The EU constitution suffered another major set-back on Monday when Britain announced it would be postponing its referendum vote. The decision provoked immediate reaction from pro-constitution politicians including Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, who has been pushing for the ratification process to continue. Here in the Czech Republic, as elsewhere, doubt has grown over what to do next: should - and can - the constitution be saved? Or is it, as critics say, in rigor mortis.
"Last week Mr Paroubek's government was still promising to go ahead with the ratification process, in defiance of the two "No" votes. But, since then the plot has thickened: following Britain's decision, it will become more difficult to hold the course. Following the announcement even the Czech Republic's prime minister, Jiri Paroubek, was forced to admit the situation had grown much more complicated for the Czech government. He appeared on BBC television's 'Newsnight' and said it would now be impossible to ratify the constitution without renewing debate first. So, although pro-constitution politicians have been putting a brave face on the crisis, it seems they will first have to decide on some kind of joint-strategy before they can decide what to do next."
A lot for EU representatives to think about at the EU Summit next week...
"The question is whether to try to save the constitution after some delay or - though few are admitting it - to scrap it altogether. There is also the possibility of saving bits and pieces - not without irony, since no one knows for certain which bits and pieces would be 'acceptable' for all, and really whether some kind of truncated document would have a greater chance of being accepted than the current treaty itself. Of course the EU Summit has taken on immense significance. Politicians like the Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek certainly hope that the constitution can be saved, but their chances of having the document fully-ratified - at least at this moment - appear slim."
The Czech Republic's strongest opposition party, the Civic Democrats, announced the constitution "dead" immediately after the French vote, never mind the Dutch. How will they be viewing developments?
"It's safe to say they will keeping the pressure on the home front: you may recall that their deputy - now Euro MP - Jan Zahradil walked out of the Convention - that was set up to draft the treaty - two years ago in protest against the document, and his and other Civic Democrats' views on the constitution have not changed. Already they are firmly against the ratification process continuing: they see the referendum as redundant - and expensive under the circumstances, given that the government's information campaign will cost 200 million crowns, or about 8 million US. They will almost certainly be trying to drum up public opposition to the vote."
As part of the debate about the constitution, Czech and international academics met in Prague on Monday to discuss what lessons can be learned from the referenda in France and the Netherlands and how the process of European integration should continue. The Prague Institute for European Policy - the Europeum - invited both French and Dutch academics and former politicians to explain to a Czech audience something of the background to the rejection of the European Constitution in their countries.
In recent days the Czech media have often reported that many French people voted against the European Constitution due to fears of cheap labour coming from the new member countries. But Pascal Lamy - a former French member of the European Commission - believes that the role of the EU enlargement in the French referendum is often overstated.
"I'm not sure if the French voted against the enlargement - part of the 'no' is about that but that is not the vast majority. I think the reality is that the French public opinion which has mixed very much the domestic issues with the European issues wanted to send very strong negative signal to the government. The enlargement hasn't played a big role. For instance when the French 'no-sayers' where talking about the Polish plumber, it tells much more about the globalization than about Europe."
The Dutch social scientist and Social Democrat Rene Cuperus says that this was also the case in the Netherlands. He says the Dutch did not vote against the enlargement that has already taken place, but were more afraid about future EU borders.
"The no-vote was not about the enlargement as such. Don't underestimate that we in Holland see it as a historical task to integrate the post-communist countries. But the problem is much more the insecurity about the enlargement - the insecurity about where the enlargement stops. Does it stop with Turkey, does it stop with Ukraine, does it stop with Croatia, will we integrate Israel, Morocco....? The uncertainty about where are the limits of Europe, where will it end, when will we start to build a new cohesive, coherent Europe without having all kind of new members every day, every year...That's the main problem of enlargement. But there is no problem with the enlargement in terms of the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland."
Whereas the French European Constitution critics claim it establishes a new neo-liberal system of unlimited capitalism, the Czech critics who come mostly from the right part of the political spectrum say it would establish a bureaucratic socialist super-state. According to Rene Cuperus, the current Dutch attitude would be closer to the Czech one.
"I'm a Social Democrat myself but in fact I am more than a Social Democrat, so I'm more in favour with the Czech right wing people. I think Germany and France are rather old fashioned countries in terms of their economy and thoughts - they are more or less the losers of the globalization - the globalization is a sort of Anglo-Saxon (English speaking) affair. They are in panic because no-one speaks French and German anymore, not even in the Czech Republic. They want to keep their power by the Brussels bureaucracy, but the problem is it will not modernize our economies in the Czech Republic or in Holland. You should reform yourself at home. So I much more agree with the Euro-sceptical position of the Czechs. You should be wary of a new communist-like centralized superstate in Brussels. I think we should build another Europe, not a centralizing bureaucracy but a much more flexible open Europe."
Monday's debate was just one of many events currently going on here in the Czech capital devoted to the future of the European Union. The shock of the votes in France and the Netherlands seems to have awakened a far deeper interest in where the continent is heading. In Wednesday June 8th programme Radio Prague will be reporting from another EU-related conference - this time to look at the chances of Ukraine one day joining the club.
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