Brothers in Crisis

Throughout the current refugee crisis the Czech government has demonstrated an extraordinary lack of the self-preservation instinct. Perhaps without even realizing it, by launching a trench warfare against quotas, the members of the Czech coalition have caused a rift with Germany and helped to undermine the European Union. The purpose of the recent Prague rebellion remained shrouded in mystery throughout, except maybe to provide an opportunity for the Minister of the Interior Milan Chovanec to challenge the Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and show him who really calls the shots among the Social Democrats.

The Slovak response can be explained by the imminent general election, where the Prime Minister Robert Fico is contending once again, which is why he has wagered on a mix of pandering to irrational fears and promising an uncompromising protection from the threat.

However, no motivation explains the Czech response. And the refugee crisis, like spam that clogs our e-mail inboxes, has unwittingly revealed things that used to be hidden or at least disguised by self-deceit.

We have learned that we are worse than we had thought. Until recently Czech society could claim that were are just like our Western neighbours— just as kind and just as selfless. The row over quotas has proven us wrong.

Milan M. Šimečka, editor of the journal Respekt, put his finger on this when he noted that by appealing to us to help Europe meet the refugee challenge, German Chancellor Angela Merkel imposed on us “a moral code, which we had wrongly believed we shared, but have now discovered that this is not the case. […] The ferocity of the discussion is a side effect of the trauma of discovering that we live by a different moral code, even though we still don’t know what that really is.” This is how Milan M. Šimečka defines the majority view of Czech society and political representation.

The other realization has to do with our political representation. The refugee crisis proved to anyone who still had any doubts that the Czech attitude to Europe is exactly the same regardless of whether it is the left or the right that happens to be in power. Although Sobotka’s ostensibly pro-European cabinet uses a different rhetoric than previous governments, its political practice has the same focus as the eurosceptic governments that preceded him. This focus is about taking everything that Europe has to offer without giving anything back.

The Czech government under Petr Nečas refused to accede to the European fiscal compact brought about by the credit crisis, and ruled out any help to Greece when it faced bankruptcy. Sobotka’s coalition initially did not agree to impose economic sanctions on Russia and later refused to assist the countries most affected by the influx of refugees.

In each case, however, the objections were dropped one by one and an agreement was reached that did not impose any, or only a minimum, additional burden on the state. Right from the start the fiscal stability treaty was less harsh than the Czech government’s own cuts and as a country that does not belong to the eurozone the Czech Republic could get away with making only a symbolic contribution to the euro stability treaty. Economic sanctions would have had a serious impact only on two Czech companies, for whom Sobotka negotiated an exemption. And last but not least, the one-off acceptance of a few thousand people poses no real threat to a nation of ten million.

Nevertheless, the Czech government has chosen not to show solidarity with other nations.

Every single one of the European ministers of the interior who sat around the table in Brussels at the end of September knew full well that quotas raise more questions than they can answer. However, all of them also knew that the vote was primarily about showing support for Angela Merkel, whose country was the destination for the largest number of refugees. Thirty- two ministers decided to support Germany. The Czechs, along with the Slovaks, Hungarians, and Romanians, decided not to.

This hasn’t brought the Czechs any gains. And it still remains to be seen how much we have lost. But Sobotka’s government shouldn’t be surprised if it is left with only one phone number to call should it need to push anything through in Brussels: it’s Fico’s number in Bratislava.

This absurd outcome is not the only reason why the Czech government should come to terms with reality and rethink its position. The surge of refugees is not going to stop—there are too many people on the move. The Prime Minister’s contention that we need to deal with the root of the crisis may well be factually correct, but it nevertheless amounts to self-delusion. There is no immediate prospect of stopping the civil war in Syria and eradicating Islamic State. And even if sufficient forces could be assembled, it will take years. In the meantime further thousands of people will stream into Europe who cannot be sent back. And some of them will end up in the Czech Republic.

However, accepting refugees in our country isn’t the end of it. In fact, it’s only the beginning. First and foremost, the Czech government has to ensure that the local population is prepared for their presence in our country. Both socially—by reducing the fear among people that has until now been actively fanned by many coalition members—and logistically. What we need is a proper integration strategy that will comprise not only the teaching of the Czech language and state assistance for people who need to find their bearings in a new environment, but also eliminating the present barriers that make the integration of foreigners in our country difficult.

Most importantly, we should allow refugees to work here legally from the moment they apply for political asylum. This is the system in use in Sweden and other European countries, but in the Czech Republic the refugees have to wait. Not only does the state deprive itself of tax payers by doing so, but, more crucially, it denies people who have been uprooted from their natural environment the chance of regaining faith in a meaningful future, thus hampering their integration.

At the Brussels level the government ought to seek to unify asylum procedures across the European Union as far as possible. The procedure for gaining international protection ought to be speedier and follow the same rules everywhere; the refugees’ social benefits entitlements ought to be comparable in all EU countries; and also the procedure for returning illegal migrants ought to be faster and use the same criteria.

In other words, Sobotka’s government ought to seek a federalization of asylum policies. This is the only way to prevent the emergence of pockets, with refugees who try to pick a select few countries where they know they can expect decent living conditions.

Sobotka’s government wouldn’t have to do this as a Good Samaritan. Schengen can survive only if all European states merge into a single administrative space with improved protection of its external borders and unconditional solidarity within its joint territory. The fact is that Schengen’s importance extends far beyond the deserted customs offices. The elimination of borders between member states is the most tangible contribution the EU has made to the lives of millions of people. It is a natural bond between a Brussels official and a Czech school teacher, which has fundamentally and permanently changed relations between countries.

If Schengen collapses, the entire European Union is likely to disintegrate—with all the economic and geopolitical consequences that entails.

Katerina Šafaříková

Katerina Šafaříková is a Czech journalist who covers mostly the Czech foreign policy and the EU matters. She now works for Česká Pozice, an online investigative media.

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