Ten Years in the European Union: The Czech Republic
Don’t ask what the EU can do for you, ask what you can do for the EU.
Thanks to EU membership the Czechs have lately been having what might, from a recent historical perspective, be regarded as a luxurious time. In spite of the new geopolitical situation in Central Europe created by the resurgence of Russian imperialism, the Czech Republic is still arguably secure. It enjoys good relations with its neighbours, is a member of the most powerful military alliance on the planet based on the Three Musketeers’ motto “All for one and one for all,” and the country has no enemies. Its national identity is not under threat. To begin to comprehend the Czech sense of fear, fragility and inability to take their nationhood for granted, one has to resort either to poetry “Behind the gates of our rivers / hard hooves clatter / behind the gates of our rivers / dug up by hooves / is the earth / and the terrible horsemen of the Apocalypse / brandish their banner”), or to historical documents, such as the 1941 speech given by the Deputy Reichsprotektor Heydrich at Palais Schwarzenberg, in which he detailed the plans of exterminating the Czech nation. Going further back in history to the beginning of the Great War a hundred years ago demonstrates even more clearly the extent to which political and moral awareness has shifted, how much Europe has changed and how radical a discontinuity occurred in the course of the gradual establishment of European communities in the second half of the 20th century.
One of the things that have changed is the very concept of national interest and the corresponding concept of national sovereignty, something that traditional realists and eurosceptics seem painfully unaware of. They never fail to emphasize what they regard as the costs or, indeed, losses, resulting from EU membership. However, these views need not be taken seriously at a factual level—as opposed to the political and rhetorical level where they need to be challenged in earnest, because they lack a robust analytical foundation.
As a matter of fact, it is quite obvious that our EU membership has had a considerable positive impact. This trend began already a few years before accession, when it became quite clear that the Czech Republic was going to join the EU, and it took the form of an influx of direct foreign investment that helped transform a plodding, unsophisticated economy marked by underinvestment into one that was competitive, export-friendly and open. A conservative scenario of a convergency model developed for the study Ten Years in the EU calculated the Czech Republic’s benefit from membership in the EU at 3.1 trillion Czech crowns. It has also made the economy grow by 1.1 per cent faster on average. The authors of the study believe that had the country not joined the EU, its 2013 GDP would have been 12 per cent lower. Between 2002 and 2008 the Czech Republic achieved its fastest growth in its history. The authors note that at this rate it would take the country 17 years to catch up with Western Europe. The financial and economic crisis had a greater impact on the Czech Republic than its neigbours in the region, slowing down the catch-up rate, which has more recently come to a complete standstill. On the other hand, its neighbours Slovakia and Poland have begun to catch up on the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, in 2013 alone the Czech economy had a net budget income from the EU of 84 billion; the total income since 2004 amounts to 334 billion Czech crowns.
The growth might have been even faster had the Czech Republic exploited its membership potential as well as the economies of the Irish Republic or Poland and Slovakia had. A factor hampering growth is widespread corruption at all levels of society. Corruption has spread to the drawing of EU structural funds, which in some regions has been virtually controlled by political parties and various ‘’political enterpreneurs’’ who have dealings with them. The corruption associated with European funds has been grist to the mill of eurosceptics who claim the EU transfer policy is one of its causes. This is reminiscent of the rather absurd assertion that by criticizing Czech corruption, the West is guilty of hypocrisy because it has been precisely the West that has encouraged its growth in this country.
A further illustration of the country’s failure to make full use of its EU membership potential is the fact that it has not joined the currency union, thus lumbering its export-focused economy with transaction costs. To some extent, the growing euroscepticism in society is the result of the two terms in office served by the eurosceptic President Václav Klaus. The economists he appointed to the Czech National Bank Board of trustees were mistrustful of the common currency. This, combined with the eurozone crisis, has created a political atmosphere in which the adoption of the euro is not conceivable in the near future, even though this attitude is not backed by any convincing economic arguments. Nevertheless, the positive impact of the EU membership for the Czech economy has to be emphasized, as from a historical perspective it has certainly contributed to the country’s good position.
