On January 1st, the Czech Republic succeeded France as the holder of the European Union's six-month rotating presidency. With the process of ratification of the EU "Reform Treaty" stalled as a result of the Irish "no" vote in June, the prospect of the Czech presidency was viewed with considerable anxiety by EU leaders. After all, the Czech Republic has not yet itself ratified the treaty and Czech President Vaclav Klaus had even welcomed the Irish "no" as a "victory of freedom and reason."
The "Reform Treaty" has been touted by the European Commission as necessary to the "smooth functioning" of an enlarged Union (now with 27 members). The treaty is the successor to the EU "Constitutional Treaty," which was rejected by French and Dutch voters in referendums in 2005, only then to be resurrected following a name-change and some other cosmetic alterations. It would expand the powers of EU institutions at the expense of member state sovereignty and reduce the barriers to larger states like Germany and France, in effect, imposing policy upon the smaller ones. The new treaty would, for example, increase the number of domains in which EU decisions can be taken without unanimity and eliminate the current "weighing" of votes in the EU Council, which accords smaller states a relative say somewhat greater than their relative size.
As an outspoken defender of the prerogatives of the states against what he sees as the anti-democratic tendencies of the Union, Klaus was probably the last person that the treaty's backers wanted to see heading the Union in the current context.
The fact that Klaus has likewise been a vocal critic of contemporary European dogma on such pet EU issues as "climate change" and global financial regulation will only have increased the discomfort of both Europeist circles in Brussels and the most aggressive proponents of "ever closer union" in Berlin and Paris. Indeed, the anxiety was so great that rumors began to circulate that French President Nicolas Sarkozy was considering ways - in obvious contravention of EU rules - for France to retain the presidency beyond its appointed term.
It was amid this already tense atmosphere that a delegation from the European Parliament turned up at Prague Castle on December 5 to meet with President Klaus. The castle is the official seat of the Czech presidency. One of the members of the delegation was the Green party member of parliament Daniel Cohn-Bendit: the legendary "Dany the Red" of Paris May 68 fame who has, in the meanwhile, become a fervent promoter of all things European.
As the meeting opened, Cohn-Bendit brusquely placed a small EU flag on the President's desk. The evidently pre-meditated gesture was a sarcastic allusion to Klaus's "euroskepticism" and the absence of the European flag at Prague Castle. According to Czech public radio Radio Prague, Cohn-Bendit demanded that Klaus fly the flag on the castle. He proceeded then to harangue Klaus about his views on "climate change" and his lack of support for the "Reform Treaty." (For two slightly differing accounts of the encounter, see here on the EU Referendum blog and here in The Telegraph.)
The President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert PÃ¶ttering, was also present at the meeting. PÃ¶ttering is reported to have backed Cohn-Bendit's unusual dÃ©marche and to have himself demanded that Klaus fly the EU flag over Prague castle. The only flag that flies over Prague Castle is the Czech presidential standard pictured below.
Questioned about the incident two weeks later during a plenary session of the European Parliament [French link], Nicolas Sarkozy in turn expressed his support for PÃ¶ttering, describing PÃ¶ttering's attitude vis-Ã -vis Klaus as "courageous and reasonable."
Now, as so happens, Daniel Cohn-Bendit has dual German and French citizenship and represents Germany in the European parliament. And, as so happens, Hans-Gert PÃ¶ttering is also German. He is a member of the Christian Democratic Union: the same party as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German President Horst KÃ¶hler. On December 25, President KÃ¶hler gave his annual Christmas address. Here is a still image from the broadcast of the address.
The location is the President's office in the presidential palace in Berlin, the Schloss Bellevue. Note the flag behind the President. It is the German presidential standard, featuring the "imperial eagle" and the German national colors black, red, and gold. Note that the European Union flag is nowhere to be seen.
The absence of an EU flag on the occasion contrasts, for example, with the standard practice of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, seen below presenting his annual New Year's wishes to the French people on December 31, 2007.
Here is another picture of President KÃ¶hler, taken during an event held at Schloss Bellevue in June of this year.
And here is an image from the German President's website of the Bellevue Palace itself.
Note again the flag that flies above the palace. It is the German presidential flag with the "imperial eagle" in the center. (A German national flag and an EU flag can be seen flying lately at a discreet distance from the palace on the front lawn near a surrounding fence.)
Can we expect Daniel Cohn-Bendit sometime soon to storm into President KÃ¶hler's office in protest and plant an EU flag on his desk? And will Hans-Gert PÃ¶ttering endorse the gesture and demand that his party colleague KÃ¶hler fly the EU flag atop Schloss Bellevue? (It should be noted, moreover, that while Nicolas Sarkozy has made a practice of displaying the EU flag during public appearances and smaller EU flags often adorn the sides of the presidential palace, the ElysÃ©e, only the French national flag flies over the palace.)
The German "imperial eagle" is, incidentally, a traditional symbol of the Holy Roman Empire - or, more fully, the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation." At its height, the Empire united a large part of the territories of the contemporary EU under the authority of the German Kaiser. These included, for instance, the entirety of the territory of the contemporary Czech Republic.
One could well imagine, then, that for Czechs and other historically-conscious Europeans, the symbolism of the "imperial eagle" might appear significantly more disturbing than the presence or absence of the EU flag over Prague Castle. The imperious behavior displayed by Cohn-Bendit and PÃ¶ttering toward the Czech president will hardly serve to diminish their concerns.