Mr. President, you are one of the sharpest critics of the EU. You have called the European Union a controlling, bureaucratic entity -- in short, an undemocratic behemoth. But the Czech Republic itself has been an EU member for just under two years now. Has EU membership hurt your country?
Klaus: I never said that. I have always said that the Czech Republic is an important part of central Europe. It's clear that we must participate in European integration. I am convinced that the Czech Republic -- or, in the past, Czechoslovakia -- would have been one of the founding members of the EU if it hadn't been for the communist takeover in 1948. My criticism is directed at the form and methods of European integration.
SPIEGEL: In the debate over the EU constitution, you said that you were "concerned about Europe." The French and the Dutch have since put an end to the project. Do you find that satisfying?
Klaus: Unfortunately not. I only felt satisfaction in the first few minutes after the decision was announced. Now I realize that we are in a dangerous situation once again. I can see that EU expansion is, unfortunately, continuing without a constitution, as a gradual process of standardization -- and that's far more dangerous. It is very difficult to slow down this process, which is being pushed forward without significant public participation.
SPIEGEL: Aren't you being overly pessimistic? Austria, the current rotating president of the EU, is expected to present a new agenda for dealing with the issue of a constitution soon.
Klaus: The purpose of the constitution was to take a step in the direction of a unification process. It failed. The supporters of a united Europe were in shock and practically paralyzed in the first few days following the French and Dutch referendums. But then they quickly realized that they could continue to pursue their original goals and intentions, even without a constitution. With each day that passes, Brussels puts out new laws, new initiatives and new guidelines, all of which are forcing us in the direction of unification.
SPIEGEL: Which recent signal from Brussels did you find especially disturbing?
Klaus: I'm not talking about a single decision being so dangerous. Hundreds of decisions reach us every day from EU headquarters. I am especially troubled, for example, over the talk of possible tax harmonization in Europe and efforts to boost cross-border services. I couldn't believe my ears recently, when I heard that our own EU commissioner, Vladimír Spidla, proposed a program that I find mind-boggling: an EU fund for the victims of globalization. This is communism in its purest form -- just as in (former Soviet Prime Minister Leonid) Brezhnev's day. Back then people also didn't find about the decisions the people at the top had made for them until they read the newspaper. I remember that feeling of helplessness all too well.
SPIEGEL: You are criticizing the EU for a lack of democracy and a growing gap between the political elite and the people?
Klaus: Yes, but my main concern is the political dimension of European integration. This is one of the most important issues of all, as far as I'm concerned. It has to do with our past, with our sensitivity, perhaps even our hypersensitivity in this regard.
SPIEGEL: You call yourself an EU realist. How should we interpret this?
Klaus: It's the opposite of someone who is naïve about the EU. I am neither a skeptic nor an EU opponent.
SPIEGEL: What characterizes someone who is naïve about the EU?
Klaus: It isn't just someone who passively accepts everything coming out of Brussels without uttering a word of criticism. Those who advance this gradual unification process -- in the European Parliament, in the Brussels bureaucracy and in the European Commission -- are also naïve about the EU. Hardly anyone who isn't involved in politics professionally knows the names of the EU commissioners or even that of the president of the EU Parliament. But these people are gradually becoming more influential, whereas the significance of national parliaments continues to decline.
SPIEGEL: Your fundamental criticism stands in stark contrast to the great attraction the EU has had in the last 16 years for many people, especially in Eastern Europe. Hasn't the European Union played a decisive role in promoting democracy in Eastern Europe?
Klaus: No, the EU didn't advance our democracy by a single millimeter.
SPIEGEL: What about Slovakia, where authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimír Meciar was voted out of office in 1998?
Klaus: But the Slovaks did that on their own. As far as I'm concerned, it would be unacceptable to push forward such a process from the outside. We created our democracy ourselves. And besides, EU membership isn't a question of attraction. There simply is no alternative. For the countries in question, EU membership represented important political recognition. In fact, the rule of thumb in Europe is that the good ones are EU members, while the bad ones are not.
SPIEGEL: But didn't the EU encourage processes that wouldn't have gotten underway as quickly otherwise? Think about the development of a new legal system, for example. Current membership candidates Bulgaria and Romania are now going out of their way to satisfy EU standards by reforming their judicial systems.
Klaus: The Bulgarians and Romanians are already interested in a normal, free and democratic society. They don't need anyone to tell them that that's what they want. We developed our democracy for ourselves -- not to make someone in Brussels happy.
SPIEGEL: You are opposed to minimum social standards in Europe and a common tax policy. Do you find a common foreign policy equally objectionable?