So how have we handled this luxurious position unprecedented in our national history? Not particularly well. What we see is a situation of a kind rather parallel to what Thomas Masaryk discussed in his 1895 book The Czech Question. In his evaluation of the 19th century national revival Masaryk critiqued the empty patriotism as well as the slavophile orientation of the Young Czechs. He juxtaposed this attitude with the need for a more profound, higher quality cultural and scholarly work. Looking at the quality of Czech arts, scholarship and education following ten years in the EU we have to state, sadly, that no substantial progress has been made. The Czech Republic boasts a woefully small number of world quality scholarly and artistic institutions.
Prague, a potential cultural magnet, lives off its past glory. The amount invested by the city authorities and state budget has been minimal. The first things seen by tourists who have come for a couple of days are bottles of green absinthe in supermarket windows, the Museum of Sex and the Museum of Torture Instruments.
Back to Europe, Back to the West
Dreams of the 1989 revolution generation came true ten years ago. Nowadays few people remember that one of the slogans chanted in the frozen Prague squares went ‘’Back to Europe!” This referred to Western Europe, which the Czech Lands, like all of Central Europe, had culturally been a part of for centuries. Those with a memory have used every suitable opportunity to bring this up. For example, in her 1988 Bruges speech British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said that East European countries behind the Iron Curtain had been cut off from their roots.
The impact of our temporary half-a-century- long separation from Europe is still felt today. It includes the underrating of the practical usefulness of historical memory. For understandable reasons most people focus on their day-to-day lives and on planning their future. For reasons that are more difficult to understand, the historical view is often burdened with a rose-tinted view of the totalitarian period, reinforced by the pop culture (hit pop tunes and reruns of TV serials from the normalisation period) as well as a revisionist view of this period, from the left of the political centre. This revisionism is, to some extent, an understandable reaction to the simplistic anti- Communism exhibited by a certain part of the Right, which has resorted to it in order to cover up its lack of a political programme. It also represents a rejection of the dominant economic and political view, dubbed neo-liberal by critics on the Left, and the reading of history associated with this view.
Since anti-communist dissent in Czechoslovakia, in contrast to Poland, was limited to a sparse elite and representatives of the alternative culture, few Czech citizens feel inclined to take a critical view of the past, be it because of a hidden sense of guilt or open indifference. This is why, like many people in EU countries of the West, we have erroneously perceived the process of integration solely as a widening and deepening of the economic space that would bring about an increased prosperity. In this respect, therefore, we are not all that different from the dominant political forces in the European Union. However, we have fewer reasons, and even less justification for it than the Germans, Dutch or Swedes, who have, after all, been through a period of critical reflection on their past, and who, somewhere deep down in their awareness, carry a vision of integration based on a range of values, spanning from economic to ethical ones.
There is actually some perverted logic to the fact that the Czech Republic has turned into a bastion of euroscepticism, even though it is more a feeling than a programme, and (fortunately) a rather superficial one at that. Our capacity for imaginative visions seems to have ended ten years ago with the moment of accession and it was belatedly buried following Václav Havel’s passing three years ago. Havel, too, is to blame for failing to explain the EU accession more clearly and loudly, not in terms of a goal but rather a process. EU membership in itself, indeed the European Union itself, is an instrument rather than a goal. It proved itself as an instrument for a gradual transformation of European awareness, more specifically, of the European polis, through integration and increased prosperity. What I have in mind is a single, pan-European polis, a vision that is still a long way away but certainly worth all the trouble the EU is going through at the moment. So what has been the Czech contribution to the creation of this polis over the past ten years? To say it has been negligible would be a euphemism. Let’s face it, there was no political leader right at the start to raise his voice and state with Kennedy: Don’t ask what the EU can do for you, ask what you can do for the EU. As a consequence, our relationship with the EU has been a one-way street, a tune with a single chord. We have gained a lot, especially in economic terms, and have given very little.
So what is it that we have gained, in addition to an indisputable economic impetus? The most significant advantage of our membership—and this has been the case with all post-communist countries—is the least concrete one: we have gained entry to a space governed by certain standards of political, democratic and civic culture, which are the basic precondition for all other aspirations, including prosperity. Nowadays, this framework is more solid in our country than ever before, partly due to the Copenhagen criteria and partly due to the influence of values prevalent in established democracies. These values play a more important role in the Czech Republic, as well as in other post-communist countries, than in established democracies because the quality of any democracy depends on the quality of its most numerous constituency. Democracies always gravitate towards the lowest common denominator. In the past fifteen years this trend has been encouraged by the increased use of the Internet and the advent of social media, which have democratized public discourse. The capacity of the elites and political leaders to deal with, and limit, these trends is often the key factor determining the quality of democracy. However, in the Czech Republic this capacity has not quite developed yet.
