Politically incorrect Klaus in from the cold

Weekend Australian
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor
Saturday, July 30, 2011
President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Klaus speaks on climate change this week. Source: AFP
VACLAV Klaus, a hero of the struggle against communism, a giant of central European liberty, is the serving President and former prime minister of the Czech Republic. A great bear of a man, when I see him there is a certain weariness in his bones, but nonetheless he exudes a sense of hearty welcome. He is the most wonderfully politically incorrect national leader in Europe. Famously a climate change sceptic, he is also, perhaps much more importantly, the most eurosceptic of any EU head of state.

It's easy to misunderstand, and as George W. Bush might say, misunderestimate, Klaus. He is both a conservative and an economic and political libertarian. He believes many of the EU's policies and practices, and indeed the supra-national climate change movements, both diminish liberty and needlessly disturb the rooted practices of living societies.

On the day we meet, in Klaus's hotel suite in Melbourne, the air is thick with the tragedy of Norway and the terrible killings carried out by the lone gunman and bomber Anders Behring Breivik.

I often try to resist asking presidents and prime ministers about the issues of the day. It's more useful to try to get at deeper policy issues, uncover their views on longer-term political dynamics. But many commentators are trying to make some political mileage in one direction or another out of Breivik's murderous rampage. So the question has to be asked: in this case, is anyone at all apart from Breivik himself guilty? Does anyone bear any extended responsibility for this atrocity?

Klaus is direct on this: "I think it was an individual act. I don't believe in conspiracy theories, that he (Breivik) is just the most visible manifestation of some larger thing."

Nonetheless, Klaus is willing to see in Breivik's actions not someone else's guilt but, partly at least, a symptom of a broader cultural trend he finds profoundly worrying, and that is a certain social atomisation. Says Klaus: "This is the result of something in our European society. It didn't just fall on us from the heavens. It reflects something I'm afraid of in the long term, and that is the way part of society has forgotten the good old conservative values.

"European society is now more permissive than free. The society is on the one hand very open, but on the other hand very fragmented. The internet, and the social networks phenomenon, are actually leading to a fragmentation of society. It was much better to go to the cinema or to go the library. In the cinema you at least see how others react to a film. Now when you are lost in your lounge room, with your four walls around you, you are very much alone. It's very worrying."

Klaus's insight, that the social media can isolate as much as connect, is profound and, as he says, troubling. It would be an absurdity and a mockery to give any credence at all to the mad ramblings of Breivik. Nonetheless, I am curious about Klaus's views on Muslim immigration to Europe and the experience of multiculturalism in Europe. Does he share the consensus of Britain's David Cameron, France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel, along with many other European leaders, that multiculturalism has been a dismal failure in Europe? Or does he, like Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott in Australia, support multiculturalism?

"There is a real danger in Europe of the ideology of multiculturalism," Klaus says. "We are enriched by other cultures, but I am afraid of the ideology of multiculturalism. I don't believe in it. I believe in the enrichment of one culture by others, like adding a new spice to a food. But I don't think it's possible to create a new, sterile, cosmopolitan food."

Klaus says he was opposed to multiculturalism from the start and it was a mistake to combine multiculturalism with mass immigration: "It was a wrong idea that Europeans were so rich that they don't want to do certain jobs and therefore invited thousands of others in to do the jobs for them."

Klaus recalls attending a European summit when Jacques Chirac was French president: "President Chirac was supposed to make an introductory statement and the rest of us were supposed to react to that. The subject was immigration to Europe from north Africa. He spent half an hour talking about security measures at the border and security measures at sea, and nothing else.

"I raised my hand and said to him that he had missed the main reason for that mass immigration to Europe, which is the European welfare state, which is what is attracting those immigrants from poorer, developing countries to Europe. Chirac started to shout: 'Klaus wants to liquidate the European welfare state'."

Here, perhaps, is an element of Klaus the conservative: "I am concerned for democracy, for democratic procedures and democratic institutions. You can't create democracy without elementary coherence in a country.

"Democracy needs demos, a community of people. Democracy must be done in a community, it can't be just atomised individuals. I think that the basic idea of multiculturalism was wrong."

The Czech Republic has escaped mass immigration from north Africa. Klaus believes this is in part just because it is too far away, and north Africans would have to go through too many other countries, which may be a bit richer than the Czech Republic, countries that already have large north African communities, and in which a language — French or English — may be spoken that is familiar to many north Africans.

So what should Europe do to encourage the integration of those substantial parts of its Muslim minorities who are not well integrated into their new European societies, and unsuccessful in education and work?

This is the only question I ask that elicits a certain reticence from Klaus: "I don't want to advise Europe on this. Massive immigration is not a problem for the Czech Republic."

On the basis of my short acquaintance with him, but also on the basis of everything I've read about his comments and views, this is an extremely rare occurrence — a topic of European politics on which Klaus does not wish to express a view.

On one subject I am surprised at Klaus's pessimism. The Greek debt crisis, and the debt crises of several other European nations, have immeasurably strengthened the arguments of eurosceptics such as Klaus, but he does not think it will result in change that he likes. "On the one hand there is the unworkability of the European model," says Klaus, "that's the first floor.

"But the second floor is the chosen model of European integration which magnifies the problem. The European Monetary Union creates the additional problem that, as well as redistributing money internally within each European nation, now we must redistribute money within Europe among European nations."

Klaus sees a continuing parade of problems for the EU, which its leaders will attempt to address through ever more income redistribution. "My prediction, which I don't want to see happen, is that we will move from a European Monetary Union to a European Fiscal Union, which means that there will be massive, continuing redistribution, as there must be in any monetary union, as I suppose there is in Australia. So then you have to create sooner or later a political union. It could go that way."

Klaus is pessimistic that the clear opposition of most European citizens to this trend of development will have any real effect. He has seen the way clever European governments promoting EU integration, in line with EU bureaucrats, have effectively ridden over any negative outcome for European integration in any member nation.

Klaus surely has the points in this argument. The rolling European bailouts have produced many strange outcomes. German pensioners get a smaller pension than Greek pensioners, but must pay taxes to support Greek fiscal profligacy. Slovakia has a lower per capita income than Greece, yet its taxpayers must contribute money to the Greek budget. No one in Europe feels this is just.

Klaus's overall assessment, it seems, is that the politicians at the heart of the process have too much invested in European integration to take the rational steps that might free up European economies to respond with more flexibility, to confront their economic problems with agility and reform rather than endless subsidy and centralisation.

Klaus, a former economics professor, is a statesman at the very heart of Europe. Yet I think he may be a little overly pessimistic about the prospects for his own arguments succeeding. He recounts many cases of people supporting his views in the past, but European actions proceeding against both the common democratic view, and the consensus views of economics professors.

Europe, he says, has moved from "inter-governmentalism" to "supra-nationalism", and the general drift of his remarks is that this move has simultaneously made Europe less liberal and democratic, while also to some extent undermining the civic foundations of various European nations (my words, not his).

But just a few years ago, Klaus's views were wholly heretical within any polite company within Europe. Now much of Europe is turning eurosceptic. This is reflected in polls and in elections. The institutions of the EU have indeed made ignoring the democratic will of European publics into something of an art form, a central device of European governance.

But even they cannot totally ignore public opinion. Nor can they totally ignore fiscal realities. European institutions are steadily losing credibility, according to the polls, with the European public. Many more European leaders speak something like Klaus.

Mind you, none of them does so quite so frankly. Rather unsurprisingly, no senior member of the Gillard government made any effort to see Klaus on his private Australian visit, which was sponsored by the Institute of Public Affairs.

End of article