Czech Republic: Taking stock of ten years of EU membership

Photo: Filip Jandourek

May 1st is the 10th anniversary of the Czech Republic’s accession to the European Union. Ten years ago the country joined the EU within the so called “big bang” expansion. The past ten years have brought many ups and downs, from the days when the Czech Republic was seen as an exemplary newcomer, to the years when it was regarded as an uncooperative troublemaker. Ten years on, Czechs are also more sober in their assessment of the EU and trust in EU institutions has hit an all-time low. In a special programme marking the 10th anniversary of Czech membership in the EU we invited political analyst Jiří Pehe and the head of the STEM polling agency Jan Hartl to discuss the country’s successes and failures in the course of the past decade.

Jan Hartl,  photo: Noemi Holeková
Jan Hartl: Well, if we look at the long-term trends as reflected in sociological surveys we may speak of a series of successful years mainly in terms of a rising living standard. The face of Czech towns and the facades of the houses are clear and bright and this is a success story. The other – negative –side is that people seem to have lost their vision for the future. They feel that the country is heading nowhere, or even towards a worse future. They are highly insecure with regard to the future and one of the reflections is that the country is under strong pressure from the EU. In spite of the fact that they enjoy more freedom and a higher standard of living they do not have a meaningful vision of the future. My interpretation is that they feel deserted by their leaders, that Czech politicians are not able to show them the path to a meaningful future. I think this explains the somewhat skeptical views about the European Union …this is not to be understood as skepticism with regard to the EU but a hesitation with regard to their future, not so much their future in the EU but centered around domestic policy.

Still, people’s trust in EU institutions has now dropped to an all-time low – it is now at 36 percent I believe –what is behind that loss of trust and is it a Czech problem or a broader European phenomenon due to the economic crisis, due to the way the EU functions and so on?

Jiří Pehe: Well, I think it is both, but I think it is more pronounced in the case of the Czech Republic for a number of reasons. First, the Czech Republic is a country in transition still and it had to pay a high price for joining the European Union. The accession process was very demanding, not only in the Czech Republic but in all candidate countries and people expected more in return, so to speak, and the first reaction in the wake of the problems that the EU encountered was –this project is not paying off. We also have to take into account that Czechs have been exposed for a number of years to very strong propaganda – or should I say to a set of opinions – from our former president Vaclav Klaus and the former leading party in the government, the Civic Democrats, which were really not explaining the benefits of membership in the EU, on the contrary they were criticizing the EU from all possible angles. And if we take into account the fact – which I think Jan Hartl will confirm – that ordinary Czechs’ opinions about the EU are rather shallow, that they don’t have strong opinions and can be easily swayed either in favour or against the EU depending on who is talking to them –then the 35 percent support we see now is a logical result.

In general I think that Czechs benefitted from EU membership much more than they think they did. That is our salient national feature – people tend to be skeptical and tend to complain even about things that work, in comparison with other countries.

However we can see this slump in trust in EU institutions across the EU. Is it just the result of the economic crisis? Do Europeans think that the EU, that the European Commission is working well? Do they maybe feel that integration, fiscal integration, is taking place faster than the public can digest, that it is not being explained properly, could it be that some EU members feel like second-class citizens or that decision-making is in the hands of two or three countries?

Jiří Pehe,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
Jiří Pehe: Of course, people in some countries feel that way. On the other hand the European Union is not a project that is somewhere above those countries –it is a joint project of all of those countries. So if we complain about “muddling through” or about a lack of leadership we are complaining about ourselves. And I think that here in the Czech Republic in particular there has been no leader to tell the people that the EU is not THEM doing something to US, it is US. And we have never, even remotely, been exposed to this kind of leadership here in the Czech Republic. So if you look at the new member states you have countries on different levels: you can see Poland which clearly shows a degree of leadership with regard to the European Union, they have leaders who are able to tell the public this is our project, we have to do something for it and they even have ideas how to reform the EU; there are the Baltic states which have obviously embraced the EU; we have Hungary which is similar to the Czech Republic – in other words not much of any kind of contribution to the EU; and then countries like Slovakia, which at least managed to join the Eurozone.

So, yes, we could argue that the EU has many problems, but it is not some kind of an abstract entity that can solve those problems without us because we are the European Union.

My opinion is that the European Union made a big mistake when it allowed those new members to join the EU without first going through structural institutional reforms. I personally think that had the EU adopted a constitution and had it become a political union of 15 countries, and had invited the others to join or not to join at their own choice it would have had fewer problems. But to admit ten new countries, eight of them post-communist countries with backward institutional and political cultures and then try to reform them was, I think, slightly foolish.

To what extent did it succeed?

Jiří Pehe: Well, I think it is succeeding to the level that one could expect because we now have eight post-communist countries who are members of the EU, they are obviously not used to a political culture of compromise, negotiation and so on. They are economically lagging behind..

So there is a two-tier Europe?

Jiří Pehe: There is a two-tier Europe, that is something that cannot be denied. But we can see even among the post-communist EU members that some countries have been able to deal with this and see it as a positive challenge and some, such as the Czech Republic have not. They obviously feel that the EU is an alien institution that is somewhere there in Brussels and all you can hear from Czech politicians about the EU is whether we get enough money from the EU and whether we are utilizing the European funds.

