Willy Nolan examines last week’s visit of the President of the Czech Republic and the diplomatic controversy that ensued.
Last week Ireland extended the full panoply of a state welcome to the President of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus. He had been warmly received by President Mc Aleese and met formally with the Taoiseach in Government Buildings. His dining company on Tuesday evening last was correctly anticipated to cause a huge diplomatic wrangle. He has since been accused of an unwaranted intervention and diplomatic discourtesy and left a considerable international storm behind him.
Václav Klaus was first elected to the office of the President of the Czech Republic in 2003 and re-elected earlier this year. Originally an economist, he has been central to Czech politics for the past two decades having served as Prime Minister for much of the nineties.
The office of the President in the Czech Republic goes beyond that of a mere figurehead with a role in some political affairs. However, it was his role this week as his country’s Head of State that put him into the spotlight in what might have been a routine state visit. Even if Klaus’ role in the politics of his own state differs from that of our president, that does not justify his use of a courtesy visit to push his own personal agenda.
As President Klaus jetted home to Prague Castle he left behind him one of the most disastrous visits of any head of state to Ireland since Russian President, Boris Yelsin left Albert Reynolds waiting on the tarmac at Shannon airport in 1994. As was the case with the Yelstin visit, it was noticeable that Klaus seemed to cause officials as much embarrassment back home as he did in Ireland coming in for severe criticism from Czech politicians for bringing the presidency into disrepute.
On Tuesday evening, the President attended a function organised in his honour by Libertas, one of the main opposition organisations that campaigned against the Lisbon Treaty referendum last summer. Klaus is a committed Eurosceptic and holds very strong views on the Lisbon Treaty. At home, he is doing his utmost to prevent its passage through parliament.
The function was held in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin and attended by some notable faces including broadcaster Eamonn Dunphy, Munster Independent MEP Kathy Sinnot and former MEP Patricia McKenna.
It was not Klaus’ chomping away on tenderloin steak though that caused the political ructions but rather his pre-dinner press conference alongside Declan Ganley of Libertas. There he warned of the risks of the ‘supranationalism’ of Europe. Describing the Lisbon Treaty as something that would not enhance freedom and democracy, he registered his displeasure that Europe wished to forget the result of the summer referendum. These comments have been attacked by government ministers and opposition spokespersons alike.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs branded it an “inappropriate intervention” with some opposition members calling for an official complaint calling it “an act of unprecedented diplomatic discourtesy”. Leader of the opposition, Enda Kenny has stated that the visit should have been cancelled.
As President Klaus jetted home to Prague Castle, he left behind him one the most disastrous visits of any head of state to Ireland since Russian President Boris Yelsin
Klaus also claimed that he would be the first to congratulate Declan Ganley if Libertas were successful in next year’s European elections. Mr Ganley has recently registered Libertas as an official party and it will be in a position to contest European elections next summer. A number of other European politicians in attendance at the function are considering running as Libertas candidate in seats across Europe.
The President is no stranger to controversy. He has previously called for the EU to be scrapped and has described it as “a failed and bankrupt entity.” His opinions on the environment are equally contentious. He is of the opinion that global warning is a useless and dangerous theory claiming that it is “a false myth and every serious person and scientist says so.”
What has made this controversy all the more heated is that in January the Czech Republic will take over from France as the EU presidency. While the Czech prime minister will be the one who will replace Mr Sarkozy in his role as President of the EU, Klaus has stated he will use the Czech presidency to further his opposition to the Lisbon Treaty.
This entire episode has given rise to the legitimacy of a foreign dignitary or politician getting involved in domestic politics. While admittedly we are part of an ever closer Europe, it remains that we are a sovereign independent country. The Irish people have voted on Lisbon and may vote again. This issue is a domestic Irish affair and the intervention of foreign politicians is neither helpful nor legitimate.
There is nothing new about foreign heads of state causing a stir when it comes to matters of an EU nature. Shortly after the Lisbon ‘No’ vote, President Sarkozy took a trip here to discuss the fallout with the government. His visit here raised heckles in its own right. While Sarkozy’s comments and opinion are more in line with that of the Government, we need a consistent approach to what foreign visiting leaders can say and do, if anything at all, with regard to domestic politics.
The Taoiseach recently travelled to China on a trade mission – for him to comment publicly on any issue of Chinese affairs would have caused consternation (and rightly so). Klaus’ comments and actions were unwelcome. The visits of foreign heads of state should not be seen, as Patricia McKenna seems to think, as an opportunity to voice opposition to the government.
Ireland and the Czech Republic have much in common as nations but this visit has been seized on to further particular political agendas. As a result, little if any good has come of it. The same criticism could and should be made of Sarkozy’s visit during the summer. In both cases, foreign leaders have been insensitive of a rift between the people and the Government and their presence has aggravated that problem.
We need clearer conditions for such state visits to ensure that such embarrassing incidents do not arise again. The diplomatic services of Ireland and the Czech Republic do not exist for the private benefit of Messrs Ganley and Klaus.