Klaus the Mouth

One thing you can say about Czech president Václav Klaus, he’s never loath to let people know his opinions. Perhaps that’s good for a head-of-state, you might say – we don’t want any slippery focus-group-pandering politician in that top office, even if it’s mostly ceremonial! – but there’s a better case to be made that, in fact, it’s not so good. Consider this: heads-of-state generally carry the title “president,” but only in that major subset of the world’s countries which call themselves (in one form or the other) “republics,” having at some point in their histories discarded the king/queen/prince/duke representative of the hereditary, unelected system of rule that emerged in most places out of the mists of history. But a lot of other countries have still kept their king/queen/prince/duke around; so they’re not republics, although by now the sovereign generally has only a fraction of the political power he/she once wielded.

(And then there are countries like the Netherlands who got this historical process backward, never truly having a king, being in fact renowned for making itself a republic at quite a precocious age, but then having a monarchy foisted onto the top of its political structure as late as the early 19th century. But don’t get me started here.)

My point, finally? It’s this: Do we know Queen Elizabeth’s political opinions? Or those of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark – or, indeed, of President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi of Italy? No, we do not, and we’re not supposed to, because it’s the role of the head of state to represent the country externally, and to represent the state to the people internally, and also to keep the country together during crises and the like. To fulfill this all-important role he or she really needs to be accepted as impartial, meaning not having in the past uttered divisive statements (like expressions of partisan opinion) whose memory could cause anyone meeting at the palace for crisis-talks to cop an uncooperative attitude.


But in Václav Klaus’ case, let’s get down to some specifics. Can we agree that, if you go visit some country as a national head of state, that you should really be diplomatic enough to forebear from criticizing projects near and dear to the host country’s government. I mean, we would also expect a visiting head of government (e.g. prime minister, as opposed to king/queen or ceremonial president) to repay the hospitality received by substantially toning-down any disagreements, and it’s the head of government whose job it is to get down into the nitty-gritty of international negotiations and making things happen.

But the Czech Republic’s President Klaus paid a visit to Berlin last week, and while he was there he didn’t hold back from making clear his dislike for a couple of things that his German hosts rather like. The leading Czech business newspaper, Hospodárské noviny, was right on it; as it reported, for one thing, Klaus Reject[ed] “Softening” of the Stability Pact. That’s the “Growth and Stability Pact” for the countries of the “euro-zone,” which specifies that you’re to keep your government budget deficit down below 3% of GDP. That Pact, and specifically the difficulties France and Germany – but other countries, too – have experienced in adhering to those requirements, has been a recurrent topic here at EuroSavant (like, here). France and Germany initially seemed to believe that they were allowed to take the Stability Pact as advisory, not binding, just because they were France and Germany, but the uproar that has arisen over their three years of over-three-percent budget deficits has at least pushed Germany to scramble for a more believable fig-leaf behind which to continue running those disallowed deficits. The German proposal is to “soften” the Pact by taking into account incriminating circumstances when judging excessive budget deficits, like underlying economic conditions of recession.

Václav Klaus doesn’t see much merit in that proposal, and said so when he met German president Horst Köhler in Berlin. In fact, he took a hard-core line: the (anonymous) HN author quotes him as saying “If there has to be a stability pact, then I would say that it’s really an unstable thing to have any budget deficit at all.” He went on to remind assembled reporters what the initial point was behind the Stability Pact: all these countries have agreed to use a common currency, the euro, and the whole thing is put under strain when any member-countries borrow excessively and so excessively put the common currency’s credibility at risk. But do those member-countries yet include the Czech Republic? Certainly not; among other reasons, because that country currently is running a budget deficit of 4.5% of GDP, and that’s only if you exclude some one-time costs related to privatization. What’s more, there’s little sign that it’s due to come down anytime soon. But that’s not Václav Klaus’ problem, anyway; it’s the problem of the prime minister, Stanislav Gross, to match incoming and outgoing government monies as best he can, and you can well imagine that Stanislav Gross might have a rather different opinion about the desirability of some “softening” of that Growth & Stability Pact. But in the meantime, the president can go ahead and strike his Thatcherite poses.


But that wasn’t even the most extreme such pose Klaus took up during his recent German trip. HN devotes a separate piece to cover his explicit rejection of the proposed EU constitution. Admittedly, his pronouncements on this subject were drawn forth by his being asked a question from the press. “I’m not critical [of the proposed constitution, meaning that he is not “just” critical of it]. I am 100-percent against it. I should make that clear.” And you surely know that the German government is especially interested in getting that constitution ratified, by all 25 member-states (fat chance!), having naturally been key in getting the compromises through at last June’s summit that finally produced agreement from all member-state representatives. Klaus took the opportunity to expand on his remarks, by reminding everyone of his views that the constitution, if enacted, would create out of the EU “a high-handed entity that would lead us to the extinguishing of our national democracies, sovereignties, and political independence.”

The notable thing about that is not really that Klaus once again expressed a rather too-sharp difference of opinion with that of his hosts than is really proper. No, not this time; the notable thing here is that Klaus is certainly the first head of state or government in the entire EU to come out so unequivocally against the proposed constitution. After all, it makes sense that no head of government has yet turned it down since, by and large, it was precisely every single one of those twenty-five EU heads of government who finally all agreed on the text last June. The main possibility for any exception would be for a change-of-government in a country in the meantime, and the new government having different-enough views on the country’s European policy to break with the previous government and reject the constitution, and this hasn’t happened. (It wasn’t Stanislav Gross who negotiated the constitution for the Czech Republic, it was Vladimir Spidla, who was since toppled from his post as prime minister, but Spidla and Gross are of the same CSSD party – more-or-less.)

On the other hand, you would also rather think that the proposed constitution would not be rejected by any of the EU heads of state, but for somewhat different reasons. And here the circle comes ’round again to the argument earlier in this entry: it’s not really the function of an EU head of state to reject the proposed constitution. Rather, it’s a task most countries’ political processes put in the hands of the head of government. (The exception here would be those rare cases of “presidential government,” where the given nation’s constitution confers considerable power – beyond the mere ceremonial – to the president as well as the prime minister; examples here are certainly France, perhaps Poland also.) Here, the head of state, whether president or monarch, is really not supposed to make these sort of waves when it comes to something as important as the future form of the EU, but rather should simply support what the elected government came up with.

This certainly also is true of the Czech Republic: if the deal on the Constitution was good enough for Spidla, and is good enough for Gross, then the president should at least be courteous enough to provide nothing more than a dignified silence on the issue. Making such pointed comments instead, especially when the guest of those who are sure to disagree, must be rather poor form. Ultimately, though, all that just has to do with outward appearances, rather than the true substance of what gets done and what does not. But the Czech president does have a limited but real influence on the latter world through his instrument of the veto – and if and when things come to the point in Prague where the proposed EU constitution has been approved by whatever standard way(s) (i.e. by referendum and/or approval by the Czech legislature) but then is blocked by a presidential veto, then this question of the relation of the president’s opinions to the fate of the state he heads will become interesting indeed.

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