Vaclav Klaus: the man who won’t budge on EU treaty
Is the Czech president a narcissist, a hypocrite or just a man who knows his own mind?
Given up trying to think of a genuinely principled politician in Europe who is beholden to no-one? Well, there is one, and he resides in a ninth century castle in Prague.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus is coming under enormous pressure from Brussels and other European capitals to sign the EU's Lisbon Treaty. The treaty needs to be ratified by all 27 EU member states to come into effect and after the Yes vote in Ireland earlier this month and the assent of Poland last week, only the Czech Republic's formal consent stands in the way.
Klaus is refusing refusal to sign the treaty as it currently stands because he is concerned that its clauses would enable the families of Germans expelled from Czech territories after World War Two to make legal claims for the return of confiscated property.
His delay has infuriated Brussels and led to warnings that the Czech Republic may be denied EU privileges. "It is in the interests of nobody, least of all the interests of the Czech Republic, to delay matters further," says EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. "If there is no Lisbon treaty, there is no guarantee for the Czech Republic to have a commissioner."
But if Klaus's track record is anything to go by, we shouldn't bet on him caving in to such threats. The hallmark of his career to date has been a stubborn contrariness.
A committed Eurosceptic, he has slammed the EU's lack of democracy, claiming that "one single option is being promoted and those who dare think about a different option are labelled enemies of European integration".
Unlike other post-communist leaders in Central and Eastern Europe who have followed a staunchly pro-US foreign policy line, Klaus opposed the US-led bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, criticised the Iraq war, and has taken a more pro-Russian stance, siding with Moscow during its war with Georgia in 2008.
A fearless iconoclast, he has labelled his predecessor as president, the West's favourite Czech politician, the playwright and anti-communist dissident Vaclav Havel, as "the most elitist person I have ever seen in my life".
He has also been a strong and vocal critic of the idea of man-made global warming - claiming that "communism has been replaced by the threat of ambitious environmentalism".
Opponents describe Klaus as a narcissist who loves being the centre of attention. They also call him a hypocrite: the man who said that Europe should be based on a "genuine moral conduct of life" has been exposed as a serial adulterer who has had not one but three affairs with airline stewardesses.
But whatever we think of his private life, or the policy stances he has taken, one thing is undeniable: throughout his career, Klaus has marched to only one tune - his own.
According to some reports, German and French diplomats have been in talks with their Czech counterparts to explore two ways of circumventing Klaus's opposition to the Lisbon treaty. One would be to impeach Klaus, the other to take away his right of veto. The Sunday Times quoted a German diplomat as saying that Klaus will "need to face the consequences" for his obstructionism.
But such moves - and such provocative statements - are only likely to add to his domestic popularity and strengthen his case against the EU and its supporters.
Klaus still has a further four years of his term as president remaining and the fact is that if he continues to hold his ground, it's the Brussels bigwigs who will be forced to make the concessions.
If not, then the Lisbon treaty will fail, and the future of the European project will be put in jeopardy. The stakes could not be higher. ·