Czech Republic's E.U. Holdout Has Public Support

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Czech President Vaclav Klaus

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, a fierce critic of all things related to the European Union, is the only thing standing between Europe's élite club and its mighty future. Until he signs the Lisbon Treaty — the Czech Republic is the last holdout among E.U. members — the E.U.'s grand reform plan remains in limbo. While politicians across the continent have spent weeks wringing their hands, trying to figure out how to compel Klaus to sign the document, the majority of Czechs are standing behind their leader. "I actually like him. He is an intelligent man who knows what he is talking about," says Anna Hrubesova, a 17-year-old student in the northern town of Vratislavice nad Nisou.

Although Klaus is fiercely opposed to the treaty, which aims to overhaul the E.U.'s decision-making procedures and establish a full-time President of the union, it's looking more likely that he will grudgingly sign it. He is bound by the Czech constitution to approve the document after the parliament endorsed it and he indicated in an interview last weekend that it was probably too late to derail the process. However, the deeply Euroskeptic President has devised a shrewd face-saving plan which allows him to still emerge a winner — at least in the public eye. He has demanded that an exemption be added to the treaty to protect Czechs from potential property claims by the families of ethnic Germans who were expelled from the former Czechoslovakia after World War II. Klaus claims that the E.U. Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is part of the Lisbon Treaty, could become the basis for such property-restitution lawsuits.

The demand has vexed European lawmakers who see it merely as a stalling tactic. The E.U. has no power over issues of private property and the Charter of Fundamental Rights cannot be applied retrospectively. But in parts of the Czech Republic, where the wounds of the war are still surprisingly fresh, the property-claim issue has deep resonance. In a national poll published in the Lidove Noviny newspaper on Oct. 16, 65% of Czechs said they backed Klaus' stance on the exemption.

On a recent drizzly afternoon in Vratislavice nad Nisou, not far from the German border, red apples were peeping out from beneath heaps of early snow on the trees. In the 16th century, Germans settled alongside Czechs in the town and built flourishing factories, one of which is said to have produced a carpet for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City that was deemed the world's largest in the 1920s. But Czechoslovakia's German minority suffered greatly in the Depression on the eve of World War II and many threw their support behind Konrad Henlein, leader of the country's pro-Nazi ethnic German party. As punishment, the Czechoslovak government ordered most German-speaking citizens in the country to be deported after the war and their property seized.

Today, Anna Hrubesova and her family live in a worn municipal villa, divided into four apartments, which once belonged to the Henlein family. They also own a weekend house the government confiscated from other German residents. "You can tell yourself 10 times that nothing can happen," says Anna's mother, Iva, a 37-year-old brunette on maternity leave. "But court proceedings may take half a year and you will lose your nerves." Iva's grandmother was a local German who avoided expulsion because she was married to a Russian. Despite having German lineage, though, her daughter Anna doesn't want to see Germans return to the area. "I don't mind if they come to visit but I am not keen on them settling here again," she says.

A few snow-filled streets away, Milan Bezucha, a 53-year-old ambulance driver, isn't afraid he'll lose his 1905 Art Nouveau villa to the descendants of the original German owners without the Lisbon Treaty exemption. But he still agrees with Klaus, who is seen by many as being more empathetic to the concerns of ordinary Czechs than his chief critic, former President Vaclav Havel. "Given my experience with Czech authorities, there could be a gap and one could lose anything," he says with a bitter laugh.

Vaclav Houzvicka, a sociology lecturer at J. E. Purkyne University in the northern city of Usti nad Labem, says he's not surprised by the public response. Numerous surveys in recent years have shown that around two-thirds of Czechs remain wary of Germany, despite their country having entered the E.U. and NATO, he said. Moreover, the issue of the deported Germans is still emotionally charged. "The layer is so thin that it is sufficient to press one button and it is all back," he says.

Not everyone stands with the populist Klaus, though. Havel has blasted the President's holdout position as "irresponsible and dangerous." Author Jaroslav Rudis, who has written about the expelled Germans, also questioned Klaus' motives. "Every time I hear someone play this card I feel like the war has never ended," he tells TIME. "It's like it's from a different planet." Diplomats have griped that the Czech Republic's standing in the E.U. has hit a new low, with some talking about how the country could be denied a seat in the next European Commission.

Whether Klaus gets the exemption he is demanding in exchange for his signature will likely be determined on Oct. 29-30 when E.U. leaders gather for a summit in Brussels. But even if he fails to wrangle any concessions from the E.U., Klaus has succeeded on one front: shoring up his support among the Czech people. "Vaclav Klaus is a great pragmatist," says Jan Kubacek, a political science lecturer at Charles University in Prague. "He neither enters lost battles nor wants to lose face."