The big news today comes from Prague. We reported last week that Czech Deputy Prime Minister Karel Schwarzenberg had threatened to pull his party out of the ruling coalition if the government decided to stay out of the 'fiscal treaty', but Czech President Vaclav Klaus had insisted that he would not sign the agreement "under any circumstances."
Well, the Czech government has now decided to put the issue to a referendum after several rounds of "very bloody negotiations", in the words of Radek John, the leader of Public Affairs - the smallest party of the coalition (pictured). The Czech Republic is not part of the euro, meaning that eurozone countries could still go ahead with the adoption of the fiscal treaty, without having to wait for the outcome of the referendum (non-euro countries can join at a later stage).
However, the announcement is extremely relevant for at least two reasons. First, there's now a concrete possibility of the Czechs staying out of the 'fiscal treaty', which would be the coup de grâce for the 26-versus-1 scenario depicted by a large portion of UK and European media in the wake of Cameron's veto at last month's EU summit (we had a go at showing why these reports were rushed, to say the least, see here and here).
Second, the news of a Czech referendum may trigger public and political pressure for a referendum in Ireland. This would not necessarily destroy the treaty because if a referendum were held on Irish ratification of the treaty, rather than simply the government's agreement to it, the treaty could still enter into force in theory. The last draft required 12 ratifications among euro states to enter into force but, certainly, it would throw a major spanner in the works and thoroughly undermine the credibility of the treaty if Ireland (the recipient of a bailout package) were not fully signed up at an early stage.
But there could be another problem, and a quite surprising one. In fact, it looks like the Polish government is not happy with the latest draft, which (as the previous two) would exclude non-euro countries from attending meetings of eurozone leaders - a strong incentive for many of the non-euro countries to sign the treaty.
And sure enough, the Polish government is now suggesting that it might not join the 'fiscal treaty' unless its request is taken on board - Germany is thought to be rather keen on having the Poles signed up. This is what Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told the press yesterday,
"Our efforts aim at a fiscal agreement the shape of which does not make the division of Europe into two clubs - the eurozone and countries outside the club - more lasting than is safe in our opinion."
Meanwhile, a fourth draft of the agreement is being finalised, and should be made available ahead of the next meeting of finance ministers on 23-24 January. The way ahead still looks quite rocky...