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He proclaimed himself pro-European ever since he took office, but has also criticized Brussels on several occasions

09 con Barroso

He ordered the flag of the European Union to be hoisted on the Prague Castle, and invited, to his inauguration ceremony at Hradčany, the President of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and together, they signed the economic stability, better known as EFSF. Measures that his predecessor – the Euro-sceptic par excellence – Václav Klaus had refused to do for many years. Miloš Zeman has  shown to be an authentic pro-European and a reliable friend of Brussels, one you can count on to take on and support European issues – even those that the former tenant of the Castle loathed, and from which he distanced himself whenever he could. Leaving aside his  “gestures and words”, however, the new president of the Czech Republic is gradually throwing off the mask and the Europeanism of the past – perhaps more apparent than based on a solid conviction – and now seems to have given way to a sort of opportunism, peppered with authoritarian ways. His judgements on colleagues, who sit back on their European chairs – reported in an article on the Financial Times – leaves no room for doubt on what Zeman thinks: in Brussels there are many “people” but not enough “personalities”, the Czech head of the state declared.

“In the EU today there are too many party officials, but few leaders. A lot of people, but few personalities. And I am the sort of person who respects  personalities”, he explained during the interview with a mix of scorn and praise.

There are some, however, who see this type of declaration as a sort of compliment to those who are seriously involved in European politics, but also as tough and harsh criticism towards those who idle and do very little to make the EU grow. The truth, perhaps, lies somewhere in-between and in Zeman’s well-known inclination to joke heavily and to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Thus, on the one hand, he has clearly moved away from Klaus and from the British Conservative, David Cameron who spoke of collaboration between London and Brussels: “This is the difference between me and Klaus and between me and Cameron. We  do not cooperate with the EU, we are the EU”. On the other hand, the Czech head of state has reiterated that Prague should not sign the “Fiscal compact”, which in fact does not carry the signatures of Great Britain and the Czech Republic. Furthermore, Zeman has made it quite clear that he does not agree with the new EU directive on tobacco, which puts thousands of jobs at risk, as well as the rules on energy-efficient light bulbs: “Even I have a high energy-efficient light bulb in my cottage, but it is like being in a graveyard ”, he complained.

Zeman had already shown this two-facet style on previous occasions, as well as during his visit to Germany, when he criticized the EU for its “soft approach” towards terrorism and compared it to the accommodating attitude of Western powers during the Nazi-fascist dictatorships of the thirties, indicating at the same time a common EU defence policy, with a European army and national police forces. As usual: running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

However, Zeman did not use any puns or jokes in his stand against the EU directive on tobacco. During his first visit to Brussels as president, six months after his inauguration, he pointed out that common sense should prevail in the European Parliament: to save jobs and but he did not mention this – the investment in the Czech Republic by Philip Morris. The multinational tobacco company has, in fact, a large plant in Kutná Hora in central Bohemia.

An almost lobbyist type of operation,   disguised as a trade union President. “I firmly believe that common sense should prevail, and we should protect the interests of approximately 1,500 employees at the Philip Morris factory in the Czech Republic, as well as that of almost 10,000 workers who depend on the prosperity of the company”, declared Zeman – an inveterate smoker himself – who went on to say that he had discussed the issue with the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, and added that it was his intention to express the same concept to the other EU leaders.

Thus, after the initial enthusiasm for turning a new leaf, following the Klaus era, the first signs of doubt are beginning to take place in Brussels on the Zeman “ally”. The main concern is the president’s authoritarianism and his interference in the country’s politics. In European circles, though, they stress that: the old fox has not overstepped the mark yet and knows well how to manoeuvre. “The president can only express his own personal opinion – Zeman stated regrettably – but I always say things openly, because the Head of State also has the right to appoint the prime minister – he explained while referring to the government crisis, during which he asserted his influence. – Must the President not be a politician? So, what is his real purpose?” As regards the possible violations to the Constitution or his too outright interferences, Zeman commented: “They accuse me of being a dictator, because I called early elections and appointed an interim government. Can you imagine a dictator calling free elections in his own country?”

And to those who compare him to the Hungarian Orbán, often accused of plotting against the Constitution because of his extreme positions, he replies by defending the Magyar prime minister, who  dealt with free elections and strong opposition parties, two essential ingredients of democracy. A defence, which is not surprising, given that during a recent interview with the Financial Times, Zeman quoted several times Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, calling them heroes, who helped to unite their countries.

by Daniela Mogavero