It was inevitable, I think, that Czech President Vaclav Klaus would take his last stand against the European Union’s Lisbon treaty on the Sudeten German issue. This has been one of the most highly charged themes of Czech politics since the former Czechoslovakia threw off communism in 1989. By raising it, Klaus aims to break out of the extreme political isolation into which his hostility to Lisbon has pushed him on both the Czech and the wider European stage. But it is a step that smacks of desperation as much as of calculation.
The Sudeten German question touches a genuinely raw nerve among some Czechs. It relates to the several million ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of the second world war at the behest of the Prague authorities, who were convinced – with good reason - that large numbers of the German minority had served as a Nazi fifth column. Some Czech politicians have proved willing to play on the fears of ordinary Czechs that descendants of the Sudeten Germans may one day succeed, through legal action, in reclaiming the property of which their forebears were stripped.
Klaus says he wants a clause attached to the Lisbon treaty guaranteeing that the European Court of Justice will never invalidate the so-called Benes decrees, the act under which the Sudeten Germans – as well as a smaller number of ethnic Hungarians - were expelled from their homes. “The last Czech government did not pay enough attention to this question, so vitally important for the Czech Republic,” he said last Friday.
It is undeniable that property issues remain sensitive in the EU. Denmark, with one eye on its German neighbours to the south, restricts foreign ownership of holiday homes. Poland, like the Czech Republic, frets about potential property claims from ethnic Germans expelled from territories that Poland was awarded in 1945, in compensation for land lost to the Soviet Union.
But the sensitivities are most acute in the Czech Republic, perhaps because it is a smaller country than Poland. The claims for restitution are loudest in parts of Germany and Austria close to the Czech borders. In both countries, important political parties are sympathetic to the expellees’ campaigns – Bavaria’s Christian Social Union and the Austrian Freedom Party. The Austrian party’s late leader, Jörg Haider, used to provoke the Czechs by likening the treatment of the Sudeten Germans to the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews.
Some Czechs may feel Klaus is justified in demanding his guarantee. But others will see it as a last throw of the dice to disrupt ratification of Lisbon. After all, every single government and parliament in the 27-nation EU has now approved the charter. There must be at least a sneaking suspicion that, if upholding the legality of the Benes decrees at European level is a matter of such existential importance to his nation, Klaus left it remarkably late in the day to bring it up.