Czech Reputation on the Line

Notice anything different today? Do you feel that edginess in the air? OK, those of you reading this from outside of Europe are probably too far away to get the full effect, but what about all you Europeans? After all, as the Czech daily Lidové noviny writes, “All of Europe is following along today with tension to see whether the Czech Senate ratifies the Lisbon Treaty which is supposed to reform the EU.”

OK, maybe the local Czech press is overstating somewhat the general interest in what the Senate has before it (although the Czech Senate Press Office does report the presence today of seventy journalists and eleven foreign film-crews, including one even from Hong Kong.) Still, the fact remains that, three months after the lower house of the Czech parliament approved the Lisbon Treaty, today the vote is to be held to see whether the upper house does the same (which is required, of course, along with the presidential signature, for the Czech Republic formally to approve it).

You really have to wonder: why is the vote being brought up just now? You see, there’s a knotty problem for any vote, which is namely that for a foreign treaty like this to pass it needs to win at least a 3/5 vote of all Senators present and voting. But precisely when a vote is scheduled for any measure before the Czech parliament is presumably up to those heading the current government, mainly the prime minster, So we have an important clue in the fact that in a few days the current prime minister, Mirek Topolánek (having lost a vote-of-confidence in the lower house a little over a month ago) is going to have to make way for Jan Fischer, who is supposed to be a non-political technocrat but who many fear will merely be a political puppet of Czech President Václav Klaus.

I think that pretty much explains the timing, then: while Topolánek may not have considered this to be the ideal time to bring up the Lisbon Treaty in the Senate, it was at least better than anytime after he had to leave office, when there could be no assurance that it ever would be brought up at all. Of course, the outgoing prime minister was also on-hand to urge its acceptance before the Senators, as recounted in a further article from LN with an arresting title: Stop any further shame, Topolánek lobbies. “Shame”? Certainly: Topolánek’s point was how doubly-embarrassing it would be for the Czech Republic to reject the Lisbon Treaty not so long after voting out its government just as it was in the middle of the country’s first opportunity to serve as the six-month EU president. He termed that last action an “irresponsible and cynical step,” and as its main victim he would, but his main point was a good one nonetheless. A “no” vote would consign the country to the EU’s “periphery,” he claimed before the assembled Senate; what’s more, “it would threaten all lands to the east of Germany and Austria with a weakening of their ties to the West and move them into the arms of the Russians.”

While that last point is debatable, it’s still true that rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by the Senate would unleash a whole new set of problems for the EU (while at least rendering irrelevant – for a while, at least – the issue of when and how to hold a second referendum in Ireland about it). If the past is any guide, the immediate issue then would become how to maneuver so as to get the Senate to vote on the treaty again sometime in the future and, this time, to return the “correct” answer. While on the one hand such a process would seem to be a bit easier and less-ostentatious than repeating a whole referendum (the remedy for the previous Irish “no”), on the other hand it would still be very difficult to pull off against the Euro-sceptic resistance to be found throughout the Czech government, including most especially in the president’s office.

In any case, Topolánek’s main point is certainly valid: the Czech Republic would suffer a big blow to its European reputation. This point is reinforced by another LN piece (sourced to the Czech press agency ČTK): They say the Czech presidency could have been worse. The point of this article is, on the occasion of the last legislative session of the European Parliament in its current form (i.e. before elections coming up on June 4), to go around and ask MEPs what they think of the Czech presidency so far. The bottom-line is that no one is yet ready to provide a firm answer; the general attitude is “Let’s see them finally ratify the Lisbon Treaty, and then we’ll see what we think about them.”

Ratify it is what they’re going to do, though, at least according to Josef Kolina in his article The Czechs are fans of “Lisbon,” but they aren’t familiar with it, who cites a insta-poll carried out over the past couple of days that cites 51.2% of respondents for the Lisbon Treaty and only 29.2% against. So that means the Senate should accept it, right? is what Kolina seems to be saying, even as that poll further reveals – and it’s no big surprise – how lacking the Czech man-on-the-street is in familiarity with the changes that treaty will bring about.

Rate Yourself: Lisbon-Fan or No?

I know: that’s a rather naive attitude. But one of LN’s competitors in the market for Czech daily newspapers, Mladá fronta dnes, comes out seemingly in answer to Kolina’s concerns with a helpful and informative article, by one Zuzana Kaiserová: Fill out the quiz: Are you a fan of Lisbon, yes or no? It’s not really a “quiz” as you probably think of the word, i.e. it’s not some sort of test to see how much you know about the Lisbon Treaty, but is rather a self-evaluation questionnaire – you know, along the lines of “Are you really good in bed?” and other such articles you see all the time in women’s magazines – that is supposed to help you decide in the end whether you are “pro” or “contra.” Of course, these things can never truly be as non-partisan as their authors claim them to be; it generally does not take too much ingenuity in slanting the questions to ensure that the reader comes up most of the time with the answer that you prefer.

Looking at the questions making up this “quiz,” I’d have to think that Kaiserová is not a fan of Lisbon. Like, for example: “Does it bother you that [the Treaty] will weaken the role of the Czech Republic?” Or: “Do you want one more – European – president?” Or this: “Would it bother you if the Czech Republic no longer had Vladimír Špidla in the European Commission?” (I guess there the answer would depend on your opinion of Vladimír Špidla; he was Czech prime minister earlier in this decade, and is now European commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs & Equal Opportunities.)

UPDATE: There’s one more EU crisis avoided: the Czech Senate did pass the Lisbon Treaty.

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