Friday, February 08, 2008

The Slovak roadblock for the Lisbon treaty

by Tomas Valasek

Fear the unknown unknowns, the former US defence minister Donald Rumsfeld once said (before falling victim to his own adage). There is a lesson in his words for the framers of the Lisbon treaty. The document unexpectedly encountered trouble in Slovakia. Twice this week, the country's parliament came close to voting it down. A third scheduled vote on Thursday 7th February was postponed indefinitely.

Until the end of January, little in Slovak politics hinted at the coming storm. The Lisbon treaty enjoys robust support in the parliament, with only one smallish party, the Christian Democrats, saying they would vote against it. In fact, Slovakia is one of the 18 countries that had ratified the previous, more controversial, constitutional treaty.

Then, however, the Lisbon treaty got caught up in an unrelated political controversy, something that has happened to other EU treaties in the past. In this case, the government submitted the Lisbon treaty alongside a disputed media law. The opposition has insisted that it would reject both pieces of legislation unless the media law was changed.

The law in question is indeed problematic. Its wording is so convoluted that it could easily be abused to restrict the freedom of speech. The European Federation of Journalists has criticised the legislation, and the OSCE has urged the Slovak foreign minister, Jan Kubis, to convince his government to change it.

But that still does not explain why the Lisbon treaty had to be taken hostage. What underlies the Lisbon treaty controversy in Slovakia is a complete breakdown in communication between the opposition and the government. The three-party coalition headed by Prime Minister Robert Fico has a comfortable majority, which it has used over the past year to roll back many of the previous government's reforms. Fico’s coalition barely disguises its contempt for the opposition, and there is precious little debate, much less co-operation, on any new legislation.

The leaders of the opposition a coalition of three conservative parties know that they'd be powerless to stop the media law if it was put to a straight up-or-down vote. Worse, they fear that the media law will be used to further weaken them by muzzling sympathetic journalists. So they have decided to stop it the only way left open by linking it to the Lisbon treaty. Under Slovak law, the ratification of EU treaties requires a constitutional majority and hence the opposition's co-operation. The treaty is the only piece of legislation which gives the opposition leverage over the government so it has seized this opportunity to stop the media law.

Over the past two weeks, Slovakia's political leaders repeated the same routine several times: the government and the opposition talk, they fail to make any progress, the government puts the treaty to a vote, the opposition walks out, the government withdraws the treaty, it talks to the opposition again, and on it goes. The longer the confrontation drags on, the more nervous observers in Brussels and EU capitals become. Over the weekend, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso called the opposition leader, former Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, to voice his concerns.

The most likely outcome of this drama is rather anti-climatic: the government will probably put off the vote on the Lisbon treaty until later in the spring. There is no special reason to hurry: the UK parliament is not expected to vote on the treaty until the summer at the earliest. By then, it is hoped, relations between the opposition and the government in Slovakia will have improved sufficiently to allow for the treaty's passage. The opposition, after all, likes the treaty; they negotiated its predecessor, the constitutional treaty.

But the broader message to European capitals and to Brussels is clear: the fact that the Lisbon treaty will be approved by parliamentary votes rather than referenda (with the exception of Ireland) does not make the document immune to domestic politics. Parliaments everywhere can and will play political football with it. Such controversies will not be about the content of the treaty itself (much as its opponents would like to believe). But it does mean that Barroso and other supporters of the treaty could be facing many a sleepless night over the coming months.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.

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