23rd Apr 2019


The thorny question of the EU treaty and the Czech Republic

On the first of May 2004 the Czech Republic joined the European Union. Although this festive day lies more than four years ago, reality still needs to sink in with many Czech politicians.

A large segment of the Czech political elite makes no secret of its discontentment with EU membership. These politicians fiercely oppose further European integration, and consider the whole European project a major threat to Czech sovereignty.

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The most ardent Euro-sceptics are to be found in the Civic Democratic Party (CDP). Following the example of their charismatic leader President Klaus, several party members are fighting a battle on a new front: Over the Treaty of Lisbon.

Ratification of the Lisbon Treaty has encountered serious delay in the Czech Republic. While the lower house of parliament has voted in favour of the document, the Upper House seems to cause a problem. In April a group of CDP-Senators decided to put the Lisbon Treaty to the Constitutional Court. As a result the ratification process in Prague has been suspended.

But the verdict of the Constitutional Court is not the only element which could put a spoke in the wheels of Czech ratification. The upcoming vote in the Czech Senate and the signature of the president – both necessary for the Treaty to become law - constitute a bigger threat.

President Klaus - by far the most outspoken eurosceptic in Central-Europe - made no secret of his pleasure at the Irish No. While the office of the Czech president is largely honorary, his signature is needed to round up the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty. But Mr Klaus's bark is often worse than his bite. It is very unlikely he will risk being scapegoat of the entire EU by blocking the ratification after a positive vote in parliament.

More significant however is the fact the president still has considerable influence on a large segment of the Civic Democratic Party. After the Irish referendum the harsh language of Mr Klaus was echoed by several party members. CDP holds a majority in the Czech Senate where voting on the Lisbon Treaty still needs to take place.

The vote in the Czech Senate is scheduled at the end of the year, after the Constitutional Court has ruled on the compatibility of the Lisbon Treaty with the Czech constitution. Even if its verdict is positive, it is hard to predict the outcome of the vote in the Upper House.

Czech senators however might want to think about the consequences of a No vote – something that would lead to serious repercussions for the Czech Republic itself.

Prague's presidency of the European Union

A No vote would severely damage the credibility of the Czech Republic as a valuable and constructive European partner. The Czech Prime Minister signed the Treaty in Lisbon last year and pledged to get it ratified in his country. Going back on this promise would make Brussels and other European capitals question the reliability of Czech declarations.

A decision not to ratify the Treaty would lead to the isolation of the Czech Republic inside the European Union. This political fall-out would be particularly difficult to handle during Prague's presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2009. A lack of allies among other national capitals would lessen the chances for the Czechs to make a success of their presidency.

It is possible to argue that without the Lisbon Treaty entering into force, the Czech Republic will be free to actually represent the European Union for half a year, instead of standing around watching while an EU President takes over the job. This new post is one of key innovations of the treaty, while the six monthly rotating presidencies will have a less prominent role, under the charter.

But with no treaty in place, the Czechs will have to lead the Union in its search for an alternative. This is a task difficult to perform convincingly when the presiding country itself has voted down the Treaty.

Last but not least, the Czech EU debate could easily mark the end of the incumbent Czech government. While the senior coalition party CDP is known for its Euro-sceptic stance, the Christian-Democrat and Green coalition parties are more moderate. As a result, Prime Minister Topolánek has to balance on a tight rope in an attempt to keep his government together.

In case one of the parties carries out its threat of leaving the cabinet, the survival chances of the Czech Government – which does not have a majority in parliament – are minimal. Presiding over the EU without a government would further damage the credibility of the Czech Republic inside the EU.

In short, the price to pay for rejecting the Lisbon Treaty will be high. While a delay in the ratification process can be dismissed as the growing pains of a junior EU member state, torpedoing the Lisbon project will not be easily forgotten. Therefore, Prague might think twice before consolidating its image as a European troublemaker.

The author is a PhD student of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), associated to the Centre for EU studies of Ghent University (Belgium).

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