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The week for me began in London with a snow storm that paralyzed the capital. The entire bus network was pulled off the road on Monday. And the subway — or 'tube' as they call it — which is known for delays in the best of times, was beset with numerous line closures and delays across the system. I thought I had positioned myself well over the weekend, being just three tube stops/15 minutes away from my appointment on Monday. Alas that line was down on Monday and the circuitous route I was left with took about 45 minutes. It's true that London doesn't get very much snow but one would think that being about as far north as Calgary, Canada they could at least cope with a 7-inch snow storm. Whether they did or not, I guess, depends on your definition of "cope." Many banks and other shops were closed, and many people simply didn't or couldn't go to work. But the city was beautiful beneath the blanket of white.
A short 2-hour flight back to Prague on Tuesday somehow managed to eat up the whole day after factoring in the airport gauntlet. So I was left with a short week to try and explain why and how the Czechs are holding up a massive reform movement in the European Union, known as the Treaty of Lisbon. The odd thing is that the Czechs are not, historically, a stridently nationalist country. Love of country? Yes. Nationalist? No. The country hasn't had a nationalist party in parliament since the early or mid 1990s. And it was a source of chortling for some that the leader of the nationalist party happened to bear a striking resemblance to Mr. Bean, aka Rowan Atkinson.
As mentioned in this week's dispatch, the conventional wisdom was that the prime minister here, having survived a challenge to his party leadership in December — a challenge resulting from electoral disaster in October — that the party would then coalesce around him. Not only was Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek reaffirmed as his party's chairman, but President Vaclav Klaus — a founding member of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS); who is openly hostile to deeper EU integration — formally renounced his affiliation with ODS.
Party members who shared his disdain for the EU were free to leave the party as well, as a new, openly anti-EU party, was being talked about. But none of the ODS members bolted the party with the president, which would have been political suicide for them. But so far they have not fallen into line behind the man anointed to lead their party, as well as the government.
For now advocates of the Lisbon Treaty, both at home and abroad, are holding their fire. But for how long? The Czechs currently hold the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, and the government very much wants to host the next EU-U.S. summit, probably in the spring, and welcome President Barak Obama to Europe. They also want to push for EU expansion into the Balkans and develop something of a pan-European energy policy during their presidency. None of this is likely to happen as long as the renegades in ODS tie -up the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty.
And there's also the issue of the government's very survival. With the three-party governing coalition now a minority in parliament they are beholden to a power-saving deal with the leading opposition party — the social democrats (CSSD). The CSSD have agreed to refrain from a vote of no-confidence in the government, and let the ODS lead the country through the EU presidency on the condition that the coalition government ratify the Lisbon Treaty.