The 2009 Council presidency restricts the debate on the Lisbon Treaty

Institute of International Relations

The major political parties in the Czech Parliament all agree to the Lisbon Treaty (LT). It seems most likely that the treaty will be ratified in the parliament. This is a change comparable to the past discussions on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (TCE), in which the major right-wing party in Czech politics, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), was firmly against it. The ODS, being currently the major party of the governing coalition, has changed its position for two reasons. Firstly, the government does not want time-consuming discussions regarding a new treaty to overshadow the Czech Council presidency during the first half of 2009. Secondly, the ODS needed to find a compromise with the other two parties in the currently governing coalition, the Green Party and the Christian Democratic Party, which were both for ratifying the TCE.
Yet, despite this, some parts of the ODS remain sceptical and some leading representatives keep expressing negative opinions of the treaty, which in the view of its critics is nothing more than a new name to the TCE. This internal split in the ODS became obvious at the party congress in November. As a compromise, the party decided that the Constitutional Court should give its opinion on the treaty. Only after the Court’s ruling, the party is to decide on how it should be ratified.[1] What could cause a problem for the Constitutional Court, according to some MPs, is the Charter of Fundamental Rights. One of the reasons why the ODS earlier rejected the TCE was because of the inclusion of the charter.[2] Even if the LT does not include the charter in the text, the treaty de facto still entails the charter by referring to it.
The only parliamentary party firmly against the treaty is the Communist Party, which also wants to submit the treaty to a popular vote.[3] Also, President Václav Klaus has expressed his concerns regarding the Lisbon Treaty, even if he has restricted his participation in the public debate on the topic.[4] Thus, Klaus at least partly respects the government’s line.[5]
The Lisbon Treaty is understood in two utterly different ways in the Czech debate. On the one hand, the leadership of the ODS argues that the treaty should be understood as a radical change when compared to the TCE, and on the other hand, the Social Democrats (ČSSD), the second major party in Czech politics, argue that they support the treaty because it is, in its essentials, the same treaty as TCE, an interpretation which is shared by the critics of the treaty from the ODS.
Clearly, the biggest challenge to the treaty comes from the more Euro-sceptical wing of the ODS. This is not surprising given that the party, at its 2006 conference, adopted a resolution which prohibited ODS politicians from handing over any further competences to the EU and also from extending the agenda where decisions can be taken by a qualified majority.[6]
The position of the ODS party leadership is that the government actually managed to achieve something during the complicated negotiations at the EU level, where the Czech Republic belonged to the minority with a critical position on the original text. As achievements, the party leadership underscores (among other things): 1) that the new treaty does not include state-like symbols including the word "constitution" in the title of the treaty, 2) the principle of two way flexibility which strengthens the position of national governments[7] and the so-called yellow card, which strengthens the role of the national parliament, and 3) that the new system of qualified majority voting in the Council has been postponed until the year 2017.[8]
Due to these points, in the Czech government, the ODS party leadership argued that the Lisbon Treaty should be interpreted as a reasonable compromise or as Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra put it: “….a compromise that we can live with”.[9] Prime Minister Topolánek described it as a compromise: “…with which really no one can be satisfied. But the very capability of reaching a compromise is worth more than the text.”[10] Yet, even if the ODS accepts the LT, their view cannot be described as being entirely positive. Topolánek argued at a press conference in December that the biggest gain of the new treaty is: “that it won’t bother us anymore.”[11]
It is clear that the leadership of the ODS, being aware of its position as the leading governing party, has taken concerns regarding the 2009 presidency into account when deciding on its position on the LT. The treaty might affect the Czech presidency in at least two different ways. Firstly, in the event of a very quick ratification finished before the end of 2008, this could lead to a scenario in which the Czech presidency would have to adapt to the new institutional structure of the LT. The question is then whether the President of the European Council would be appointed already during 2008 to enter office in the beginning of 2009 or after the elections to the European Parliament. The Czech Republic, on the one hand, would not like the President of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to replace the Czech Prime Minister and the Czech Foreign Minister as the chairperson for meetings of the European Council and the General Affairs and External Relations Council meetings respectively. On the other hand, the Czech Republic would not like to have to deal with the issue during its presidency. Since Czech officials consider it unlikely that the President of the European Council and the High Representative would be appointed before the elections to the European Parliament in 2009, a smooth ratification of the LT might be the best way to avoid these institutional questions being raised during the Czech presidency.[12]
There has so far been rather little incitement from the political side to initiate a bigger public debate on the Lisbon Treaty. The general view seems to be that the LT should be understood rather as a technical improvement of existing treaties which does not affect the overall relations between the Czech Republic and the EU institutions. Therefore, the issue should be decided by parliament without necessarily engaging the public in a broad debate on the topic.[13]
Whereas there was almost a political consensus in the Czech Republic on the need for a referendum regarding the TCE, for the LT, the opposite is true. Only the Communists clearly demand a referendum on the issue. They gained support for their bill on the subject in the Deputy Chamber from three dissidents from the ODS and three dissenting Social Democrats.[14]
The critics within ODS are intending to use the Constitutional Court to stop or delay ratification of the treaty. In the event that the Court comes to the conclusion that the LT does not conflict with the constitution, it is likely that the treaty can be ratified in parliament. If not, a referendum might be an option. The head of the Committee of European Affairs in the Senate, Luděk Sefzig, argues that the opinion of the court will be crucial. In the event that it finds the LT not to be in accordance with the Czech constitution, that would, according to him, be “a severe problem.”[15] However, so far, government representatives have all stated that they prefer ratification in parliament. Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Vondra thinks that the treaty can be ratified by the end of the year.[16]
The Czech Republic belonged to the countries which were initially critical towards the idea of a so-called Committee of the Wise for three reasons. Firstly, the Czech government was afraid that the committee could be used as a way to reopen discussions on aspects of the TCE that were in the end not included in the LT. Therefore, the Czech Republic did not want the committee to deal with institutional issues. Secondly, the Czech government disliked the idea of the committee defining the borders of the EU. In the Czech Republic, there is a broad support for further enlargement,[17] and thus, there were concerns that if this would be included in the agenda of the committee, it could be an attempt to rule out future Turkish membership. Thirdly, the government had objections to the agenda of the committee as they felt that it was overly oriented towards strengthening the European social model and not concerned enough with the economic competitiveness of the Union. After the December summit, however, the government expressed more positive statements regarding the agenda of the committee. The increased emphasis on the economic competitiveness was especially described by Vondra as being a positive result of Czech and British pressures. Regarding the composition of the committee, the comments from the government have been rather positive, primarily because the three persons so far appointed reflect types of backgrounds different from those associated with top European politics. The Czech government does not intend to put through its own candidate to the committee but will try to find a common candidate with Poland.[18]

