Europe on ‘autopilot’ as Czech government falls


Analysts said “Europe is now on autopilot” after Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek’s minority centre-right government lost a confidence vote in parliament yesterday (24 March). The Czech Republic is the current holder of the rotating six-month EU presidency.

The three-party ruling coalition had held a fragile majority in parliament since its 2007 appointment, and lost by just one vote after defectors from its camp supported the left-wing opposition. 

The censure motion was passed by the smallest of margins, winning 101 votes out of 200. 

The ousted Czech prime minister tried to give assurances last night that the vote would have no impact on his country’s EU presidency. 

“At the moment, this situation has no effect on the role of the president of the European Council,” Topolánek said in a statement issued by the Czech Presidency. 

Topolánek had earlier indicated his readiness to resign, although the opposition Social Democrats said his government could stay on until Prague hands over the rotating EU presidency to Sweden on 1 July. 

The opposition blamed the government for economic mismanagement and criticised reforms including a flat income tax, fees for doctor visits and budget cuts. 

Opposition leader Jiri Paroubek said a government of non-partisan experts could be formed in the summer to lead the country to early polls in the autumn or next spring. Regular polls are due in mid-2010. 

Topolánek said early polls should be held in the summer if there was no agreement on a new government. He said he wanted a fresh chance to form a new cabinet and would not support one of experts. 

Several scenarios 

The toppling of Topolánek’s government will not automatically lead to early elections and opens the door for several scenarios. 

Under the Czech constitution, early elections can only be called after three failed attempts to form a new government, or if parliament passes a special law to call an early ballot. 

The next step is now up to President Václav Klaus, who has increased powers and an indefinite period to nominate a new government. 

Given the split parliament, it will be very difficult to form a new cabinet without an agreement of the main rivals, Topolánek’s right-wing Civic Democrats and Paroubek’s Social Democrats. 

The Social Democrats lead opinion polls, but their margin over Topolánek’s Civic Democrats (ODS) had narrowed to 4.5 percentage points in a survey released last week. 

Russian connection? 

Other issues affected by the Czech instability could include the government’s long-standing plans to host a US anti-missile radar site, a move opposed by the Social Democrats that had already been put on ice due to a lack of support in parliament. 

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO, told Vesti-24 channel that those who forced Topolanek’s government to resign were categorically against the deployment of the radar. 

“Just before the meeting of our two (Russian and US) presidents in London on April 1 […] the Americans are now facing practically insurmountable difficulties in deploying their strategic anti-missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic,” he said. 

In the meantime, a US general accused Moscow of trying to weaken Western institutions. 

Addressing the US Senate’s armed forces commission, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Gen. John Craddock predicted a worsening of relations between NATO and Moscow. 

“Russia seems determined [to] see Euro-Atlantic security institutions weakened and has shown a readiness to use economic leverage and military force to achieve its aims,” Craddock said. 

Topolánek’s ousting precedes a special EU summit with President Barack Obama on April 5 in Prague. 

Implications for the Lisbon Treaty

The implications of Tuesday’s vote for the stalled ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by the Czech Republic remain unclear. 

The Czech Senate has been unable to move on ratifying Lisbon without the accompanying ratification of an agreement with the US to install a radar, part of the anti-missile shield favoured by the previous administration in Washington. 

Much is expected from the NATO summit and Obama’s visit to Prague, because the intentions of the new US administration have so far remained unclear, analysts say.

Not a precedent 

Governments of EU countries have collapsed while they were holding the Union’s reigns twice before – in 1993 in Denmark and in 1996 in Italy. But this is the first time such an event has struck at a time of major economic crisis, analysts said. 

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

Jean-Michel de Waele, professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels (ULB), told EURACTIV that because the Czech prime minister had been toppled, "Europe is now on autopilot". 

"Now that the world is confronted with a zone of great uncertainty, stemming from the global economic crisis, Czech political elites allow themselves the luxury of a political crisis. What a disastrous balance for this presidency! The incapacity of Topolánek to involve the social democrat opposition in the work of his presidency, the way he had used it for internal infighting and the never-ending dubious affairs have brought an end to this government," De Waele stated. 

He added that the defectors who toppled Topolánek's cabinet are members of parliament who are close to President Václav Klaus. Klaus is from the same party (ODS) as Topolánek. 

Russian commentator Nikita Petrov  wrote in RIA Novosti that the political situation in the Czech Republic is closely influenced by the ratification of its agreement with the United States on the deployment of a missile tracking radar. 

"Eastern Europe is not sure whether Washington will indeed freeze its plans for the missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic. In fact, the US has recently held a successful trial of its new anti-ballistic missile. It has spent $50 billion and plans to allocate another $60 billion on the global ABM system, which, frankly speaking, does not sound like a freeze at all," the Russian commentator writes. 

"Moreover, talks on a new Russian-US strategic arms reduction treaty or on the prolongation of the START-I treaty can succeed only if Washington abandons plans for an ABM system in Europe. There is a direct connection between the two issues. However, Russia is unlikely to accept the US proposal for a dramatic reduction of strategic nuclear weapons if Washington uses its ABM system as an additional shield," Petrov further elaborates. 

"The no-confidence vote will also further delay the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty. It is vital, in the interests of Europe as a whole, that the Czech Republic fulfils its duties as presidency-in-office and completes the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty," said ALDE group leader Graham Watson MEP

French MEP Joseph Daul, who chairs the centre-right EPP-ED  group in the European Parliament, said "Europe needs strong leadership in this time of crisis, and a government holding the EU Council presidency without confidence is not able to provide it".

The Czech ruling coalition emerged weakened from recent local elections, which changed the balance of power in the senate and weakened the government at a time when it is holding the rotating EU presidency (EURACTIV 23/10/08). 

Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek's government, which comprises his Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and the Greens (SZ), does not have a majority in parliament and relies on a dozen independent MPs to pass its proposals. 

Last October, Topolánek's administration survived its fourth vote of no confidence since taking office in 2007. On that occasion, 96 MPs voted against the government and 97 in favour. 101 votes are needed to topple the government. 

A third of the 81 senate seats are available every two years in the Czech Republic, and Topolánek's ODS won just three of the 26 seats that were up for grabs in the October elections. It still has 35 seats, but lost its majority of 41, while the opposition Social Democrats now have 29, up from just six before the polls. 

The Czech press had been speculating for months that Topolánek's government would fall during the EU presidency. In a televised debate last Sunday, rebellious Civic Democratic Party (ODS) MP Vlastimil Tlusty said the government had made enough errors and it was time for it to quit (EURACTIV 23/03/09). 

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