Vaclav Klaus: The Man with the E.U.’s Fate in His Hands

Vaclav Klaus: The Man with the E.U.s Fate in His Hands

Will he sign it or will he spike it? That’s the question lingering in Europe’s capitals as Czech President Vaclav Klaus holds the key to the European Union’s future.

The Czech Republic is one of four E.U. countries — out of 27 — that are yet to finish ratifying a treaty that would allow the enlarged bloc to reform its institutions. The goal of the Lisbon Treaty, which the E.U. has been working on since its failed attempt to pass a constitution in 2005, is to boost the E.U.’s influence on the world stage by making it more effective.
The Czech government first submitted the treaty for ratification in parliament in January 2008, but its opponents, encouraged by euroskeptic Klaus, managed to put the painstakingly negotiated accord on the back burner for over a year. Finally, the Czech Senate was the last parliamentary chamber in the E.U. to approve the treaty on May 6, passing the hot potato onto the president, whose signature is required for ratification. Klaus, 67, opposes the treaty as a boon to the E.U.’s bigger members and a threat to his country’s sovereignty, and he has since kept Europe on tenterhooks as it waits to see whether or not he will sign.

The president hinted that he may ratify the reform blueprint if Ireland does — Irish voters turned down the treaty in a referendum last June and another vote is scheduled for the fall. “The Lisbon Treaty is dead for the moment,” Klaus said after the Senate vote. “Therefore, my decision on its ratification is not on the agenda for the time being.” The president’s followers in the Senate also plan to challenge the treaty in the Constitutional Court, the Czech Republic’s highest court, and Klaus has said he won’t make up his mind before the verdict.

Klaus, an economist by training, is a highly divisive veteran of Czech post-communist politics who had served as finance minister and prime minister before becoming president in 2003. He was re-elected to the five-year office last year. The Czech president is no stranger to controversy. A dogged critic of all things E.U., Klaus most recently likened the bloc to the Soviet Union. He is also a rare yet prominent global warming doubter — he does not believe that climate change is caused by man and has called costly measures to curb it a waste.
Klaus’ track record shows that he is capable of fighting his crusades to the bitter end, to which Petr Langer’s story bears testimony. In 2005, Klaus, who as president installs all of the country’s judges, refused to appoint 32 judges, including Langer, saying they were too young. But Klaus’ decision at the time had no ground in legislation and Langer, now 31, sued the head of state. The courts have since ruled in Langer’s favor, but the president, who can’t be punished for anything other than treason, has so far refused to install him. “I am afraid that he will not respect the verdict,” Langer told TIME in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, people familiar with how Klaus thinks believe that he will give the Lisbon Treaty a last-minute backing. “He will go to the very brink, but he will sign it in the end,” says Jan Strasky, a former Czechoslovak premier who has known Klaus for over four decades and once shared an office with him. “He has a control mechanism. He leaves the barricade when it becomes indefensible.” In a sign that he may not intend to kill the reform pact outright, Klaus gave up a chance to chair the E.U.’s June summit in Brussels, at which E.U. leaders plan to appease Irish voters before Ireland holds its new referendum.

But if Klaus plans to sign the treaty eventually, why create all this fuss His friends and his enemies alike say that a combination of two traits feeds his passion for going against the flow: he yearns for the limelight and he views himself as infallible. Even during the communist era, an informer spying on Klaus as he took part in informal economics discussions described him as an abrasive know-it-all. “He makes it clear that who does not go along with his ideas and opinions is simply stupid and incompetent,” reads Klaus’ secret police file. In team sports, former Czechoslovak premier Strasky recalls, Klaus used to be “insufferable,” displaying behavior he would later bring to politics: “He always knew that another player had blundered. He never forgave mistakes and his opinion had to be the final one.”

Klaus’ critics add that his long-standing rivalry with acclaimed former President Vaclav Havel, the icon of anti-communist resistance, has only reinforced his desire to make a mark. Klaus has been in office for six years, but people still confuse him with Havel, accidentally calling him by his predecessor’s name. “He will never have Havel’s standing but he wants to show: ‘I am here too,'” says Jan Ruml, an ex-politician who fell out with Klaus in the 1990s. “He wants to make history, [even if] negatively. He does not care.”
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