Central European politicians have been hogging the headlines in the last few weeks. Aside from the slow-motion car crash of Viktor Orban’s government in Budapest, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and Czech President Vaclav Klaus have attracted considerable coverage, but have left very different impressions.
On September 17, Mr. Sikorski appeared in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, writing alongside his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle. Marking the publication of a report by the Foreign Ministers from a group of eleven EU member states, the pair outlined their vision for guiding the EU out of its economic crisis, safeguarding peace and re-invigorating European prosperity.
Mr. Sikorski and Mr. Westerwelle asked “Aren’t you weary of reading and hearing news that heralds the blighted state of the European Union and its impending demise? We are.” Instead of succumbing to the fatalistic political economy that sees the EU as doomed, the ‘Future of Europe’ group proposed a democratization of European integration in order to empower both European people and institutions.
In their vision, a redesigned Eurozone and an integrated foreign policy that would allow Europeans to punch above their weight on the world stage and better deal with the blows of economic fate requires “greater powers at the European level” but “only if they are democratically legitimized. Therefore we also propose to strengthen the European Parliament and the involvement of national parliaments.”
Predictably, Mr. Klaus had a different message. In an interview with the conservative, Eurosceptic British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, the conservative, Eurosceptic Czech President received a warm reception as he lashed out at those, like Sikorski and Westerwelle, who dare to see a positive vision for European politics.
According to Mr. Klaus, this is part of the “final phase” of the destruction of democracy and the nation state by “two-faced” politicians who have supposedly “managed to short circuit the minds of the people, making a link between Hitler’s aggressive nationalism (nationalism of a totally negative type) and the traditional nation state.”
Typically, Mr. Klaus cited the Czech past as a reason for his Euroscepticism “Especially after our Communist experience, we know, very strongly and possibly more than people in Western Europe, that the process of democracy is more important than the outcome.”
However, Mr. Sikorski, also claims the past as justification for his present position. On September 21, addressing a gathering of British Eurosceptics outside Oxford (his alma mater), he chastised them for their shortsightedness and delivered a strong defence of European unity.
“Do not underestimate our determination not to return to the politics of the 20 century. You were not occupied. Most of us on the continent were. We will do almost anything to prevent that from happening again. It’s not difficult to see why. Poland wants to be with Germany and France as partners, leading a strong, democratic European political-economic space.”
Despite contrasting communist-era experiences (Mr. Sikorski was a dissident, Mr. Klaus a well-placed official at the Czechoslovak state bank) their difference of views on the EU is significant, given their instinctive Atlanticism and controversial veneration of Margaret Thatcher.
Mr. Klaus continues to steer Czechs on a course of parochial isolationism, and a ‘principled’ defence of democracy that has embraced Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. Mr. Sikorski however has come to see not only the pragmatic, but also the principled benefits of democratic European integration that puts Poland at the heart of Europe.
While Mr. Sikorski bestrides the world stage, doing the hard political work of winning hearts and changing minds through debate and discussion, Mr. Klaus is seemingly content to spend time in odious echo chambers such as the libertarian Mont Pelerin society or snipe from the sidelines, courting controversy to support sales of his latest book.
Despite the Daily Telegraph’s fawning Mr. Klaus has neither the courtesy nor diplomatic skills to get a good hearing for his views, as anyone from Czech-Canadian schoolgirls greeting him on a state visit, to EU diplomats visiting the Prague Castle at Christmas can testify. Czechs deserve better than a self-serving leader hiding behind a veneer of principle and, with presidential elections looming, they may look enviously across the border as they seek a candidate who can better represent them at home and abroad.