Czech President Vaclav Klaus spoke about the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the current financial and economic crisis and the European Union in a speech in Gaston Hall on Thursday.
A controversial figure – as was acknowledged during the introduction by Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies – Klaus has recently been in the public eye because of his unexpected initial opposition to the Treaty of Lisbon, an agreement that will restructure and consolidate the European Union.
“The current dispute in Europe about the Lisbon Treaty is over. I signed it,” Klaus said to laughter from the group of about 200 students and faculty members.
Klaus began his speech, titled “20 Years After the Fall of Communism: Not a Final Victory for Freedom,” by addressing the upcoming 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He said that while this was a victory, the battle against ideologies is not over.
“Since the beginning I have been advocating that communism was not defeated – it simply collapsed or melted down. This is a controversial opinion,” Klaus said. “The historic autumn of 1989 deserves to be commemorated not only by direct victims but by the whole earth. This is not only a commemoration of the past, but a memento for the future. We should not interpret the end of communism as a final victory, but should stay on our guard.”
After reflecting on the past, Klaus addressed current and future challenges in Europe. He said that the economic crisis was not a result of market failure or any inherent deficiency in the capitalist system. Rather, he said, it was a failure of governments because of their interference in the capitalist system.
Klaus readily admitted that his views on the economic crisis were unconventional. He then proceeded to refer briefly to his views on climate change, which he describes in his book, “Blue Planet in Green Shackles.”
“As the subtitle of my book asks: What is endangered: climate or Freedom? In the book, I give the answer: freedom is endangered, climate is okay,” Klaus said.
Klaus dedicated a great deal of his remarks to the European Union. Klaus said he was hesitant to support the European Union because he is skeptical of European unification. He said this sentiment is what delayed his signing of the Treaty of Lisbon.
“In the 1950s and the decades after, the leading idea behind integration was liberalization. It focused on a lack of borders and free movement of people and ideas. This was a very positive concept for Europe, and I believe it should continue. However, integration has turned into unification,” Klaus said.
He argued that current efforts to fight the economic crisis with government intervention, as well as the efforts to artificially unify Europe, were attempts to create a utopia in the same way communism attempted to do so.
Klaus ended his speech by answering questions from the audience on issues such as his views on Latin America and China to the European Union presidency. Most questions addressed dealt with further explaining his views on European integration and unification.
“There is a difference between Europe and the European Union. The EU is a man-made, temporary project which may succeed or fail. There is a trade-off curve between deepening and widening; one can’t have both,” Klaus said. “I want more widening and less deepening. There can be no democracy on a continental level. Hence, I want intergovernmentalism, not supranationalism.”
Students in attendance expressed both praise and criticism of the speech.
“I thought that his speech was very interesting. I felt as if on some points he was a little vague, but in general I appreciated how forthright he was with his opinions,” said Rebecca Abelman (COL ’12).
Klaus reaffirmed his controversial position throughout the speech, particularly on the issue of unification. His comments drew both applause and frowns from the crowd.
“I found it very helpful to hear from one of the primary voices against the consolidation of the European Union and a genuine hero of the Velvet Revolution. While I imagine that President Klaus is considerably more eloquent in his own language, he was nonetheless a very powerful and convincing speaker,” said Rajan Narang (COL ’12). “At the same time, I was surprised by the relative lack of a coherent argument against making changes and would expect that his other writings expand on this considerably.”