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Blog med Hanne Dahl
Out of the frying pan and into the fire

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

Skrevet den 11/12 2008

The day begun with a meeting with the Dalai Lama. He was invited to speak in the plenary and prior to that he was to meet with the presidents of Parliaments groups, and I did not want to miss the opportunity to meet such a celebrity.
Everyone had the possibility to ask him a question or make a short remark on the situation between China and Tibet. I left my group’s speaking time to my co-president, who specifically wanted to hear how the Dalai Lama viewed the changes in the UK’s policy regarding Tibet.

The Dalai Lama was surprisingly un-political. He spoke of inner peace and the need for more women in politics. Because, according to him, women think more holistic and are more caring.
He is very charismatic, in a sort of non-invasive way. 

He had two political points that were both very interesting and very much to the point: One was that he did not want an independent Tibet. He recognized being part of a Chinese republic, but want minority rights for the Tibetan people. Next he said that a solution of the Tibetan problem would also mean the solution for a 100 other problems in China. Very smart and very diplomatically put. He also gave voice to the unshakeable belief that a solution could only be achieved through peaceful means.

At the end he thanked the group of sympathisers who to show him respect had been fasting for a day prior to his arrival. But he also admitted that his own fasting had only begun this morning after breakfast – since it was a meal he could hardly be without. An exemplary pragmatic approach to religious asceticism.

After having heard the Dalai Lama speak in the plenary I left for Prague. It was an official visit with the other group presidents and the occasion was the Czechs taking over the EU-presidency at the turn of the year

The change of scenery was noticeable to say the least; from pragmatic asceticism to pomp and circumstances. We flew with a specially chartered plane and therefore landed in a special part of the airport. We were received with full military salute, a red carpet and an escort that followed us during the entire visit. After having checked in at the hotel, the next point on the agenda was a meeting with the Czech government, followed by an official dinner.
During such meetings there is a standard procedure. Participants are typically benched on two sides of the table. On the one side the Czech government, on the other the Group Presidents for from Parliament. In the middle the most important persons are seated and on the sides you are distributed according to portfolio and group size. So Prime Minister Topolanek was seated in the centre, right across the table from Pöttering, the President of the European Parliament. Each side then gives the floor to members of their delegation in turn.

On this part of the visit there is not much more to tell, other than the fact that Pöttering felt called to make a comment on what I said – where as all other remarks were left uncommented. I expressed great sympathy with the Czech President Klaus, who by the way was not present but shared party-membership with the Prime Minister, and who until now has been fighting with the Prime Minister over the party’s opinion regarding the Treaty of Lisbon. I also said that I had followed the Czech debate on the treaty with great interest and found it exemplary.

The Czech debate has been about Democracy. About what happens when you leave the competences of more policy areas to an EU where parliamentary control is lacking. An all the way through descent and healthy debate on the future of the EU. A debate that should have been taken in each member country and not just in the Czech Republic. Of course it was provocative to give praise to President Klaus, when I knew that he and Topolanek are opponents, but that it should make Pöttering distance himself from me, and oblige him to state that I did not express the opinion of the majority, that was out of proportions. As a Conservative he did not distance himself form neither the Communist, the Socialist nor the Social Democrat who all spoke prior to me.

But never mind. I had learned my lesson and from the on began every speech of the visit by saying: I would like to remark that I belong to the part of the opposition of the EU, who believes in a committed European cooperation, but who simply does not find that the Treaty of Lisbon is good enough. Then Pöttering didn’t have to distance himself every time I spoke.

The next day offered a veritable drama: After a tour of the church in the Castle area we were invited to join the President. There are many amazing mansions and palaces in Prague – but this was at the castle! The castle majestically located above both city and river. The castle that is beautiful but who to me also contains an element of something frightening, since I have always associated it with the castle of Kafka
But this day there was nothing frightening about it. The weather was clear and the view from the halls where the President receives official guests was fantastic. After a brief photo-session we were once again invited to sit according to rank and to speak in turn.
Vaclav Klaus who is a known opponent of the Lisbon Treaty began by saying that no matter what his views on this topic might be, he would do his utmost to make the Czech EU-presidency run smoothly. A full transcript of the meeting is circulating in the press, so I hardly need to include long quotes here.

The big drama of the day began when the president of the Green group (EFA), Cohn-Bendit, was given the floor. He started in an insulting tone by handing Klaus an EU-flag as a comment to Klaus not wanting the EU-flag to fly from the top of the presidential palace. Next he attacked Klaus for his critical views on the Lisbon Treaty. He wanted to know his connections to Declan Ganley, who was one of the key players on the Irish no-side. Now the neo-liberal Libertas does not appeal to me either, I do not like the idea of the wealthy buying their way in to politics in this way, without accounting for where the money comes from. But President Klaus has the right to meet with whom he desires when visiting Ireland. And he definitely does not need to be held accountable for his desire to meet with the opposition in a country he is visiting. On the contrary it showed him to be a true democrat who wants to know both sides of the story.
The tone in which Cohn-Bendit spoke was rude and Klaus asked Pöttering to call him to order. He refused to do so. According to him a member of his delegation had the right to say what he wanted, without him interfering. Not quite what it was like the night before when I spoke. But why let that stop him!

The conservation evolved into an outright quarrel. Brian Crowley from Ireland joined in and said he thought that Klaus’ meeting with the opposition was an insult to the Irish people. To which Klaus wisely replied, that to him the only insult against the Irish people was to not respect their “No” to the treaty.
Furthermore Klaus stated that he had never been insulted in such a way in his own house. The tone of the debate brought memories from a pre-democratic time. And he also felt called to remind us, that it was him who had been in the forefront of the Czech Republic joining the EU. He was in no way an opponent of the EU he just did not think that the Treaty of Lisbon was good enough. It would reduce democracy in the EU, not strengthen it.

It is probably not a surprise to anyone that I was the only one who supported Klaus. I praised him for his political courage and said once again, that the Czech debate on the treaty was being was a debate that should have been taken in all European countries.       

The meeting ended in a very tense atmosphere and would turn out to have an epilogue. It seems that Cohn-Bendit had prepared to promote himself in the press following the delegation. He represented the discussion in a way that was not wholly in accordance with the truth. As a consequence Klaus published the full transcript of the meeting to the press, something normally unheard of with that kind of meetings. But this has created a furore in not only the Czech press, but also in the French, Polish and German press. At least as far as I can judge from the amount of sympathy-mails I have received from those countries following the incident.

Now what can be learned from all of this? Well one thing is that you can allow yourself to disagree on anything in the EU except treaties. You are allowed to discuss nuclear power, the labour market, environment and health. You can be pro or contra liberal market economics but you can not have different opinions of how the future of the EU shall be. This insight into how power is managed should turn out to be what would make my blood turn in to ice at the castle in Prague. It was not the sunlit halls of President Klaus, but the icing atmosphere of pride and the arrogance of power. That was where the true connection to the castle of Kafka was to be found.

Read the original Danish-language blog-entry here

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