The Czech president's objections to the European Union's latest power grab deserve to be taken seriously.
In recent weeks, Czech President Vaclav Klaus has received a great deal of criticism from both domestic and foreign opponents for his continued refusal to sign the Lisbon Treaty on European integration. Much of this criticism took the form of ad hominem attacks portraying the president as an eccentric provocateur, selfishly seeking media attention for his "extremist" views. (In fact, 65 percent of Czechs agree with him.) Virtually none of his opponents have actually bothered to engage the president on the substance of his arguments.
That is, alas, typical. Proponents of closer European integration seldom acknowledge criticism of their project, let alone address its problems. Take, for example, waste and corruption in Brussels. The European Court of Auditors has refused to certify the EU budget for 14 years in a row. Yet no visible action has been taken to make EU accounting more transparent. If the European Union were a corporation, its top management would have been jailed long time ago.
Or consider the state of democracy in Europe. Klaus is hardly the only one to argue that Brussels is increasingly unaccountable and unanswerable to anyone. In its June judgment on the Lisbon Treaty, for example, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court criticized the European Union's democratic deficit. The court warned that the Lisbon Treaty failed to fill the gap between the growing powers of the European Union and its undemocratic internal decision-making and appointment procedures.
The European Union started off as a simple free trade area, but today it increasingly resembles a nation-state with its own flag, anthem, currency, and, if the Lisbon Treaty comes into force, its own president and diplomatic service. Yet, remarkably, this amalgamation of 27 cultures, polities, economies, and histories into one superstate ruled by an unelected technocracy in Brussels is proceeding apace regardless of public opinion. Thus, when the Dutch, French, and Irish refused further integration in referendums, they were simply ignored.
Indeed, the cause of an "ever closer union" excites almost religious passions among EU enthusiasts. To be against the EU project is portrayed as not simply wrong, but evil. Opponents of integration are often dismissed as nationalists or xenophobes. In fact, it is the lack of open discussion about the European Union that pushes some people whose voices are consistently ignored to the extremes of the political spectrum. It is no coincidence that the increasing power of the European Union has been accompanied by increasing polarization in the European Parliament — the only EU body that reflects the preferences of European electorates.
Some genuinely, though mistakenly, think that the European Union is the best defense against resurgent ultranationalism. Take, for example, European Commission Vice President Margot Wallstrom. During a 2005 visit to a former concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezin, Wallstrom linked the rejection of the EU constitution to the return of the Holocaust. She said, "[Opponents of the constitution] want the European Union to go back to the old purely intergovernmental way of doing things. I say those people should come to Terezin and see where that old road leads."
It is insane to think that by protecting the right of the Czech people to be the masters of their fate, Klaus and others like him want to relive the trauma of Nazi occupation.
Other EU enthusiasts might be the victims of highly biased reporting about goings-on in Brussels. A recent report from the Swedish think tank Timbro has accused the European Union of running a "propaganda machine" that "actively advocates more European integration and prevents free debate on the future of Europe" — all at taxpayer expense. According to the report, the European Union spends "at least €2.4 billion [$3.6 billion] a year on various efforts to 'sell' EU integration, including everything from straightforward advertising, to more subtle attempts to convince people of the merits of 'ever closer union' through cultural, educational and citizenship initiatives."
Over the last 100 years, Czechs have lived under Austrian imperialism, German Nazism, and Soviet communism. Throughout those trying times, they hoped one day to regain their national independence and democratic freedoms. Today those two are threatened again. Clearly, the European Union is not Nazi Germany or communist Russia. No one is killed or jailed for being against the cause of greater European integration. But the diminution of Czech independence and freedoms is both real and relentless.