Czech president wants Lisbon treaty opt-out

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The Independent Online

The Czech president has scuppered the EU’s hopes of a swift implementation of the Lisbon treaty with fresh demands that threaten to unravel the entire document. In a move that has stunned diplomats in Brussels, Vaclav Klaus said he wanted opt-outs from the treaty’s Charter of Fundamental Rights that could ultimately reopen the ratification process in the EU's 26 other member states.

The shock announcement followed a visit by the president of the European parliament, Jerzy Buzek, who had flown to Prague to persuade the Eurosceptic leader not to oppose the treaty ahead of key talks later this month to nominate an EU president. "He clearly had this up his sleeve but we are still stunned that Klaus has decided to do this now," said a senior EU official. "It will now be a battle of the wills between Klaus and his prime minister."

The pro-European prime minister Jan Fischer does have the power to block the president, providing he can rally his government behind him. However diplomats are worried that Mr Klaus is exploiting the fragility of the caretaker government in order to cause maximum damage. Mr Klaus' demands to add opt-outs similar to those negotiated by Britain and Poland are far more drastic than his threat on Thursday to add specific footnotes to the Lisbon treaty because they go to the core of the document. They are also likely to put on hold all discussions on the appointment of an EU President later this month.

"At best the treaty would now have to be ratified from scratch in the Czech Republic. At worst there might be a legal case for all 26 member states to have to follow suit," said the official. "Either way it would add massive delays." Brussels is worried that this latest sabre-rattling could coincide with the election of a Tory government in Britain headed by David Cameron, who has pledged to hold a referendum on Lisbon.

However Prime Minister Fischer tried to downplay the latest upheaval and said he was still optimistic that Lisbon could enter into force before the end of the year. "There are tough negotiations ahead, both internally and in the EU," Mr Fischer said. "We will hold fresh talks with the president. But I do not share his concerns." But despite his upbeat note, EU officials are furious at this latest setback.

"Klaus has had all the time in the world to ask for these opt-outs. And he would have got them. Now he pulls this rabbit out at the last opportunity," said another source in Brussels.