BRUSSELS – The Czech Republic’s leader has long been one of the most strident critics of the European Union, blasting the bloc with withering attacks at every opportunity. Now he has inherited the ideal pulpit to air his views: The EU presidency itself.
In a startling diatribe before EU legislators Thursday, Czech President Vaclav Klaus, whose country assumed the rotating EU helm in January from France, branded the club an undemocratic and elitist project comparable to Soviet-era dictatorships that forbade free thought.
Despite the uproar, this is hardly uncharacteristic of a deeply Euroskeptic leader who has refused to fly the EU flag over his official seat in Prague during the Czech presidency, saying the country is not an EU province.
“Not so long ago,” Klaus thundered, “in our part of Europe we lived in a political system that permitted no alternatives and therefore also no parliamentary opposition. We learned the bitter lesson that with no opposition, there is no freedom.”
His speech provoked boos from many lawmakers, some of whom walked out, but applause from a minority of nationalists and other anti-EU legislators.
While deeply unpopular in EU circles, Klaus strikes a deep chord in some member states where citizens fear European plans to share more powers come at the cost of national sovereignty — concerns reflected in the bloc’s continuing inability to adopt a charter aimed at jumpstarting the European project.
Even in some of the poor EU newcomer nations, which might be expected to overwhelmingly support membership in the rich bloc, there are growing grumblings about the meddlesome hand of Brussels.
Thursday’s attack against the EU from its head of state marked another rough day for the Czech Republic, which has been struggling to offer sound leadership of the EU club amid a deepening economic recession.
It hopes to get all 27 EU governments to agree on coordinating economic measures to get Europe out of its downturn in a slew of summit talks in the coming months. But the Czechs are EU minnows with little of the clout of heavyweights like France or Germany.
Czech diplomats scrambled to play down Klaus’ words. Even the president’s decision to hold his press conference at the Czech Embassy rather than follow tradition and have it at the European Parliament caused offense.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek traded barbs with French President Nicolas Sarkozy over a car bailout plan that Topolanek branded protectionist. The EU presidency is meant to take the role of neutral arbiter.
A Czech art installation launching the presidency at EU headquarters also caused a stir by depicting Bulgaria as a squat toilet, leading to official protests by the fellow EU member. The Czechs were forced to apologize and — in a diplomatic fig leaf — covered up the offending image.
On Thursday, Klaus raised more eyebrows when he branded the 785-member parliament undemocratic and spoke out against the new EU treaty which would give the EU parliament more powers and oversight.
Klaus said the 27-nation bloc should concentrate on offering prosperity to Europeans, rather than closer political union, and scrap a stalled EU reform treaty that Irish voters have already rejected.
He said that questioning deeper integration has become an “uncriticizable assumption that there is only one possible and correct future of the European integration.”
“The enforcement of these notions … is unacceptable,” Klaus said. “Those who dare thinking about a different option are labeled as enemies.”
Lawmakers were aghast at Klaus’ attempt to compare the EU to the Soviet bloc.
“Mr. Klaus outlined a completely twisted and manipulated view of European reality,” said Green leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit. “To seriously compare the decision-making process in the EU with that of the Soviet Union indicates that the man has lost all touch with reality.”