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Vaclav Klaus, EU and Illusions of the Past, Present and the Future

Published on , , Sofia

I never expected that one day I will wake up being in one club with Czech President Vaclav Klaus, of whom I knew that he was not only a eurosceptic but was a handbrake for the unique project "European Union"; that he tested the patience of the entire union, remaining the last head of state to sign the Lisbon Treaty, the writing of which took the EU a decade of energy; the man who often refuses most of the European initiatives. The latest such refusal was joining the fiscal compact (a new treaty for fiscal discipline, signed by 25 member states of the EU, without Britain and the Czech Republic).

Two months ago, however, I realised that I ask myself many questions about where the Union is headed to, what it brings us, what it has been for us so far, etc. These questions crystallised into a text, provoked by the situation in the eurozone and the EU at large, the search of a rescue, solution, vision for the future. We hardly expected that after 10 years of writing of a constitution, reduced to another treaty (Lisbon), we will be forced that soon again to imagine our common future together.

So, while I was deliberating, observing the processes in the EU closely, I got a proposal that I was unable to reject. A colleague of mine, who is also a publisher (Kalin Manolov, MaK publishing house), called me and offered me to present at an unofficial premiere Vaclav Klaus's book "European Integration Without Illusions". An incredible chance, I said to myself, because finally I will be able to see with my own eyes and feel with my conscience what kind of a person the Czech president is, whom I knew only from the media and had no personal impressions from him. I agreed immediately, got an excerpt from the book and started reading, putting aside all the other books, waiting for their turn on my night table. I approached the book as a challenge of the type "let me see now what is this that Mr Klaus does not like about the EU".

I will tell you nothing about the book itself, because you have to read it for yourselves and feel it. I will share with you only that part of the thoughts this book evoked in my mind. First of all it is very important for you to realise before opening the book who you are - whether you are from a new member state, from an old one, from a liberal, from a conservative, a successful, dependent or less dependent, one of the influential in the EU or one of those which follow. It is also important that you are aware before starting to read what your attitude toward the EU is. When you are clear about all these things, then you will see that in fact Mr Klaus raises very important issues, which we either do not think about or think about a little. As he himself said when presenting the book in Sofia on March 27, "many Europeans have not been paying sufficient attention to the developments on our continent or have not looked at them analytically".

The book has no pretences to offer a solution, neither has the ambition to change your vision about the world. The main purpose, clearly stated by the author, is to provoke a debate about where are we headed to, because I also share his feeling that at the moment we are in state of inertia which is too dangerous.

By the way, when I told you that it is good that you are aware what kind of a reader you are, I missed to tell you that I had a very good chance because Vaclav Klaus came to Sofia to present two of his books and the sequence in which he did it made me think in a bit broader context. First was presented his book "Where Tomorrow Starts?" of the East-West publishing house - a book, dedicated to communism and the lessons from it. Regretfully, I have still not read it but from the presentation the Czech president made I thought again about how important it is societies to analyse their historical heritage from time to time. In the EU, especially in its older part, people live in a kind of ideal, and as I myself wrote in February, the European integration so far was a bit romantic, dedicated to correcting the mistakes from World War Two. The difference is, though, that half of the continent lived another post war story - the communist one, which left a durable footprint in the conscience, mentality and vision. If this is not understood well enough, it will be a hurdle in our joint European co-existence.

This is one of the greatest disappointments which President Klaus shared with us - that there is a lack of sufficiently deep analyses of communism. It is perceived quite shallowly even in the countries that lived through it, which is to a large extent a reason for their current inconclusive getting rid of it. This is also the reason why in the EU some behavioural phenomena are difficult to understand, like Hungarian PM Viktor Orban or Bulgaria's PM Boyko Borissov, who is not that popular at the EU level but is of the same type. What was interesting was that when presenting his books, the Czech president quite often tried to involve Bulgaria in his feelings and to include it in the common story of the former socialist camp in the presence of three Bulgarian presidents - the key figure of Bulgaria's transition Zhelyu Zhelev, the president who had two terms and was elected from the Socialist party, which succeeded the communist party-state Georgi Parvanov, and the newest president Rosen Plevneliev, who started his term in the beginning of this year, a representative of the ruling party.

"I ask myself where we are now, whether we have already arrived at the destination where we wanted to be - capitalism, parliamentary democracy, market economy. My answer was and is mixed - nominally we are there but the reality I don't mean just the Czech or Bulgarian reality but the European reality as well, is not a full fledged parliamentary democracy and or a genuine market economy". Painful questions, which I am not sure that we in Bulgaria are asking. Even more painful they become when solutions are being thought at the European level, because every time when an important common European decision is taken, we face the realities. Take for example the common budget - we constantly talk about cohesion, catching-up, about competitiveness. But the simple providing of money will not deliver the needed cohesion. What is needed is much more efforts to understand why something can happen with some, and prove to be impossible with others. Often the answers lie in the past.

Kalin Manolov, the publisher, started the presentation of Klaus's book "European Integration Without Borders" with the words: "Brussels is seen better from Prague than from Sofia". Words that got stuck in my mind as a spike, firstly because I see a lot of truth in them and, second, because I realised how does Prague look like and how does Sofia. While the Czech president was speaking in terms of "both the Czech Republic and Bulgaria", I realised that the Czechs are where they are because they wanted to, because they thought about it, because they discussed it. Bulgaria is where it is because the only achievement for it is joining the EU. From then on, every big achievement of governments in a row is related to EU funds absorption - for what, why, what are the results, it is not clear - it is important that we have cashed down our membership. We have managed to put the label "Member of the EU" and now nothing is asked of us, aside from swilling.