[1] Topolánek s Vondrou hájili před kongresem reformní smlouvu (Topolánek and Vondra defended the reform treaty at the congress), Czech News Agency, 24 November 2007.

[2] For a detailed discussion, see also Institute of International Relations: Czech Republic (Scenarios), in: Institute for European Politics (Ed.): EU-25/27 Watch, No.4, January 2007, Berlin, pp. 76-78.

[3] Prohlášení k evropské reformní smlouvě (Declaration regarding the European Reform Treaty) ("to" by tam mělo být pouze poku "European Reform Treaty" je zde adresát. "k" jsem chápal, jako že se prohlášení smlouvy týká.), available at: (last access: 04.03.2008).

[4] See e.g. interview with Václav Klaus, Hard Talk BBC, 12 November 2007, available at: (last access: 04.03.2008).

[5] During the former governing coalition (2002-2006), Klaus allowed himself to enter public rowels (nemyslíte "rows" ve smyslu "argumenty" ? "rowels" mi tam nepasuje) with the government on the topic of the Constitutional Treaty. Currently, the president’s own party is in government, and thus, this could explain his somewhat lower profile in regard to the topic.
[6] Usnesení 17. kongresu ODS (Resolutions 17. Congress ODS), available at: (last access: 04.03.2008).

[7] I.e. the possibility of returning competencies from the EU to the national level. In the event that the member states demand the cancelling of some valid legislation, the Commission shall pay attention to this.

[8] Výkonná rada ODS: Usnesení k tzv. Reformní smlouvě EU (The executive board of the ODS: Resolution on the Reform Treaty of the EU), available at: (last access: 04.03.2008).

[9] "kompromisem, se kterým můžeme žít". Novou smlouvu EU v Senátu podpořili zástupci ODS i ČSSD (The new Treaty was supported in the Senate by both ODS and the Social Democratic Party), Czech News Agency, 1 November 2007.

[10] "…se kterou nemůže být spokojen vůbec nikdo. Ale samotná schopnost najít kompromis je cennější než samotný text," EU se dohodla na náhradě odmítnuté euroústavy, čekají ji reformy (EU agreed to a replacement for the rejected European constitution, expects reforms), Czech News Agency, 19 November 2007.

[11] "že od něj již bude pokoj". Topolánek: Ratifikace unijní smlouvy nebude tak snadná (Topolánek: the Ratification of the Union treaty will not be that easy), Czech News Agency, 13 December 2007.

[12] Cf. Vláda: Nová smlouva EU je rozumný kompromis, jednání ale nekončí (The government: The new EU Treaty is a reasonable compromise, but negotiations have not ended), Czech News Agency, 10 October 2007.

[13] Nevertheless, there have been some debates and seminars arranged on the topic, for instance by the NGO Europeum, available at: (last access: 04.03.2008).
[14] Reformní smlouvu EU má schvalovat parlament, ne lidé v referendu (The Reform Treaty should be approved by the parliament, not by the people in a referendum), Czech News Agency, 30 October 2007.

[15] ODS chce smlouvu EU poslat nejprve k soudu, podle něj se rozhodne (ODS wants to first send the treaty to court and then make a decision on it based on the court´s decision), Czech News Agency, 13 December 2007.

[16] Vondra o ratifikaci nové smlouvy EU: Uměle to zdržovat nebudeme ( Vondra on the ratification of the new EU Treaty: We are not going to delay it unnecessarily), available at: (last access: 04.03.2008).

[17] See chapter 2.

[18] Krátký summit položil základy Reflexní skupiny (Short EU summit founded Reflection Group), available at: (last access: 04.03.2008); EU nakonec zřejmě "radu moudrých" mít bude, otázkou je k čemu (EU will evidently have the Committee of the Wise, but the question is what for), Czech News Agency, 11 December 2007.