European Elections Special

An Uneasy Journey

Ten years after joining the European Union, many Czechs are deeply skeptical of it. But the disenfranchisement was mostly caused by domestic politics.

When, in 2003, some 78 percent of Czechs voted in in favor of joining the European Union, the mood in the country was optimistic. The country’s economy had shown impressive growth rates; foreign investment had been booming. Joining the EU on May 1, 2004, was seen as a symbolic step underlining successful reforms that had been adopted during the process of accession.

On the tenth anniversary of accession, the mood is far less optimistic. The Czech economy has not fully recovered from the economic crisis in 2008. The country suffers from rampant corruption, weak and inefficient state bureaucracy, and political instability. According to the latest surveys, about two-thirds of Czechs do not trust the EU, citing too much bureaucracy and overregulation as the main problems of the EU.

Us vs. them

However, the majority of the issues that have tarnished the image of the EU among ordinary Czechs have domestic origins. One can start with the rather provincial outlook that many Czechs inherited from the past, when the country had been ruled from Vienna, Berlin and Moscow for several centuries. The deep-seated mistrust that most Czechs have toward the world outside the country’s borders has been easily exploited by political demagogues and populists.

The Czech political right, dominated at the time of EU accession by eurosceptical president Vaclav Klaus, effectively used Czech fears of outsiders’ political meddling to portray the EU as “they” who wanted to dictate to “us” once again. Klaus went so far as to compared the EU with the oppressive communist-bloc organizations that Czechs had been forced to join under Soviet rule. He was staunchly opposed not only to the failed project of the European Constitution, but also, later, to the Lisbon Treaty.

Both pro-EU and anti-EU sentiments in the country have been rather shallow, as a majority of people know little not only about “Brussels” in general but also about more specific issues such as the functioning of the eurozone. It is, therefore, not surprising that almost a decade of intense anti-EU, anti-euro rhetoric coming from top politicians has swayed public opinion against the EU. But there are other reasons for this shift as well.

At the time of Czech admission to the EU, most Czechs associated membership in the EU with political stability, economic growth, and institutional transparency. When the economic crisis of 2008 hit, the country’s economy experienced a decline even larger than was the case in some major EU countries. The Czech governments acknowledged that some 80 percent of the country’s exports go to EU countries, but – driven by ideological euroscepticism – they were looking for ways to disentangle the country from the rest of the EU rather than for common solutions with the rest of the EU.

Most problems have nothing to do with too much EU

This unproductive attitude was symbolically underlined by the unsuccessful Czech presidency of the EU, during which the government of Mirek Topolanek was toppled. Topolanek’s successor, Petr Necas, then refused to support several major initiatives that the EU came up with in response to the fiscal crisis, such as the fiscal pact.

However, while Czech politicians did not hesitate to portray the EU, and especially the eurozone, as potentially unstable – some of them suggesting the Czechs could perhaps do things better on their own – Czech domestic politics was a highly unstable business. The Czech Republic has had 8 different governments since its admission to the EU, most of them unable to serve their full terms.

This unstable political environment has contributed to the fact the Czech Republic is the only EU member which still does not have a civil service law that would depoliticize the state bureaucracy. That, in turn, has led to very poor performance by the country, as well as corruption, in processing European funds.

Most Czechs think that systemic corruption is directly supported by political parties. The absence of a civil service law that would protect civil servants from political pressure contributes to this. As a result, the last parliamentary elections significantly strengthened a wave of “anti-politics”, represented by populist movements. The ANO party of billionaire Andrej Babis is now a member of the coalition government.

This political malaise is, of course, associated in the minds of many people with the EU, as it coincides with the period of the first ten years of Czech membership. In fact, most of the problems have nothing to do with having “too much EU”.

A democracy without democrats

They have more to do with the fact that the modest level of institutional modernization, achieved with the help of the EU, has not been matched by growing “the culture of democracy”. With a bit of exaggeration, we can say that – just like some other post-communist EU members – the Czech Republic is still a “democracy without democrats”.

A gradual change of political culture, which is still influenced by the communist past, will be needed if the Czechs are to learn the art of compromise and dialogue that has shaped the EU. It is, therefore, encouraging that the new government, led by the pro-European Social Democrats, is not only much more pro-European in its rhetoric than its center-right predecessors, but that it has decided to join some important EU initiatives, such as the fiscal pact, and to adopt a new civil service law based on EU standards as soon as possible.

Read more in this debate: Radovan Geist, Erica Johnson Debeljak.


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