes the Lisbon Treaty, has been holding out against signing it, a move that would complete ratification and allow it to enter into force across the European Union. But his sheer unpredictability, typified by his 11th-hour charter demand, had made some in Brussels fear he would continue to dig in his heels anyway.
His signature cannot take place before Tuesday when the Czech Constitutional Court is due to rule on the treaty's compatibility with national law. But the court is widely expected to approve the treaty.
If Mr Klaus signs the treaty in November, it could come into force on 1 December.
With the last hurdle to ratification apparently out of the way, the discussions on what implementing the treaty will mean can begin in earnest. The most prominent of these issues is the new posts it creates, including a president of the European Council and a new foreign minister.
"These very interesting discussions await," said Mr Reinfeldt.