The Czech Republic responded to what it perceives as French protectionist measures with a threat to not ratify the Lisbon Treaty. The instability in the bloc has potential ramifications on its coherence and its ability to remain an effective political entity.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek warned on Feb. 9 that if France proceeds with protectionist measures in the automotive industry, then the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by the Czech Parliament may be put in jeopardy. The Lisbon Treaty is significant for the European Union because it is a nascent constitution intended to streamline its decision making and improve its foreign policy formulation and foundation. The ratification, currently scheduled for Feb. 17, has already been postponed several times. In an interview with the Hospodarske Noviny daily, Topolanek said that someone intending to put the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty at risk "could not have chosen a better way and a better time." The Czech Prime Minister was responding directly to comments made by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Feb. 5 suggesting that French automobile manufacturers should close plants abroad over those at home (French Peugeot Citroen has a production facility in Czech Republic). Sarkozy is meeting with representatives of the French car industry on Feb. 9 to discuss conditions for the 6 billion euro (US$7.8 billion) aid package, one of which demands that no plants are closed in France. Protectionism is the death knell of the European Union. The coherence of the bloc is founded on the fundamentals of a single market, and any sign of weakening of that market would begin untying the knots that bind the member states together. However, the spat between Paris and Prague goes beyond the issue of the single market; it is just the latest disagreement in the difficult relationship between the two countries since the rotation of the EU presidency in January. Sarkozy had suggested that in the light of multiple challenges facing Europe in 2009 — from the global financial crisis to the Russian resurgence — Paris's time at the helm should be extended past January 2009, a direct shot at the Czech Republic's term. This suggestion did not sit well with the Czech Republic, which since taking the reins of the European Union has had to face fiascos immediately, including the Russo-Ukrainian natural gas dispute that cut off energy supplies to most of Central Europe, the Israeli-Hamas conflict in Gaza and a bizarre case of an artist-inspired, Prague-approved, gaffe in the main EU building in Brussels. At almost every step, Prague's leadership has been continuously challenged by Paris, with Sarkozy recently suggesting that the Czech Republic has been a "passive" leader when it came to dealing with the challenges of the global financial crisis. Prague is tired of the criticism and subversion from the perennial EU powers. The latest comment by Topolanek suggests that the Czech Republic intends to use the Lisbon Treaty — and the threat of not ratifying it, which would likely end the treaty — as a way to keep Paris (and other EU heavyweights) at bay during its presidency. The Czech presidency is already stalling the Lisbon Treaty in order to determine if the United States intends to maintain its pledge to build a radar installation for the ballistic missile defense (BMD) in the country — a sign of an American security commitment to Central Europe that the Czech Republic wants before it fully commits to the European Union. Now it has another reason to hold out, using the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty as a political lever to influence its fellow EU members, sending the message that they better fall in line with Prague's presidency. The danger with this strategy is that it will only further isolate Prague from its fellow member states — already deeply suspicious of the ability of the Czech Republic to preside over the European Union. This may fall perfectly into Sarkozy's plans to marginalize the EU presidency — when Paris is not in charge — and take the reins into his own hands.