A significant achievement accomplished by the European polis over the past 50 years nevertheless, the framework of democratic values, is neither a panacea nor is it unassailable, as demonstrated by the established democracies’ experience with extremist populism. The dual crises of the turn of the past decade (the crisis of the financial markets and the sovereign debt crisis) have undermined the trust in the eurozone and, to some extent, in the EU as such, encouraging in Western and Southern Europe the growth of political formations directed against immigrants, minorities, Islam, and the tolerance of other cultures and civilisations. Some of these forces are relatively moderate, while others sail very close to neo-Nazism. This has a detrimental effect on Czech society, which is still immature. However, by far the most dangerous assault on the framework of political values has come from Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has started testing how far he can go in destroying the liberal character of Hungarian democracy. The EU and the Czech Republic ought to take a decisive stand against this kind of weakening—albeit verbal—of the consensus of shared values. (Even though Orbán’s policy of using party politics to monopolise the civic space goes far beyond mere utterances.) Although in the Czech Republic this corroding of the consensus on basic liberal values has so far been only marginal, we must not ignore the fact that over the past five years the displays of intolerance, xenophobia and antisemitism have become more frequent and visible. Even some statements by mainstream politicians have verged on extremism. A statement by the former President, Václav Klaus, praising the ‘’genius’’ of a marginal antisemitic writer, is one of the most disgraceful examples. The former President’s circle includes people professing anti-Western, ultra-conservative views, who have often praised, or at least justified, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian policies.
Following the 1989 revolution championing human rights and civil liberties under dictatorships was a key pillar of the Czechoslovakian, and later Czech, foreign policy. This was shared not only by the official makers and representatives of the country’s foreign policy but also by the citizenry, via private and nonprofit activities. The best known organisation, Člověk v tísni (People in Need), has been supporting human rights defenders all around the globe and organizing a well- attended, annual human rights documentary film festival, Homo Homini. This foreign policy consensus started to break up in 2005, under Jiří Paroubek’s social democratic government. Nor did human rights enjoy the requisite respect as a key value informing the country’s foreign policy with reference to our recent, totalitarian past under Petr Nečas’s coalition government (2010–2013). Nečas disgraced himself through his critique of “empty Dalailama-ism and Pussyriotism.” However, the final coup de grace for the support of human rights and civil liberties apparently came last year, with the social democrat Lubomír Zaorálek taking over the foreign affairs portfolio and announcing a departure from this line and an emphasis on foreign trade. While it is possible that diplomatic bureaucracy and inertia will maintain the Czech support for human rights and civil liberties within European foreign policy, this considerable contribution of the Czech Republic to the EU has been notably weakened.
One of the key lessons of this country’s EU membership is the fact that it is a dynamic entity and that even medium-sized countries such as the Czech Republic can help shape it. The European Union derives its dynamism from its radical enlargement over the past twenty years, which has made it more varied internally, as well as from a transformation of the present-day world resulting from the economic and cultural globalization in the post-war period. In this dynamic environment countries both large and small have sought a new role, going through anxiety, uncertainty and traumas. The influence yielded by the Czech Republic has been quite insignificant, for which the country has only herself to blame. Czech foreign policy continued to be divided well beyond the 1990s, shaped as it was by three centres: the Prime Minister’s office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the President’s office. It seems difficult to find consensus on even the most fundamental foreign policy issues. As a result, both the country’s reputation as well as its readiness to act in foreign affairs, suffer. The nadir was reached during the rift between the government and President Václav Klaus, when he obstructed the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Eventually, to save face, Klaus exacted an irrelevant exemption “guaranteeing the validity” of the Beneš Decrees, on which he insisted even after the Constitutional Court found that the treaty was in full harmony with the country’s constitutional order and after it was ratified by the parliament. The conflict caused great damage to the Czech Republic’s reputation and in terms of the dead issue of the Beneš Decrees it may have been counterproductive.