In the same time President Klaus says: "We should stop the centralisation, harmonisation, standardisation of the European continent and after half a century of such measures start again decentralising, deregulating, desubsidising our society and our economy. And my final point, point number six, we have to return to democracy, which can exist only at the level of nation states not at the level of the whole continent". It is a fact that Vaclav Klaus has theses that I don't agree with - I consider them a bit far-fetched and are probably due to his long past in a communist environment.

But like I said at the unofficial premiere of the book in the library of the Institute for Market Economy (IME), if the Czech president was my president I would have stood behind every word of his, because he would have taken me and my country to a better present. Alas, my presidents and rulers so far never managed to make me feel good. I feel good only when I realise myself as an EU citizen. The reason for this is that we often do not take part in the dialogue, if there is any dialogue at all. And there should be. This is why I vigorously advise you to read these two books.

Frank Burgdörfer
8 April 2012 18:49
Adelina, your article made me curious. I watched the youtube Video of Klaus in Sofia. And I must say: Just the usual unreflected crude mix of semi-scientific observations, superficial analysis and personal opinion. 
Just a few examples: He just repeats what he has been saying for 2 decades now: That EU left the "good track" of intergovernementalism dominant in the first decades and shifted to supranationalism then. Maybe one should tell him a little about the Union's history, about the reasons why the British first did not want to join. He talks about the "commander's heights" in Bruxelles, insinuating that the commission n was able to overrule or dominate member states and thus demonstratively ignoring the the Balance of power in the European Union. He repeats once more that the sovereign debt crisis had its origins in the monetary union, loosing absolutely out of sight once more that the reason for debt lies in too high spendings. And in the end, he once more repeats the nonsense that democracy was possible only (!) on the level of nation states (as they in his point of view seem to form some 'natural state') - as he has been doing it for many years now without providing and evidence for this ridiculous statement. 
Vaclav Klaus enjoys the role of the outsider and seems to find support by a part of his national Czech public for that. He expresses his points of view and fights for his convictions. So far, so good. However, the fact that he takes the pose of a lonesome fighter should not make us lean back as he seems to be somebody offering clear words and orientation in difficult times. Instead, his positions and statements deserve the same critical analysis as those of everybody else. Even his arguments require evidence, even he must be expected not to draw conclusions from own assumptions only. 
The way you present him and talk about him leaves me a kind of perplexed: "If the Czech president was my president I would have stood behind every word of his..."  Why is it relevant here whose president he is? 
Sure, we need a dialogue. But let us stay rational and sincere and avoid any kind of heroism, which won't bring us any further. 
Adelina Marini
9 April 2012 11:53
It is important whose president one is, because, like I said, when approaching the EU topic one needs to know where he stands in the conversation. For us, the Bulgarians, the EU means much more than the national state because it provides more. Obviously, the Czechs did well with their transition and feel they can do on their own. I will not fight this if that is their choice. You are perfectly right that Mr Klaus needs arguments and can be refuted, as I said in this article too. But still, it is important to know the starting point of a conversation. That's the only thing I meant. And once again, now more than ever Klaus's arguments could score more points than, say, 5 years ago. Why? Because of the crisis, because of the austerity, because of the blame game, of Greece, may be Spain. I might have not made it clear in my text but this is the point - we need a conversation. A sober, detailed and thorough conversation. Whoever makes their point clearer and louder would win the hearts of the people. 
9 April 2012 17:15
The Czech republic IS part of the European Union. It IS part of Schengen. It accepts all obligations of an EU member state. And so far, I never heard that financial support by richer EU states was rejected by Prague. So far, the Czech Republic would not qualify for EMU, once it does, it can decide to stay outside as some others. Economic dynamics make the Czech central bank fully dependent on decisions taken in Frankfurt anyway. 
His points lack evidence now as five years ago. 'The crisis' requires action, it requires political decisions, it means the arrival to real world were 'doing good for everybody' is not possible any more but where priorities matter and prices have to be paid. So far, the illusion was kept by many, that European politics is different from national politics, there is always win-win and never conflict between different political positions and camps. This illusion is gone. We need to discuss the right approach to get out of the debt crisis. At the same time, we need to define what social security systems we need and want to afford - and how they should be constructed ideally. We need to discuss whether we see a need to protect the environment and the global climate. In all this points Klaus takes extreme positions, far away from European majorities. This in no way means that Europe is 'wrong' and 'undemocratic' as he likes to assume.
You are right when you say: We need European debate! There is nothing we need more, and we need ways to make it possible - by a vibrant parliament, by intellectuals aiming to reach beyond their national public spheres. In this respect, Klaus activities are a valuable contribution to the true democratization of Europe. 
However, judging by the substance, Klaus insists in purely symbolist points, his argumentation lacks evidence and is shallow therefor, and his overall attitude is first of all narcissistic. 

And finally, Adelina: No, the value of an argument depends on the substance and not on the originator. I thought after enlightenment  it would be unnecessary to even state that.....
Adelina Marini
10 April 2012 07:54
Here's where you're wrong - Enlightenment was for some, not for all in Europe. In some places stronger, in others weaker, and in third places absent. Nonetheless, it has nothing to do here. And i think you're wrong about something else - European politics is indeed different from the national one, at least in some countries (can't speak for all of them) and this is part of the problem. This is where Klaus gains momentum, as well as other political formations as in the Netherlands, France, etc. What I'm saying is that these should not be underestimated. Why, because, in spite of the lack of argument (not for all the theses by the way), these people resonate Europe- and world-wide. And there's plenty of evidence that European politics differs from national one. And, again, it is very very important when discussing Klaus what part of Europe you're from. It matters, believe me.
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