Farewell to Europe’s troublemaker Václav Klaus

The end of the Czech president’s mandate on March 7 marks the departure from the European stage of a controversial figure and high-profile Eurosceptic. But behind his provocations, lay a lack of political vision.

Published on 7 March 2013 at 15:49
Václav Klaus during a press conference at the Prague Castle in December 2012

In many ways a medium-sized Central European country could hardly have wished for a better president: an experienced, energetic and erudite politician of international standing able to engage both with the big European issues and handle the domestic problems thrown up by fractious politicians and crumbling coalition governments.

A president tough-minded enough to periodically remind its citizens that they were living not in an impoverished mafia state, but in a tolerably well-administered, reasonably prosperous, if inevitably flawed, European democracy.

As president, during the last 10 years Václav Klaus has been all of these things.

But he has also been a blisteringly controversial head of state, whose views have often been sharply at odds with most of his fellow politicians or fellow citizens. Provocative and unignorable, Klaus has been loved and (more often) loathed at both home and abroad, making him as his Czech biographer Lubomír Kopeček rightly terms him, a political phenomenon.

But what lasting impact does his 10 year period in office really leave?

Defining a presidency

If Klaus's time as ODS [the largest liberal conservative party, founded by Václav Klaus in 1991] leader and prime minister [1992-1997] were largely defined by economic transformation, his presidency has been defined by European integration and the Czech place within Europe.

Klaus had been a critic of the EU since early 1990s and his concern with the nature of Czech statehood dates from the same period. His move towards a more traditional view of Czech national interests as defined against those of Germany and the German-speaking world also dates from before his presidency - from approximately the period of the Opposition Agreement.

But as president his publically expressed views on European integration radicalised markedly. The EU is no longer just a set of institutions constraining Czech statehood and individual freedom, but is now seen as an almost existential ideological threat. "Europe-ism" becomes the most visible part of a many-headed hydra taking in "post-democracy", concerns over global warning, "homosexualism", "humanrights-ism" and other Klaus bugbears. Integration had no longer merely to be corrected and braked, but thrown into reverse to create a Europe of nation states and free markets.

Pressure on the eurozone

Such a radicalisation partly reflects the greater political freedom the presidency offers. Surrounded by an entourage of his own choosing, the president was no longer encumbered by the need to compromise with party and coalition colleagues. It also reflected the changing Europe context: Klaus’s presidency coincided with the EU Constitution and its successor the Lisbon Treaty, which proved a powerful focus for him.

The eruption of the eurozone crisis - where Klaus’s early scepticism about the Euro proved well founded - only served to define Klaus in terms of EU issues.

At the same time, however, Klaus’s euroscepticism remained oddly abstract: we knew what he feared - and most certainly what he opposed – but little about what practical steps he wanted taken. While other eurosceptics, both in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, championed options ranging from flexible integration to à la carte Europe or full blown withdrawal from the EU, Klaus’s extensive writings and speeches offer no specific programme or strategy for the European questions that preoccupied him.

Moreover, in practical political terms Klaus's two presidential terms were a story of defeats and climb downs.

Limited reach of his ideology

Despite leaving the ODS in 2009 and saying that the Czech Republic needed a new eurosceptic conservative party, he failed to found - or even to endorse - one. Instead he was confined a destabilising, off stage presence in the internal politics of ODS, gaining some political leverage over the Topolánek and Nečas governments as their parliamentary majorities dissolved.

But Klaus’s defeats conceal a deeper truth. The brand of eurosceptic conservative nationalism developed by Klaus in the later part of his political career, while it appeals to some, has ultimately limited support in Czech society. This was true in 2002 when the failure of an election campaign based on "national interests" first led Klaus to seek the presidency. And it was true in 2013, when, polls suggest, most ODS supporters backed Karel Schwarzenberg despite Klaus’s rejection of him as not properly Czech. Euroscepticism and nationalism, where they appeal to Czech voters at all, appeal to those on the left close to KSČM.

Klaus hailed Miloš Zeman’s victory by ironically quoting Vaclav Havel's words about the truth and love overcoming lies and hate. But the greater irony is perhaps that - despite vast gulf in political outlook and personality that separated them, Klaus’s presidency revealed many of the same failings and limitations as that of Havel: a head of state preoccupied by a grand political vision trapped by the constitutional weaknesses of his office; the weakness of public and political backing for his ideas; and the limited weight of his country on the international stage.

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