A New Political Map
The eurosceptic orientation of Prime Minister Nečas’s cabinet has pushed the Czech Republic outside the mainstream of European integration (the country has yet to participate in the creation of a European banking union), thereby confirming our reputation as an opponent of more profound federalisation of the EU. The formation of Bohuslav Sobotka’s cabinet and the election of President Miloš Zeman in 2013 has marked a certain pro- integration turn in Czech foreign policy, although any concrete outcomes are still to be seen.
Those critical of the eurosceptic position on the part of former governments and President Klaus point out that it has marginalized the Czech Republic, turning it into an unpredictable and unreliable ally. However, this criticism fails to take into account the real flaw of eurosceptic views, which some representatives of the Czech Right have managed to popularize by popu- list exploitation of national stereotypes. This approach is based on an antiquated premise of sovereign national states seeking to assert their national interests within Europe. Seen in this way, the European Union is regarded as a common market and a space that allows its citizens free movement, where medium and small states hardly stand a chance to assert themselves vis-a-vis the big powers. However, the EU has been transforming and transcending this framework by gradually and painstakingly creating a European polis. Of course, European states still pursue their national interests but these are nowadays understood quite differently than in the past, and in addition, European Union citizens pursue interests that transcend national interests. Eurosceptics and traditionalists who emphasize the fact that the process of integration deprives states of their sovereignty are right in the traditional sense. The bone of contention concerns the question what provides a better guarantee of invidual freedom: the traditional state or an integrating European entity? What is in the interest of the Czech Republic and its citizens is a gradual, long-term, albeit not dangerously accelerated federalisation of the EU, which will, of course, give them more opportunities to assert themselves and succeed than a loose alliance of national states. A federation will weaken the national principle, and thereby also the influence of large states.
The civic principle has so far been rather on the margin of the public discourse within the EU, which makes sense in light of the eurozone’s economic and monetary difficulties. However, unless this principle is strengthened it will not be possible in the long term to develop the EU on a federal basis. These days the civic principle is limited to a few technical procedures, such as elections to the European Parliament, the occasional referendum, free movement of labour and social benefits for foreigners following the accession of new countries. With few exceptions, issues relating to a vision of the EU are largely absent from Czech public discourse. Some non-governmental organisations and universities have been dealing with these issues more or less systematically (e.g. the think-tank European Values, the Václav Havel Library, New York University of Prague and a few others), however, their efforts have so far had only a limited impact on political discourse.
To illustrate this, let me cite the 2013 presidential election, a key moment in the history of the free Czech Republic. Because of the behaviour of MPs who were responsible for electing the President in the past, parliament changed the constitution, introducing direct presidential elections by popular vote. Constitutional experts have criticized the fact that the President’s mandate was strengthened without a corresponding adjustment of his constitutional powers or some other way of balancing his position. The European Union as such, let alone its vision, hardly featured in the actual presidential campaign. Compared with their predecessor, the media regarded both candidates, Miloš Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg, as ‘’pro-European‘‘, without going into the details of key policy issues that form part of presidential powers, for example, the place of the Czech Republic within the EU and its ideal orientation. By contrast, the campaign was dominated by the populist and irrelevant issue of Beneš Decrees, which one of the candidates demagogically used against the other.
Starting with Paroubek’s government, through the national debate on the anti-missile defence system and the 2013 presidential campaign up to the discussion on the growth of Russian imperialism in 2014, a realignment of traditional political forces on the Czech political scene has become increasingly evident. This realignment has replaced the left/right division, although it, in turn, had lacked any meaning since at least the mid-1990s due to the programmatic emptiness of Czech politics. The consensus within Czech society regarding the country‘s unequivocal pro-Western orientation both in terms of the European Union and its Transatlantic Alliance has started to break down. A group of vocal critics has emerged who question some Western democratic values, such as cultural and political diversity and tolerance. Some of these critics have been looking up to what they, mistakenly, regard as authentic conservativism and defence of traditional values, in the politics of Russia’s President Putin. Some individuals, whose views are close to those of Václav Klaus, as well as a considerable number of sympathizers of the ODS (Civic Democratic Party), a party completely decimated in the last election as a result of corruption, have been expressing similar or exactly the same opinions of Putin as far-right politicians in Europe such as Marine Le Pen or nationalists of Viktor Orbán’s ilk. During the presidential campaign these groups of people launched highly nationalist and xenophobic attacks on Schwarzenberg. The pro-Zeman faction of the Social Democratic Party, which has close business ties to and shares many values with Russia, holds similar views. Although it professes to be pro-European, in any clash of values between nationalism and integration it always sides with the former.
