The Czech government on Wednesday approved a referendum bill that would allow the public to decide about fundamental issues relating to the country's internal and foreign policy. If it gets through parliament, it will open the door to a referendum on the EU Constitution.
Daniela Lazarova has been following the story. Daniela, does this mean that Czech politicians have finally agreed on how the EU Constitution should be ratified?
No, not yet, which is a pity because the Czech Republic is the only EU member state which has yet to decide how that all-important EU document should be ratified. There seems to be general consensus that it should be by popular vote, but this bill is unlikely to pave the way for it because paradoxically it stands very little chance of gaining approval in the Senate. The problem is that it enables referendums to be held on any important issue. A referendum could be called on the grounds of public demand -half a million signatures would suffice, it could be called by two thirds of members of either chamber of parliament or by the government itself. The opposition Civic Democrats do not like the idea of referenda becoming a usual part of the Czech political system and say they will use their majority in the Senate to block the bill. Petr Necas, a senior party official, justifies this decision:
"We are not against referendums as such, but we do not see any reason why we should support this general bill since it will not enhance the quality of democracy in the Czech Republic. There are states, such as Switzerland, which have the institution of referendum and others, like Germany, which do not. One cannot say that democracy in Switzerland is better than that in Germany because of this. Of course, there are situations in which it would be better for the democratic system to base its decisions on a popular vote and in such a case we would support a one-off referendum. We feel that one-off referendum bills should be linked to a single issue and approved by both houses of Parliament."
Does this mean that Czechs will not be able to decide on the EU Constitution by popular vote?
No, at least the Civic Democrats say that this is not their intention. In fact they have submitted a bill on a one-off referendum on the European Constitution, on condition that it should be held this year. So given the fact that the governing coalition is also in favour of ratifying the document by popular vote this is a bill they could agree on. The only problem is that the governing coalition wants the vote to take place next year within the framework of the 2006 general elections so this dispute could delay its approval. And there isn't a great deal of time to lose because a referendum takes some organizing and all 25 EU member states are supposed to ratify the Constitution before October of 2006.
The question that comes to mind is - if the coalition government knew that a universal referendum bill stood almost no chance of approval why did they bother to send it to Parliament?
Well, most commentators see it as party politics. Commentator Jiri Pehe has this to say:
"In my opinion the ruling coalition hopes to show that the Civic Democrats are against referendums and that, in the end, if we don't have any referendum on the European Constitution the Civic Democrats should be blamed. I think this would be a big mistake because, in a country where the issues surrounding the EU Constitution are so unclear, it would be useful to have a referendum preceded by an information campaign that would explain a lot of things."