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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)

In part, Fico may be motivated by the prospect of elections next year, positioning himself as a defender of national interests to boost his popularity, Valasek said. But the move also reflects genuine concern that if the problem is serious enough for the Czech Republic to worry about, then Slovakia should make sure the interests of landowners in its border areas are protected as well, he added.

European leaders vexed

The Lisbon Treaty, a watered-down version of earlier unification attempts, was long delayed because of hesitations over sovereignty in several nations. But those have since been overcome, largely by scaling back the pact's ambitions. Since Ireland approved the treaty in a referendum this month, the Czech Republic has been the lone holdout for ratification among the 27 nations that make up the E.U.

Klaus's stand has irritated European leaders, who thought after the Irish vote that they were at last on their way -- and were already angling to see who would be the E.U.'s first president and which countries would get how many slots in an enhanced European diplomatic service.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a strong unification advocate, called Klaus's refusal to sign "unacceptable" and warned that there would be "consequences" for the Czech Republic if he continued to hold out.

Slovakia's demand also annoyed European officials, particularly because it had fully ratified the treaty. Foreign Minister Carl Bildt of Sweden, which holds the E.U.'s rotating presidency, resorted to irony at Fico's announcement. "I was under the impression that Slovakia was finished with its ratification process," he cracked.

E.U. officials said, however, that Bildt's Foreign Ministry was negotiating with the Czech Republic over Klaus's demand and would be able to expand the talks to cover Slovakia as well. The hope, they said, is for the treaty to be ratified by all E.U. governments and take effect by early next year.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not the first countries to demand opt-outs. After a first vote in which the treaty was rejected, Ireland negotiated provisions to guarantee respect for its traditional neutrality and a law against abortions, opening the way for approval in this month's vote.

Similarly, Britain and Poland insisted during negotiations on exceptions guaranteeing that nothing in the Charter of Fundamental Rights would add to the rights enjoyed by citizens under their own constitutions. Denmark insisted on an opt-out from any E.U. defense obligations.

"The difference with the Czech Republic and Slovakia is that now we are going back to it after two years," complained an E.U. official who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the delays.

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