Vaclav Havel: Czech president is damaging the country by not signing the EU reform treaty

By Karel Janicek, AP
Thursday, October 15, 2009

Havel: Czech leader is damaging the country

PRAGUE — Vaclav Havel, who led the 1989 Velvet Revolution that peacefully toppled communism in the former Czechoslovakia, accused his presidential successor on Thursday of damaging the country by refusing to sign the EU reform treaty.

Havel, 73, said that what his bitter rival, President Vaclav Klaus, is doing “in my opinion, is harming this republic (and) is irresponsible.” The ex-dissident and playwright-turned-president spoke to journalists from around the globe to mark the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

Relaxed and smiling, Havel took the stage at the Theater Na Zabradli in Prague, the Czech Republic’s capital, where he began his career as playwright in the 1960s before becoming president 20 years ago.

“I lived here the most beautiful eight years of my life,” he said. “Symbolically, I return to the place where my public career had begun.”

He was joined by close friends from the time of the revolution, including his spokesman Michael Zantovsky, former European Affairs Minister Alexandr Vondra and Jiri Krizan.

As a reminder of the informal atmosphere of improvisation during the revolutionary days, Havel wore a brown pullover and gray trousers, which he claimed had witnessed the fall of communism.

“I can’t avoid commenting on the current political situation,” he said.

Klaus, the vehement Euro-skeptic, is the last hurdle to the European Union’s full ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, which is designed to transform Europe into a more unified and powerful global player.

After criticizing the accord for a long time, Klaus is now demanding a last-minute opt-out from the treaty’s Charter of Fundamental Rights — as Poland and Britain have done — as a condition for him to consider signing it.

Both houses of the Czech Parliament already have ratified the treaty.

Failure of the treaty would send the EU into an unprecedented crisis.

At stake for Europe are lofty plans for new posts of EU president and foreign minister, a streamlined decision-making process and more powers for the European Parliament. Treaty negotiators say the reforms are needed to make the EU function more effectively in line with its rapid growth eastward since 2004.

But Klaus said Friday that the charter “will make it possible to bypass Czech courts and to raise property claims by those who were displaced after World War II directly before the Court of Justice of the EU.”

Havel and legal experts dispute that claim.

“Such a threat does not exist, for various reasons,” Havel said. “I don’t want to analyze Mr. president’s reasons. I just state I consider it irresponsible (and) dangerous,” Havel said.

The 1945 decrees, which were issued shortly after the war by then-President Edvard Benes with the blessing of the victorious Allies, provided for the expulsion of 3 million ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia’s border regions known as the Sudetenland, where they had lived for centuries, and the confiscation of their property. The move was widely seen as revenge for the Nazi occupation of the country.

But Klaus insists the opt-out “will guarantee that the Lisbon Treaty will not lead to the breach of the … Benes decrees.”

Klaus, a conservative economist, has long clashed with Havel, the Bohemian playwright-turned-politician.

Havel, who became the Czech Republic’s first democratically elected president after the country split from Slovakia in 1993, has advocated a free and open market. Today, his country is a member of the European Union and NATO, and a staunch U.S. ally.

Havel said Thursday that despite various problems his nation of 10 million is still on the right track, enjoying a democratic society with the rule of law, respect for human rights and a free-market economy.

“I wouldn’t say we abandoned the ideals we had then,” he said.

But he also said “it takes decades” to get rid of the legacy of communism in people’s minds. The main problem, Havel said, is that “a moral order, which is a point of departure for legal order and the life of the entire society, is catastrophically overlooked.”

Regarding his fate, he said he cannot plan it, as he could the plots and characters of his plays.

Looking back in time, he said he was undecided for quite a while about whether to accept becoming his country’s first post-Communist president because power was never his goal.

But, he said, the nationwide public movement he was leading needed to offer a widely accepted candidate.

“Not to offer a president would mean a loss,” Havel said. “And I could not let that happen.”

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