Is the Czech Republic the new “bad-boy” of the European Union?

In January 2009, the Czech Republic will for the first time assume the EU presidency. But the current Czech coalition government may have a problem – its policies have often seemed hostile to European consensus politics. With bilateral negotiations between the government and the US on a proposed radar base as well as a visa waiver programme, many have the impression that the current government, like its Polish counterpart, is hostile to the EU.

I asked political analyst Jiří Pehe if such assessments were fair:

“When the government of Mirek Topolánek started in January 2007, it started with many ideological precepts which were almost hostile to the European Union, and it thought it could fulfil those ideological goals by co-operating with Poland. Later the government discovered that it would have to be more co-operative with Brussels otherwise the Czech Republic could be really sidelined, and so the government has become sort-of Euro-realist rather than Euro-sceptical, but it still pursues policies which make the Czech Republic stand out as the bad-boy in Europe.”

Petr Mach is the Executive director of the neo-liberal Centre for Economics and Politics, founded by Czech president Václav Klaus. He points out a crucial tension within the current coalition government:

“You know that the Czech Republic has President Václav Klaus who is considered a Euro-Realist or a Euro-Sceptic, but in the Czech Republic, the power lies with the government not with the president. In fact it is a coalition government made of three parties. Not only Klaus’s Civic Democrats, but also there are two minor partners – the Christian Democrats and the Greens. Especially the Greens are a very pro-European party.”

And what about the Czech Republic’s negotiations with the US regarding the abolition of visa requirements for Czech citizens – does the Czech strategy not weaken the EU’s collective bargaining position? Petr Mach again:

“I think that it is not just the Czech Republic but it is also Poland and the Baltic states and Hungary. All these countries have negotiated with the United States their visa agreements separately because it is not the EU power to negotiate on behalf of member states had not made any deal with the United States regarding visas for Eastern and Central European countries so it is quite natural that these countries tried to negotiate it themselves.”

David Král, is the director of the Institute for European Politics. He notes a key shift in the approach of the current government:

“What we saw with the previous government led by the Social Democrats in the Czech Republic was aligning with the European mainstream. Basically, not making too much of a fuss around some of the issues, but right now, the government has diverging opinions from the majority of the EU members. There is a certain scepticism for example on the Lisbon Treaty which is not viewed as the best way forward or some of the issues for instance climate change or the liberalization of the internal market inside the European Union - then the current government makes its voice heard quite strongly.”

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
The recent re-election of Czech President Václav Klaus has clearly strengthened the position of current Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, but many believe that it has also increased the influence of the constitutionally apolitical president over his Civic Democratic party. Jiří Pehe again:

“In my view, Mr Topolánek would like to continue with his Euro-realistic policies. However, Mr. Klaus after his re-election will certainly be pushing the government and the government in particular into a more radical Euro-sceptical stance and that may be reflected in Czech policies. I think that the reason why the Czech Republic has earned a bad reputation in Europe is not so much based on the Euro-sceptical views of the government, as it is based on the attempts of the government to act as a solo player on issues which would require co-operation, consulting with the rest of Europe and the Czech government on issues such as abolishing visas for travel to the United States, placing the American radar on Czech territory. Basically it has decided to act on a bilateral basis with the United States.”

So why do many Eastern European countries have a seemingly stronger bond to the US than to the EU? Petr Mach again:

Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
“Generally, the post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, are probably more ‘Atlanticist’ countries, just because America was their role-model during the communist era. And these countries wish to have a strong link with the United States regardless of what government is there, whether it is Republican or Democratic.”

But Jiří Pehe sees the situation very differently:

“Well, I think that the Czechs and Poles are really playing a risky game in this respect because they have not developed bilateral relations with the United States as they may think, but they have developed bilateral relations with the Bush administration. And the Bush administration is now very unpopular in the United States, and it may actually turn against them after a Democratic president or John McCain are elected. It may in the end be seen as somehow less desirable by the US government because any future American government will be closer to what the so-called “Old Europe” has been saying on international politics and other issues.”

So is there an irrevocable bond between US neoconservatives and right-of-centre government in Eastern Europe? David Král, the director of the Institute for European Politics, thinks there is more to it than that:

“I would say that the Czech Civic Democrats are not united in their ideology. We have President Klaus, who is the honorary president of the party, and then the wing of the Civic Democratic party which is ideologically quite closely aligned to him. But also we have the more moderate wing in the Civic Democrats represented by Prime Minister Topolánek and particularly vice-premier Alexandr Vondra who is taking on many issues such as Europe and international relations a more moderate stance.”

And what about the Bush administration’s perspective? Here too, Jiří Pehe believes that ideology and strategy play important roles:

“I think that the American policy makers are smart. They certainly just like any other global power use the old policy “divide and rule” which means that if they cannot get what they want from Europe as a whole, they go to the weakest part of the chain. And certainly in their opinion it is Poland and the Czech Republic, and in my opinion, the Czech Republic has played the role of a useful idiot in this respect. It has served as a Trojan Horse for the Bush administration.”

But Jiří Pehe also believes that there are historical reasons for Eastern-European right-of-centre parties embracing neo-conservative ideology:

“Well, I think that the connection is that there is a lot of black & white thinking in Eastern Europe and a lot of ideological thinking. And this has come to all new members of the European Union from the post-communist world. The problem is that those people simply don’t think in a complex way. They like simple solutions and this is what the neo-conservative doctrine provides. It’s a very black & white kind of doctrine. And many people who were raised in the communist world, where everything was black & white embraced this because it suits their kind of thinking. And unfortunately, the Czech Republic is in an unfortunate situation politically in that people who like this ideology and in a way admire George Bush, run Czech foreign policy at this point.”

One thing is clear, come January 2009, all eyes will be on the Czech Republic. With the Czech president critical of climate change and promoting strong neo-liberal economics, and with a Czech government seemingly hostile to EU integration, when the Czech Republic finally assumes the EU presidency, it may find that it is faced with a serious image problem.