After making little impression during its six-month European Union presidency, the Czech Republic is becoming a growing concern for EU officials
Just ask a European Union diplomat about the Czechs. Unofficially, of course, the answer will be that this country's reputation and image are rapidly eroding. Czech EU officials are being asked tougher and curious questions. What is happening back home? What do your politicians want? Do they know what they want? Is your eccentric president causing all the trouble?
The latest question concerns the more technical but potentially very sensitive matter of a monitoring system for European subsidies and funds.
To understand this whole picture we need to trace a long chain of events back to last spring. First came the fall of the government smack in the middle of the Czech Republic's stint in the rotating EU presidency, amid the continent's worst economic slump since World War II. The Czech political interregnum hobbled the management of EU affairs and left the union without political leadership as it sought solutions not only to the financial crisis but the painful social consequences in its train. And the stumble by a midsize, new member undermined the solidarity of the union's small and medium-size states. Next time, the big powers will have "proof" that smaller states are not capable of running the EU professionally and safely.
Another sticking point is the Czech Republic's lagging on ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Both chambers of parliament have approved the treaty, but President Vaclav Klaus says he won't decide whether to sign it until one more appeal from a few right-wing senators to the Constitutional Court, which has already repeatedly decided positively on the matter.
So we can easily imagine a scenario in which the other Lisbon laggards overcome the domestic obstacles in the way of ratification: Germany by changing legislation according to its Constitutional Court's ruling, something that is expected to happen soon; Ireland by approving the treaty in a second referendum on 2 October; and Poland with President Lech Kaczynski's signing as soon as Irish voters approve the treaty, as he has explicitly promised to do.
That would leave the Czechs as the last holdouts, looking in the eyes of many like a country firmly opposed to the smoother running of the growing union. But above all Czech politicians are damaging their own vital interests. They need cooperation in crucial areas like energy security and dependence on Russia.
With the future of the caretaker government still unresolved—early elections set for around now were postponed, probably until spring, after a Constitutional Court ruling and subsequent political maneuvers—it could happen that the europhobic Klaus will represent the country at important EU meetings. Everyone in Europe is certainly very much looking forward to that.
Adding to the sense of national dithering, there is as yet no clear Czech candidate for the next European Commission owing to the constant turmoil and inability of political factions to sit down and cooperate. By blocking the Lisbon Treaty, the country is complicating the creation of a new commission.
So this is the situation in which the Czech government is trying to explain why it still doesn't have in place its promised system to monitor the spending of EU funds. Union rules precisely prescribe how to monitor the use of European funds down to the last cent, a job that requires a sophisticated information-trafficking system. This the Czechs failed to deliver a year ago and a couple more times since. The system was supposed to be up and running by this December, but the government has not even begun the tender process.
How much longer will the rest of the bloc tolerate these repeated delays by an uncooperative partner? If this goes on our reputation could sink to the level of Bulgaria and Romania, countries that have felt the sting of Brussels' anger where it hurts most—in the pocketbook.