Klaus: I think a common foreign policy is completely unnecessary. The various European countries have widely differing priorities, goals and prejudices. It would be wrong to force them all to follow the same course. Just look at the outcome of the popular referendums in France and the Netherlands. Voters in the two countries rejected the constitution for very different reasons. And that's ok. We can't allow someone to show up and force us all to buy the same shirt size, even though one person has a size 39 collar and another a size 41.
SPIEGEL: You certainly have many objections to the EU. How far should integration go, in your opinion?
Klaus: The development of European integration can be divided into two phases. The first era ended with the Maastricht Treaty. It was a liberalization phase, with the main goal of European integration at the time being the removal of various barriers and borders in Europe. I was completely in favor of that. But the second phase is a homogenization or standardization phase, one that involves regulation from the top and growing control over our lives. In my view, this no longer has anything to do with freedom and democracy.
SPIEGEL: Many predicted the end of the EU following the debacle over the constitution, but that clearly hasn't happened.
Klaus: Those were prophecies of doom by some European bureaucrats and lobbyists. Everyone knows that the EU wasn't about to come to an end. The European constitution was one of many steps, and we shouldn't attempt to bring it back to life again.
SPIEGEL: Your Russian counterpart, (President) Vladimir Putin, recently visited Prague. You were conspicuously reserved when it came to criticism of his policies in Chechnya. Was this a quid pro quo for his critical assessment of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia?
Klaus: I'm not certain that there is an easy solution for Chechnya. When we look at Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo, we can see that outside intervention was not terribly effective, or at least didn't produce stabile solutions. I am afraid that no one in Europe is capable of putting together a realistic proposal for resolving the situation in Chechnya. All I hear is moralistic criticism of the Russian side. These are nothing but cheap shots, which is why I refuse to sign open letters on this matter...
SPIEGEL: ... as your predecessor, Václav Havel, has just done. Do you agree with the German government's position that while developments in Russia may not be especially democratic, they at least provide stability?
Klaus: Of course, one cannot turn a blind eye to what's going on there. We must be very vigilant. But how can you speed up the transformation of society in a country as large as Russia? Those sounding the moral outcry are the ones who are trying to dictate their standards from the outside. Of course, that isn't the right way to go either. One cannot impose democracy from the other side of national borders, which is something we ourselves experienced during the communist era. The West's policies toward Eastern Europe, the Helsinki process -- none of that really helped us.
SPIEGEL: Many in the West disagree. In our view, relations between Germany and the Czech Republic are still rather tense. Indeed, the anti-German card was played during the last election four years ago in Prague. Are you worried that the same thing will happen when the Czech Republic elects a new parliament in June?
Klaus: What? There was anti-German sentiment in the Czech Republic? I strenuously object to that characterization. It was nothing but a fabrication by German politicians and journalists.
SPIEGEL: But what about then-Prime Minister Milos Zeman who, in the 2002 election campaign, suddenly began characterizing the Sudeten Germans (German-speaking Czechs) as Hitler's fifth column?
Klaus: What's anti-German about that? It was merely an attempt to describe the situation in Czechoslovakia before World War II, between 1935 and 1938. There is nothing anti-German about that. How can you say such a thing?
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, it became clear, during that election, that the Germans may be viewed as partners, but also as potentially threatening partners. Is this still true today?
Klaus: Human relations tend to be more difficult when you're dealing with someone who weighs 30 kilograms more than you do. That's when you worry about whether a well-meaning gesture could produce complications. We have no problems with countries like Madagascar or Bolivia, for example. But Germany is our neighbor and we have a shared past. Besides, Germany is powerful and ambitious and more than four times as large as we are. It makes complete sense that we would act cautiously. It's simply Realpolitik.
SPIEGEL: Last summer, the Czech government issued a symbolic apology to those expelled Sudeten Germans who fought against Hitler -- a gesture that attracted a lot of attention in Germany. But even that went too far, in your opinion.
Klaus: I criticized the idea of selecting a few left-leaning anti-fascists and communists and apologizing to them. After all, many Germans were not Fascists. It was a completely bad idea, a political idea concocted by the Social Democratic government. I'm opposed to such dishonest gestures.
SPIEGEL: But without dealing with the past ...
Klaus: The past is the past. The European Parliament is currently demanding that Turkey issue a gesture of apology to the Armenians for the genocide that occurred after 1915. Whom would this help? President Putin has just apologized for the Soviets' suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring. It was a nice gesture. But I don't believe that I should be talking to Putin today about what Brezhnev did in 1968. Putin isn't his successor, and I am not the successor of the communist government that came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, thank you for this interview.
The interview was conducted by editors Christian Neef and Jan Puhl, as well as SPIEGEL staff member Renata Hanusova.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan