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Meet Vaclav Klaus, the man who is holding up Europe

There is now one man standing in the way of the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus presides over a country of 10.4 million people in a block of 27 countries — the European Union — that comprises nearly 500 million citizens. And, it should be added, that he is not even president in the same sense that Barack Obama or Nicholas Sarkozy is president, which is to say the holder of an executive position. Rather the Czech presidency is more of a figurehead position, with the government — led by the prime minister — serving as the real executive power in the country.

Despite all of this and despite the fact that the Czech parliament ratified the Lisbon Treaty in the spring, which many experts say obliges the president to sign it, the obdurate Mr. Klaus is still resisting.

One-by-one his excuses have fallen away — a legal challenge in Germany; the Irish still have not voted on the treaty; the Polish president hasn't signed it either; a legal challenge before the Czech Constitutional Court. The German challenge was rejected long ago by the court there. Last week the Irish voted overwhelmingly to ratify the Lisbon Treaty; and this past weekend Polish President Lech Kaczynski signed the treaty.

It is true that there is still an appeal before the Czech Constitutional Court but the court has once before rejected a claim that the Lisbon Treaty would be in violation of the Czech constitution and would infringe on the country's sovereignty. So, there is little reason to think it will rule differently this time. But rule they will, probably before the month is out.

With pressure ratcheting up on Klaus to sign, he's come up with a new gimmick. He's now demanding a clause be inserted that would protect the country from restitution claims from Sudeten Germans. (Sudeten Germans were forcibly deported from the country after World War II — under the Benes decrees — because many Sudeten Germans are widely believed to have supported Hitler's plans to annex the German populated Sudetenland, which was part of then Czechoslovakia, and remains today a part of the Czech and Slovak republics.) Czech experts say issues of property restitution are essentially resolved, and EU experts say nothing in the Lisbon Treaty is going to change that.

EU leaders in Brussels, as well in Paris and Berlin, have called on Klaus to sign, with so far vague threats of retribution if he does not.

Domestically some have even called for his impeachment, claiming that his refusal to sign is a violation of his constitutional responsibilities. While the president has the authority to veto legislation passed by parliament — which can be over-ridden with a two thirds majority vote — he is obliged to sign international treaties ratified by parliament. In other words the president is not supposed to make policy and/or laws but simply sign them in what is an essentially perfunctory administrative task.

But President Klaus has long been a strident opponent of European Union integration. The media charitably call him "a Euro-skeptic," though he proclaimed himself to be "an EU dissident" late last year. Supposedly he would like the EU to be nothing more than a free-trade zone, and he views anything more than that as an infringement on the country's sovereignty.

The treaty itself is a sprawling reform document intended to streamline the cumbersome bureaucracy of the EU. Key changes include doing away with the six-month rotating presidency in favor of a fixed two-and-a-half-year term. It would also attempt to give the EU a common foreign policy voice, and also allow more legal and bureaucratic changes with simple majorities, rather than unanimity, which has become increasingly difficult to achieve since the bloc, which started out with just six members, now has 27.