Flagging Václav Klaus

Let me start here with a quick apology to my €S readers: I know that the subject dominating the headlines these days is the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, so I am overdue in bringing up for discussion on this forum some apposite article in the non-English-language press that supplies a piquant perspective on the tragedy unfolding there. And “overdue” I will have to continue to be, as I have yet to find a piece that truly qualifies for that treatment, unless you are willing to count my indirect approach to the Mid-East in the form of my previous discussion of what is possibly – but probably not – a little-known source of EU leverage over Israel.

I’ve got another indirect take for you here: Questions of leverage apart, has the question crossed your mind as to why on earth there appear to be two EU delegations heading to Israel to try to influence things there, namely the one headed by the Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg and the one with French president Nicolas Sarkozy? Seems rather inefficient, no? Still, it all becomes perfectly logical in light of the fear and loathing felt across the EU at the accession – brought about simply by the requirements of the EU calendar – of the Czech Republic and Václav Klaus to the EU presidency for the next six months. To these observers, the contrast between what they fear from the Czechs and the admirable activism that marked France’s just-completed term at the presidency is so agonizing that they simply can’t let go – and thus you see, in effect, both “before” and “after” versions of EU diplomatic delegations in the MidEast.

This fear of what the Czechs may bring to the EU at what has turned out to be a crucial period, both for its internal affairs and its external relations, is real. Quite apart from the beginner’s mistakes you can expect from a small country undertaking the presidency for the first time, there is great worry over Klaus’ controversial stands on various EU issues and how they might serve to gum up the works still further. (A broad segment even of Czech opinion shares these concerns, by the way. I’ve got to see if I can find an article or two out of the Czech press about that to discuss.) But today there comes a most interesting opinion piece in the Financial Times Deutschland, by Nils Kreimeier (Witch-hunt in Prague), that bravely takes up the unconventional view that maybe Václav Klaus is not someone to worry much about but rather is the sort of personality that the EU should welcome.

Kreimeier’s lede: “The strong revulsion towards the Czech EU presidency reveals an inability to handle conflicts. Old Europe can’t just maneuver around contrary opinions.” His target is what he calls the “consensus in a core Europe dominated by the French and Germans” – the EU conventional wisdom, if you like. This consensus is very “green”-oriented, it certainly looks to European governments for action to counter-act the current economic crisis, and, above all, it seeks to have the Lisbon Treaty finally ratified by all the EU states and so take effect as, in essence, that body’s new constitutional treaty.

On all these points of that Franco-German consensus – and, rest assured, some others, too – Václav Klaus has come out on the other side. Even more than that, the Czech president’s very personality has brought him out on the other side in the most provocative way possible (including a notorious trip to Ireland he made last year – that’s the country that rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum last June, you will recall – where he took the time to meet with the head of a very prominent anti-Lisbon Treaty advocacy organization). As Kreimeier puts it, “Klaus does not tone down his often doubtful positions, he does not allow himself to be convinced . . . . He is a conflict-loving politician.” This rather prickly disposition, together with the timing that happens to give his country the EU presidency now, naturally turns him into the renegade that all good EU advocates love to hate.

Franco-German Arrogance

But Kreimeier suggests that that is a much too simplistic view to take; it does seem that there is much more opposition to the Lisbon Treaty, for example, than this conventional wisdom likes to admit. And he buttresses his argument with two delicious examples of that French-German EU arrogance in action. For one, he briefly reminds us of Jacques Chirac’s comments in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq when confronted with an anti-Saddam, pro-US petition originating mostly from the EU’s newer members from Eastern Europe, namely that they had “missed their chance to shut up.” But he devotes rather more length, at the very beginning of his piece, to describe a visit to Prague Castle and President Klaus by three Euro-MPs at the beginning of last month. Two were German, one really French-German (namely Daniel Cohn-Bendit, or Danny the Red), and of course they were worried about the upcoming Czech presidency. As Kreimeier describes it, Cohn-Bendit brought along an EU flag on a flag-stand and during the meeting ostentatiously set it out on Klaus’ desk, to see what he would do. This gesture was a clear reference to a mini-controversy that had raged a little while before, in which the then-EU president, Sarkozy, had criticized Klaus for never allowing the EU flag to be flown publicly at Prague Castle.

Kreimeier (unfortunately) does not describe Klaus’ reaction; I guess that if there had been actual fisticuffs and bloodshed, we all would have found out about it. But the point is rather the sort of attitude – the French-German EU consensus attitude – that Cohn-Bendit’s gesture revealed. Kreimeier:

Now, there would have been good reasons against such a gesture. For one, it had been about 70 years since the Germans changed the flag-arrangements in Prague the last time [a reference to the Nazi take-over in Prague of March, 1939] – something that for many Czechs is still very contemporary. For another, countries like the Czech Republic, Poland, or Hungary entered the EU because they hoped that no one would ever prescribe to them again which flags they had to hoist.

So “Lay off Václav Klaus!” is Kreimeier’s message. He “does not represent any viewpoint that would be inconsistent with the EU’s fundamental principles [Grundverständnis].” More importantly, the EU cannot do itself any favors by ceasing to think, by ceasing to be open to new ideas and contrary opinions – in effect, by fossilizing itself in a hide-bound consensus. It may even be that unpleasant gadflies in the mold of Václav Klaus, who at least are willing to overturn the applecart of accepted opinion, are precisely the personalities who are key to the EU’s future.

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