Lisbon Treaty: Czechs wary of taking Pole position

Celebrating New Year 2009 at start of Czech presidency of EU. (AFP)
Celebrating New Year 2009 at start of Czech presidency of EU. (AFP)
Hospodářské Noviny (Prague)

The Czech Republic, like Poland, has yet to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, which is being blocked by President Václav Klaus. Hospodářské Noviny deplores the lack of proper debate in Prague, which has left the citizens of the Czech Republic in the dark on an issue that is better understood in neighbouring Poland.

Only the Polish flag flies over the Belweder Palace in the heart of Warsaw, which is where the Polish President welcomes foreign dignitaries — and no further flags were added last week, when the palace was the venue for a two-day conference, in which Czech civil servants, diplomats and journalists recounted their experience of the European Presidency to their Polish colleagues. The Republic took charge of the EU's rotating Presidency in the first semester of 2009, and Poland will assume the Presidency for the second semester of 2011.

Lech Kaczyński and Václav Klaus, the presidents of Poland and the Czech Republic, are extremely wary of anything bearing an EU label — and to a certain extent, both men have set the tone for public debate on the European Union in their respective countries, with Václav Klaus being the more outspoken of the two. And it is perhaps for this reason that we have the impression that 20 years after the fall of the communist regime and five years after joining the Union, the concept of the "European Union" is a largely devoid of content.

Incomprehensible Eurolese

On the level of technical administration, the civil servants from both countries demonstrated a high level of expertise and confidence in last weeks conference at the Belweder Palace. On occasion, their EU jargon bordered on the incomprehensible, but it was comforting to see that they knew what they were talking about. It is apparently much easier to manage administrative matters than it is to manage the flow of monies from European funds, which has been a problem for both countries — and they are not alone in this regard. The truth is that the boundary between administration and politics is somewhat blurred when it comes to Europe, because, at the end of the day, the battle over European funds will be fought in the field of politics. On the level of politics — and this is the downside of the European project — debate on fundamental issues has been sadly lacking at a time when knives have been drawn over the issue of the Lisbon Treaty: What exactly does "European Union" mean today? What future do we want for the Union and how do we expect to contribute to it? And what position have our political parties adopted on the EU?

Two thirds of Czechs and Poles believe that joining the EU has been a positive development for their respective countries, and only 25% of people in both countries are reluctant to describe themselves as Europeans. But why, from one country to another — from Poland, where euroscepticism is largely a marginal phenomenon, to the Czech Republic, where on the contrary euroscepticism is the dominant opinion among the elite — is debate on the European Union so radically different?

The explanation appears to be simple, and to a certain extent, it also applies to public debate on the Lisbon Treaty in the Czech Republic, which has been largely non-existent: the Polish elite and Poland's rank and file citizens consider membership of the European Union to be a massive social improvement. On the one hand, Brussels appears to have endless funds for the construction of motorways and railways. On the other, it is a breeding ground for ideas, a place for the development of all kinds of new strategies and policies. Finally Brussels also provides the axis for the transmission of Polish influence in Europe, and this view is even more prevalent in Warsaw now that Barack Obama has announced that his administration will not move ahead with a plan to establish an American missile-defence shield in Poland.

Eurosceptic Czechs, a "false and hollow" image

In the Czech Republic, membership of the European Union is not viewed in the same way. Most people see it as marking the Republic's accession to a circle of nations to which it used to belong — the circle of the world's most developed democracies. No one speaks of massive social improvement — a notion that is barely mentioned in the windless defence of the Lisbon Treaty mounted by Czech euro-optimists, which has let the eurosceptic president dominate public debate, and at the same time project a "false and hollow" image of the Czechs as opponents of Europe.

Obviously, we should not idealize the Poles or their nationalist outlook. But we would do well to emulate the enthusiasm and vehemence with which they define and defend their interests in Europe, and the manner in which Polish partisans of the European Union have been able to respond to any challenge posed by their eurosceptic opponents. What we need is a debate on fundamental issues associated with the Czech Republic's involvement in Europe, which are too important to be left in the expert hands of clever technocrats and civil servants, who know exactly how many cars will be required to drive a delegation from point A to point B, how to fill in grant applications for a biomass energy projects, and can even explain the precise meaning of "appendix 1 of the current Environment Ministry directive number 5/2008."

It is our failure to address this need, which has created so many difficulties for the Lisbon Treaty, and prompted so much uncertainty in the Czech Republic.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.