President Vaclav Klaus possesses many admirable qualities. The one I admire most is the continuous smoothness of his presentations that includes answers to difficult or, as is the case with many eurosceptic audiences, downright stupid questions.
This afternoon he gave a habitually clear and convincing explanation of all the many things that have gone wrong with the European Union - its centralizing and bureaucratizing tendencies - in the rush towards greater though ultimately unachievable integration. More specifically, he explained very clearly why the eurozone was not optimal either in its extent or its membership while asserting firmly (and, in my humble opinion, correctly) that the political investment in the project was so great that talk of its collapse was akin to a discussion of what kind of pie ought to be flying across the sky.
So where do we go from here, given that the European Union is going the wrong way, given that we know, roughly speaking, what the right way ought to be, and given that the leadership of Europe and to a great extent its people are persisting in following the wrong path? To that President Klaus apparently has no answer, no matter how often he repeats his cogent analysis. (It is, of course, possible that there is an answer in his latest book, Europe: The Shattering of Illusions, which he was launching, but I have not yet read it.)
At the same time, there is something admirable in President Klaus's refusal to pander to his audience, be they EU grandees or a collection of eurosceptics of varying degree, who usually want to hear their own views confirmed and their own prejudices reasserted.
Vaclav Klaus absolutely refused to discuss internal British politics, slyly turning every question to his own experiences with Czechoslovakia and its disintegration into the two component parts. He did, however, remind people with great firmness that the Conservative Party had expected him to hold out against all pressure and against his country's constitutional rules over the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in order to help them to win the 2010 election though they, themselves, had given up any semblance of a fight. (I wrote about that on this blog and, before that, on EU Referendum, my erstwhile blogging home.)
He also said that while he could see that the UK might, for its selfish reasons, want to be out of the EU, the Czech Republic's selfish reasons wanted the UK to stay in. He was challenged on this by Lord Stoddart of Swindon.
Briefly, the two arguments ran thus: President Klaus appears to think (and who knows what he really thinks on the subject) that the more countries there are in the EU, the less likely is it to integrate. That is our old friend, the widening versus deepening debate, which has been settled some time ago by the inevitability of every new widening being used as an excuse for further deepening. But, more importantly, said Klaus, we must have countries like Britain, countries that have genuine democratic traditions and notions, inside the EU as that will help to reverse the pernicious process of centralizing and bureaucratizing.
Lord Stoddart, on the other hand, thinks that Britain's exit from the EU would be of great benefit not only to this country but also to others like the Czech Republic who could then follow the British example and find a way out. Maybe it could even join the Commonwealth, suggested the noble peer with a smile. (I can't quite imagine the Czech Republic wanting to be in an organization with such luminaries of democracy as Nigeria or Rwanda but the obsession with the Commonwealth is one that needs a separate set of arguments.)
Once again President Klaus refused to pander to his audience, reminding us all, instead, that Britain actually had the choice of a different kind of European "integration" through EFTA, which it abandoned, preferring to join the EEC. (Lord Stoddart loudly pointed out that he did not prefer it and how true that is. He has been an opponent of Britain's participation in the European project from the beginning.)
I find it hard to believe that President Klaus really believes that Britain's continued membership of the EU would have the desired effect of turning the process of ever greater integration back towards the creation of a low government intervention free market agreement. A swift look at the history of Britain's membership should disabuse him of such a notion. Nor is he under any illusion about the Party Formerly Known As Conservative or the present government. He knows full well that he can hope for nothing from that quarter. Then again, he also knows that his position is very lonely and there is no help anywhere at the moment. One can only admire him for his tenacity (as well as the smoothness of his presentation).