3 years in the EU - are Czech's losing interest in the relationship?

Photo: European Commission

In May 2004 the European Union welcomed in 10 new, mostly central and east European states, in what was the single biggest enlargement in the history of the alliance. For countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, joining the EU was one of their most important steps since the collapse of communism, a decade and a half earlier. But how do they feel about membership now? That's a question addressed in the latest Eurobarometer international poll.

Today, three years after joining the EU, how satisfied are Czechs with membership? That was one of the many questions posed in a comprehensive, twice-annual national survey conducted as part of Eurobarometer and released last week.

The head of Factum Invenio, the agency which carried out the survey, is Jan Herzmann.

"The typical Czech wants to make use of the advantages of the European Union and has the feeling that he is doing so. He is generally satisfied with his life situation and regards the EU mainly as a guarantee that he will live safely - either in terms of the fight against crime or international security."

And, says Jan Herzmann, when asked to choose between adjectives to describe the EU, Czechs tend to select more favourable terms.

Photo: European Commission
"The image of the European Union is relatively positive. It's an institution which is seen as trustworthy - 61 percent of Czechs trust the EU. The attributes people ascribe to it are predominantly positive. Very few people regard it as technocratic, very few regard it as ineffective."

Nevertheless, the survey finding that has made the most headlines is that there has been a decrease in the percentage of Czechs who regard membership of the EU as a "good thing". In the second half of 2006, 51 percent ticked that box. This year, it had fallen to 46 percent - the first time that category recorded less than 50 percent in a Eurobarometer poll.

But it certainly wasn't all bad news for pro-Europeans. Over 60 percent say EU membership has brought advantages, while two-thirds are optimistic about the future of the alliance. How can we explain what may appear to be mixed feelings? That's a question I put to Ivan Gabal, one of the Czech Republic's leading sociologists.

Ivan Gabal
"I think we are getting accommodated in the EU and we are...starting to consider the whole thing from the inside. I would use the example that because we are already living inside the house we are starting to think about windows, the quality of services, about modernisation and performance. This is what makes Czechs critical in terms of evaluating membership.

"But that does not mean that Czechs are hesitating about the reason of accession. There is no longer a debate about accessing the EU - it is about using the EU and being part of it."

The Eurobarometer poll compares attitudes around the 27-member union, sometimes finding similarities and other times uncovering marked differences. One example of the latter is the issues citizens regard as the most pressing problem of society. What worries Czechs? Jan Herzmann again.

Photo: European Commission
"At the moment it's the health system, which is unusual in the context of the majority of European states - in most countries unemployment and the economy placed first. In this country unemployment worries people a lot less than it did two or three years ago. But given that there is so much discussion here about health care and patient participation, that area has emerged in first place."

In the area of foreign policy, the current Czech government is led by the Civic Democrats, who have often expressed a marked euro-skepticism. On the whole, however, Czech citizens seem less euro-skeptical than their current leaders. Do the findings of the survey reflect a gap in this area? Or indeed has the government's position influenced voters to take a more negative view of Europe? Ivan Gabal again.

"I think it is well-perceived and people are listening to critical voices. But that does not change the fundamental pro-European orientation of Czech society, and second our interest in making the EU better performing and better organised, and in a way more sensitive towards the voices of middle-sized and smaller member states."

Photo: European Commission
Czechs seem to regard culture and history as being a more important reason for being a member of the EU than the free market - did that surprise you?

"The question was, what do we have in common? What brings us together in Europe? Czechs differ from the majority of Europeans, because we push backward the common market and economic benefits, and we stress common history, common culture and common values.

"That means that still Czech society values more...sort of liberty, democracy and the cultural climate of Europe, rather than direct financial benefits. That's the reason why the major value people have is freedom of movement - this is what is important for us."