Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 16
11 January 1999

Andrew Stroehlein C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C :
The Czech Senate Finds Its Purpose

Andrew Stroehlein

Since its birth two years ago, the Czech Senate has been a legislative body looking for a purpose. Its political role has remained unclear, and low voter turnout at Senate elections has demonstrated that the new Upper House has not won the confidence of the public. But with the sitting of the newly composed Senate after November elections replaced a third of it members, a Senate committee has been established that could give the Senate a clear purpose.

The recently established Committee for European Integration (http://www.senat.cz/vybor-e.htm) is meant to review the country's progress along its road to the European Union. It will oversee the complicated process of regulatory harmonization and analyze the Czechs' overall preparedness for EU entry.

After Prague's embarrassing report card from the European Commission in November, it is clear that such oversight and review are necessary. The EU at the moment may be cooling to Eastward expansion due to its own economic worries, but that is no excuse for Prague to be lax in its efforts to gain membership. Even though it still has not yet received a clear entry date, the Czech Republic needs to do everything it can to keep its side of the accession bargain.

If it pushes its political weight properly, the Senate - or at least this one Senate Committee - could become the country's European integration watchdog, keeping tabs on government and Parliament to ensure that Czech legislation is EU compliant and to see that agreed timetables are adhered to.

In addition, this new function for the Senate could also serve several alternative goals - even in the event of the Senate's demise. Whether or not the Senate is eventually eliminated, as many in the Czech Republic have been calling for, the country will have at least been building a surplus of EU-knowledgeable politicians - something it lacks today. This surplus would serve three purposes.

First, these EU-wise politicians could eventually move to other areas in the state apparatus and politics, bringing their specialist knowledge to harmonization difficulties.

Second, this group of Senators or former Senators would be in a good position to present the EU to the general public. The Committee members ought to get themselves into the media as often as possible to explain the EU thoroughly to the citizens: these senators could become the popular authorities on EU matters. Hopefully this will include bit of healthy and productive skepticism towards Brussels as well.

Third, the Committee members will later be well placed to become the Czech Republic's first representatives in the European Parliament (EMPs) after accession. The European Parliament is usually seen as a rest home for washed-up national politicians, but it is slowly gaining importance, and the Czech Republic will need knowledgeable representation there to fight its citizens' corner.

Whether the Czech Senate is axed due to a lack of public confidence, the establishment of its Committee for European Integration will be a plus for the country on all these fronts. Hopefully, the Czech Senate will remain in place and hopefully, this Committee will help to give at least one clear role for the Upper House: overseeing European integration in the Czech Republic. But even if the Senate eventually goes the way of the dodo, this Committee can at least temporarily serve as an EU training ground.

Andrew Stroehlein, 11 January 1999


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