Together with Jo Leinen MEP, the Chair of the Constitutional Committee of the European Parliament, and a few other colleagues, I have been invited to give evidence to the EU Affairs Committee of the Czech Senate and the Czech Chamber of Deputies on what to do about the unratified EU constitution.
Prague is one of Europe's most beautiful cities, and I managed to take a quick stroll around before the meetings begin - and another one late at night. I was last here in 1978 - and how it's changed! Prague is now far more lively and bustling. Buildings have been restored and cleaned up and there is a general air of oozing prosperity, at least downtown.
Still, the most tellingly symbolic change I saw was a 'Museum of Communism' now located above a McDonalds!
As ever, not all the changes are favourable. Glaring neon light advertising was mercifully absent in the communist period. Plus, there is now a proliferation of fast food joints and sleazy bars and a striking number of beggars. Does this explain why the communist party still gets 20% of the vote?
I ask one of the communist MPs how on earth a party such as his still gets such a high vote. His answer was: "Very simple! We've remained in opposition since 1989, whereas every other party has been in government". The striking similarity between the Czech Communist party and the British Liberal Democrats had never struck me before…
Since 1978, the country has changed in other ways too. Since the 'velvet divorce', it's no longer Czechoslovakia, simply the 'Czech Republic'. A Czech journalist explains to me how this has affected the language: previously everybody could understand both Czech and Slovak, not least because TV programmes used both interchangeably. Newsreaders alternated between the two and even children's programmes swapped around. Now that's no longer the case, so the Czechs are totally unused to hearing Slovak and have difficulty understanding it. Meanwhile, the Slovaks still see a lot of Czech films (it's a larger country with a bigger film industry), so the decline is asymmetric.
Anyway. On the EU constitution, there is a wide range of views. The President of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, is an adamant opponent not only of the constitution but of the EU itself. The day that the Czech Republic joined the EU, he made a pilgrimage to the mountain where good King Wenceslas lies, according to legend, buried with his army waiting for the Czech day of need. This over-dramatic visit caused much derision - after all, the good King had not emerged after the 1938 Nazi takeover, the 1948 Communist coup or the 1968 Soviet invasion. If he had not defended the Czechs against these incursions by foreign dictatorships, why on earth should he emerge when the Czechs themselves have decided by referendum to join this voluntary association of neighbouring democratic countries co-operating together?!
But the Presidential position is honorary, and power lies with the Social Democratic Prime Minister and his government who are pro-Europe. At least in the Czech Parliament, a large majority supports EU membership (including most MPs from Václav Klaus's own party).
During our visit, we were treated to an impassioned plea in favour of salvaging the constitution from the President of Parliament, Lubomir Zaoralek. We also had meetings with journalists (interestingly, one is a reader of my blog!) and academics.
One final tale from Prague. We've all heard the stories of mangled English (indeed there are a few on my own website
), such as the hotel offering "French widows in every bedroom", but I came across a new one at my hotel in Prague. A noticeboard informing customers of nearby church facilities was headed 'DIVINE SERVICES'...