Until Russia invaded Crimea, the pro-European, pro-Western and pro-Atlantic group of intellectuals and politicians was on the defensive. Since then, however, it has begun a virtual mobilisation. Given how closed off the countryside and small cities are to other views and values, many observers were pleasantly surprised by the fact that Schwarzenberg made it to the second round of the presidential election, achieving—to use football terminology—a more than decent score. The presidential campaign itself has resulted in an unprecedented mobilization of pro-Western voters. The defence of an open, tolerant society, the importance and practical impact of defending human rights and civil liberties at home and in the world, fostering civil society as a preliminary stage as well as a necessary precondition of liberal democracy, an emphasis on integrating minorities and striving to eradicate corruption— these have become the dividing and defining issues in the public discourse.
Another topic is the election success of Andrej Babiš, a populist enterpreneur and one of the wealthiest men in the Czech Republic. The owner of key media outlets (particularly the dailies Mladá fronta DNES and Lidové noviny), of a vast agricultural and food empire, a Communist Party official during the normalisation era and currently Minister of Finance, Babiš has built his political career on an optimistic image, a rhetorical war against corruption and a promise to run the country like a business enterprise. His success, reminiscent of the election of Silvio Berlusconi as Italy’s Prime Minister in the 1990s, is a symptom of the inability of traditional parties to appeal to their natural constituency, as well as the electorate’s increasing alienation from the traditional political sphere. The Babiš phenomenon is also indicative of the way the Czechs have reassessed their recent history. The voters don’t mind his 1970s and 1980s communist official background, which is in line with the revisionist efforts of some left-wing intellectuals to re-assess the normalisation period of the 70s and 80s. This conflict came to the fore particularly during the battle for the control of the Institute of Totalitarian Regimes, as some left-wing critics questioned whether the final phase of communism should be classified as totalitarian.
What is the link between the Czech political reallignment and the country’s European Union membership? Experience shows that the post- cold war world is only now coming to an end, ten years after the greatest EU enlargement. This period was characterized by an optimistic expansion of new borders, not dissimilar to the new boundaries of President John F. Kennedy’s generation in the early 1960s. Their conquest of the moon corresponds to our expansion of freedom, democracy and prosperity deep into the territory of the former Soviet Union. The now not completely inconceivable expansion of the EU into Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia is one of the faces of the transitional period. The other is the internal transformation of the European Union. Globalization and the eurozone crisis have reawakened the spectre of renationalisation. A lesson that our countries, the relatively new post-communist EU members, can learn from the experience of established democracies such as France and the Netherlands, is that the battle for openness, decency and tolerance can never be won for good. One thing we have definitely learned from our EU membership is that an argument beginning with the words: ‘’Such a thing could not happen in the West…‘‘ is quite erroneous. After ten years in the EU we see that there are many things we share with others.
We are thus about to approach the end of an era that presented the Czech Republic with the beginning of a great opportunity, of which we have so far failed to make full use. What can we wish as a new era begins, corresponding with the second decade of our EU membership? Let us learn from Masaryk and his way of posing the Czech question at the end of the 19th century. The way to a gradual, rather than rash, building of a pan-European polis (an excessive acceleration of integration and federalisation would most certainly prove counterproductive as it would only encourage further renationalisation and euroscepticism) is via deepening and expanding of education and culture. Let us hope that we will live to see the kind of political representation that will recognize the importance of these two portfolios—education and culture—as a matter of primary national and civic interest. Let us hope that a future vision of the EU and a potential Czech contribution to it, will become a dominant theme in Czech political discourse. And who knows, maybe we shall live to see the emergence of a politician who will look beyond the boundaries of his constituency and who, like Kennedy, will appeal to citizens to engage also in matters that transcend their own material interest. However enjoyable it is to just be on the receiving end of European funds, we often fail to grasp that someone had to create these funds in the first place: wealthier and more mature states that have given them to us not as a gift but rather as an investment in our common future. And the least we could do for this common future is to engage in thorough analysis, discussion and future investment on our part.
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