Czech Leader Refuses to Sign Lisbon Treaty Without an Opt-Out

Ethnic Germans make their way in July 1946 to the train station in Liberec, in what is now the Czech Republic, for transfer to Germany.
Ethnic Germans make their way in July 1946 to the train station in Liberec, in what is now the Czech Republic, for transfer to Germany. (Associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Friday, October 23, 2009

PARIS -- Europe's latest step toward a more united future, which seemed at hand after long delays, has become bogged down over a forgotten chapter from the continent's bloody past: the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II.

The unexpected hitch has provided a vivid reminder that the nations that gave birth to the European Union are only one generation away from the World War II and Cold War horrors during which the lives of millions were sacrificed to ideology or nationalism.

The man most responsible for tripping the memory switch on those stormy days is the president of what is now the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, who is known as a Czech nationalist skeptical of giving the European Union supranational powers.

Although the Czech Parliament has voted favorably, Klaus has refused to sign off on ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, a two-year-old pact that would grant greater powers to the E.U. leadership in Brussels and create a European president for the first time.

Before he signs, Klaus said, he wants a special provision added to the Lisbon Treaty's Charter of Fundamental Rights. The last-minute add-on, officials said, would exempt the Czech Republic from paying reparations or returning land to the estimated 2.5 million ethnic Germans who were expelled from the Sudeten areas under the 1945 Benes decrees, named after the Czech president at the time.

The expulsions were among a number of ethnic cleansings carried out in Central Europe after World War II to undo -- and take revenge for -- what happened when the regions were occupied or annexed by Hitler's Third Reich. Although largely relegated to history books, the issue still has the power to arouse concern in the Czech Republic's western border areas where most of the expulsions took place.

"This may strike a chord in the Sudetenland, where this issue is very sensitive for all the obvious reasons," said Oldrich Cerny, who was national security adviser under President Vaclav Havel and now heads the Prague Security Studies Institute.

Slovakia also objects

Most legal specialists maintain that, even without a special opt-out, the Charter of Fundamental Rights would not endanger the status of Sudeten property owners after all these years, Cerny said. The expelled Germans have not mounted legal challenges, and German officials have said their government is not interested in pursuing claims.

But Klaus has seized on the issue as a "last-ditch" instrument to further delay his signature on the ratification document, which he actually opposes, Cerny added.

Tomas Valasek, director of the foreign policy and defense section of the Center for European Reform in London, said Klaus probably realizes he cannot hold out much longer and is insisting on the treaty change as a way to save face when he finally relents. "Basically, this is a way for him to sign on to the Lisbon Treaty and claim victory at the same time," Valasek said.

In that vein, Klaus told an interviewer last week that, once Sudeten landowners are protected, he probably will sign the treaty despite his reservations. "The train is going so fast and it has gone so far that I think it is impossible to stop it, whatever our desire might be," he said.

But further complicating the situation, Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia said Sunday that he, too, wants an opt-out to protect Slovakia from any problems over the expulsion of ethnic Germans. Slovakia, which was part of the single country of Czechoslovakia at the time, was also covered by the Benes decrees, although a much smaller number of Germans were expelled from its territory.

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