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Anxious EU awaits Czech verdict on Lisbon Treaty

Published on 05/05/2009

Brussels -- European leaders are anxiously awaiting a Czech Senate vote on the Lisbon treaty this week, amid French and Germans warnings that EU enlargement can't continue unless the reforms are ratified.

The latest signals out of Prague are fairly upbeat that the Czech upper house of parliament will approve the treaty designed to streamline the working of a union which has expanded from 15 to 27 nations since 2004.

While the Irish voters have caused a major problem for the treaty, by rejecting it in a referendum last year, the Lisbon focus is now on the Czechs.

The issue has been complicated by the recent fall of the Czech government and its pragmatic Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek who will step down days after the May 6 vote to be replaced by an interim administration ahead of a general election.

Topolanek’s departure, the result of a no-confidence vote in parliament, has raised fears that eurosceptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus will start assuming a greater role in European Union matters, with his country still holding the EU’s rotating presidency until the end of June.

However many observers see the Czech upper house backing the treaty.

"I was very pessimistic at first. But I have changed my point of view, because there is a majority of people in the Czech Republic today who think there will be a majority in the Senate, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters last week.

"I expect a positive result," echoed Czech Deputy PM Alexandr Vondra.

The Lisbon Treaty, which enshrines a new post of EU president and cuts the number of EU decisions subject to national vetoes, was passed in the Czech lower house in February.

It will go to the Senate on Wednesday, where it will require a three-fifths majority in order to pass.

The key factor will be the stance of a handful of senators from Topoloanek’s centre-right Civic Democrat party (ODS), concerned that the country will lose too much national sovereignty via the Lisbon Treaty.

Topolanek’s ouster has led to some fears that these party members will be less inclined to remain loyal to the outgoing administration.

Even if there is a "yes" vote in the Senate, Klaus as head of state would have to formally sign and ratify the text.

The Czech president has never stated openly whether he would block the passage of the treaty if it is approved by parliament.

However comments he made in February are typical of his stated stance.

"I fear that attempts to speed up and deepen integration and to move decisions about the lives of the citizens of the member countries up the European level can have effects that will endanger all the positive things achieved in Europe in the last half a century," he told the European parliament in Brussels back then.

The Lisbon Treaty — drawn up to replace the original EU Constitution project torpedoed by French and Dutch voters in 2005 — must also still be formally ratified by Germany and Poland.

However the two real sticking points are the Czech Republic and Ireland, which has promised a second national referendum on the issue late this year.

To put the pressure on for a "yes," France and Germany have warned of a freeze in further EU enlargement if the treaty is not fully ratified.

"For enlargement we need a unanimous vote. I would find it very strange that Europe has trouble agreeing on its institutions but that it would be able to agree to allow in a 28th, 29th or 30th member," French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned last year.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who seemed open on the matter last year, now shares Sarkozy’s stance.

The first victim would be Croatia, well set to become the 28th EU nation some time after 2010, although a border dispute with EU member Slovenia has slowed that process down.

According to Andreas Maurer, analyst at the German Institute for security and international affairs, the German government is already thinking of ways to introduce elements of the Lisbon Treaty into the adhesion treaties of Croatia and fellow potential EU member Iceland if necessary.

But further eastwards enlargement, something the Czechs are very keen on, would remain blocked.