Deputy Foreign Minister for Europe Vladimir Müller - Czechs will say "Yes" to Constitution

08-03-2005

In this week's One on One, Rob Cameron speaks to Vladimir Müller, the Czech Republic's deputy foreign minister for Europe. How will the Czech Republic ratify the EU constitution, with a eurosceptic president installed in Prague Castle and continued political turmoil delaying the announcement of a referendum?

Mr Müller, why does the EU need a constitution in the first place.

"It is obvious. The EU needs to be operating at 25. It needs to take quick and effective decisions, and the globalising world poses some threats and we need to be well co-ordinated. So for me the EU Constitution is achieving further steps in economic integration, plus some political co-ordination, especially the fight against terrorism."

For many months senior Czech officials have been indicating that the EU Constitution will be decided in a referendum. Recently, however, amid the political turmoil that we're seeing at the moment, there have been some suggestions that there will be no referendum and instead the Constitution will be put to parliament. Which way do you think things will go?

"Both ways are possible of course. However, as I see the composition of the contemporary parliament, I think it would be very, very difficult to ratify the treaty in parliament, and I think that some political subjects are not ready to take full responsibility for rejecting the treaty. This is why I think that at the end of the day, there will be a referendum."

The Czech people are perhaps among the more euro-sceptic people in the European Union, or at least they are more apathetic about the EU and the Constitution. Isn't a referendum in this country a risk?

"I don't think so. I'd like to say that some indications from Eurobarometer surveys but also from the pens of some political scientists are not always correct. Czechs are realistic, pragmatic, and don't believe in things in advance. In a way they are similar to Britons. And as regards pro-Europeanness, I think Czechs are quite in favour of European integration - even voters of conservative parties - unlike some politicians."

Nonetheless it's certainly a risk to leave that to chance. Obviously this government will do everything in its power to persuade the Czech people to say Yes. What's the government's strategy for the referendum?

"I think the government and the political class in general must do at least two things. They must choose good timing for a referendum and an acceptable ratification procedure. Plus they must have a good information campaign. A good information campaign means that the people are informed in an acceptable and palatable way, and that they are getting the information needed, not solemn proclamations about some very important things which people do not understand how they relate to their everyday life."

Indeed - but some say that handing out leaflets or putting up posters is simply not enough. I noticed when I came into the entrance of the Foreign Ministry this morning there was a rack of leaflets about the European Union. Is that level of campaigning enough? Should you perhaps be looking more to the example of Spain, which had a very, very bombastic campaign in favour of a Yes vote?

"I can imagine having something similar to Spain, but the bombasticity shouldn't be the same because it could bore Czechs or provoke some negative attitudes."

The Czech Republic is perhaps in a unique position in that the government is in favour of the Constitution but the country's president, Vaclav Klaus, is a eurosceptic who is against the Constitution, and he has outlined 10 points by which he explains the Constitution is a bad thing. Mr Klaus is a very, very popular man, he speaks to the people - aren't you worried that in this debate, his voice will be heard much more clearly than yours?

"You're right, his voice is heard clearly because he's a good communicator and he has high esteem and respect within the population. On the other hand, if politicians - not officials, but politicians - stand up and are clear about their points, I think the citizens are bright enough to compare facts and to make the right decision. Last time, when we had a referendum on EU entry, the situation was more or less similar and the pro-European voice prevailed in a clear way."

I'd like you just for a second to imagine the very worst-case scenario: the Czech government spends, I don't know, 200 million crowns on a Yes campaign, the vote happens, Czechs say No. What happens if the Czechs reject this treaty?

"Just to the amount of money, it hasn't been decided whether such an amount will be provided for a campaign. Second, if there will be some projects by NGOs etc, it's obvious that part of the money should also be given to the other camp. Because in a democratic society, you need to enable both sides to express themselves."

But if - if - the Czechs say No, what then?

"If the Czech Republic rejects the EU Constitution, it will be up to the Council to decide further steps. We had lessons drawn in the case of Ireland for example, or Denmark, and we know that to correct the country's position within the EU is much more costly than to prepare a referendum well. So I think it could lead to isolation of the country for a while. Not on the part of EU institutions, or from some member states, but it could exert a certain influence on investment or trade or the hallmark of the country in general."

I don't know if you're a betting man, but would you put money on the Czechs saying Yes in a referendum on the Constitution?

"Yes, I would bet money, because I know Czech citizens and I know their attachment to Europe. They only do not like solemn declarations about a future heaven, they just don't believe it. But if they have to choose between isolation of the country or to be part of the game they will choose the second option."

08-03-2005