Photo: European Commission
The Czech Republic has clearly prospered since joining the EU. There is no question that it has benefitted financially. According to data I have here over the past decade the country has received the equivalent of 676 billion crowns from EU coffers, paid out 343 billion to the EU, thereby obtaining 333 billion crowns. Exports have more than doubled in the past decade. But the country’s first EU commissioner Pavel Telička said recently he was very disappointed that the Czech Republic had not made good use of the potential EU membership offered. Do you agree with that? How have we harmed our own best interests these past ten years?

Jan Hartl: I think that we lost out on many opportunities offered by the EU and it is not just European funds that we could have used much more. The problem is clearly in our domestic environment. There are complications as far as administration is concerned, there is no clear responsibility, no accountability for mistakes made. In this respect Pavel Telicka is right.

But how do you explain the fact that ten years after joining the EU we are unable to file for a grant successfully?

Jan Hartl : Back in 2003-2004 surveys showed that people did not know much about the EU, neither did our leaders and it was clear they would have to learn how the EU works and get more skilled in debating things and learning the technicalities, learning to administer EU aid and so on. We also expected that the public would learn more and more about the EU as time passed. But if you look at surveys then and now, nothing of that has come about. Politicians are not more effective in coping with practical issues, the same goes for civil servants and even the general public is not more knowledgeable about the EU. Ten years of experience and there is almost nothing to show for it.

Do people not care?

Jan Hartl: Our leaders did not care because of the very complicated administration of EU issues plus the EU was presented in the media as a problematic issue –our former president Vaclav Klaus is the personalization of that attitude – so there was not sufficient will on the part of our leaders and not sufficient interest on the part of our public. And the situation allowed for the misuse of EU funds, for improper administration, for corruption. So the deficiencies on the one hand opened up the space for manipulation and corruption on the other. It was not a pure coincidence and with the public uninformed about the proper procedure and how things work it could not perform any social control, effect social pressure to put things right.

So a dismal lack of know-how combined with corruption…Moving on now to another point. As you said thanks to the former president Vaclav Klaus and centre-right governments the Czech Republic has been more inclined to be Eurosceptic than otherwise. On the other hand if you look at election results Eurosceptic parties get only marginal support –if that. How would you explain this seeming discrepancy?

Václav Klaus,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Jan Hartl: I would just make one more point. When someone looks at the data from the Czech Republic one might conclude that the country is highly critical and Eurosceptic. But I think this would be a very shallow perception of the situation. I think that a more accurate interpretation of the situation would be that people are disenchanted, somewhat confused, they do not feel that the country is properly led by Czech politicians and they feel alone in a complicated world. Many do not speak foreign languages, they are limited to domestic information sources and our leadership is not very helpful in such a situation.

I would add just a few statistics. If you ask people whether they feel like Europeans and have a strong commitment to Europe you would get a positive reply from 75 percent of respondents. If you ask them whether the Czech Republic benefits from EU membership you would get a positive response from 50 percent of respondents and if you ask people whether they think the Czech Republic is active enough in the EU then 75 percent of respondents will say no. So people know that part of the problem is that we are not sufficiently active in the EU, that we are more or less observers of what is happening in Europe and that if we feel we don’t really “belong” it is not the fault of the EU, but our own domestic problem.

When you say that Czechs feel themselves to be Europeans – what exactly does that entail? Are they interested in what goes on in Europe, beyond Czech borders? Do they relate to European events more than they would to events in Canada or Japan? Because sometimes it seems that we are closed in our own little country…

Jiří Pehe: Well, one of the Czech Republic’s problems is that it is, of course, rather a provincial country. It has been for centuries a province of big states and entities and so somehow this has become part of the national and political culture. Young Czechs are perhaps more interested, they speak foreign languages and follow European affairs and are more interested in what goes on beyond Czech borders, but the older generation (it was already mentioned that there is a language barrier and so on ) they are not really interested, in some ways they are also confused.

But I also think that the problem is not only on the side of the Czech Republic. That would be unjust. Part of the problem also lies with Brussels. If you look back, Brussels had a very clear strategy how to treat candidate countries during the process of accession. They had leverages, they were able to apply pressure, they would even threaten some of those countries by saying we will not admit you if you do not do this or that. So there was a very structured negotiation process and it worked. Then, after 2004, all of a sudden those countries were on their own. They were members and those strong leverages disappeared. And I think this was a mistake. Quite frankly, I think Brussels should be much more punitive when it comes to a lack of action on the part of some of its member countries. For instance, when the Czech Republic failed to adopt a civil service law which was clearly required by the EU (or rather it did adopt it in 2002 but managed several times to postpone it from going into effect) then Brussels should have been there a long time ago saying - look if you don’t put this law in effect we are going to punish you –because this was one of the conditions of your membership in the EU. Now it is 2014 and we hear that if the Czech Republic does not bring the law in effect by 2015 there will finally be some action by Brussels. I personally do not understand why this was not done eight years ago. It was clear all along that Czech politicians have been doing this on purpose because they want to control the civil service politically they have been doing everything in their power to sabotage this civil service law and Brussels did nothing.

Photo: European Commission
There would be many more examples of this. I think that even with regard to the European funds it was clear that the candidate countries were not prepared for the bureaucracy, for handling EU funds and I think there should have been much more effort on the part of Brussels, on the part of the “old” Europe so to speak, to assist these countries. It is very nice that we had smart people who managed to build golf courses with European money, but it would have been much better to build highways, railroads and so on, rather than things that politicians saw as their hobbies. So a lot of money and a lot of effort was wasted and I think that party of the blame must be attached to Brussels because it is simply not following up on certain things.

Let us turn now to the crisis in Ukraine. Have the events in Ukraine changed people’s perception of the EU, of the need for Europe to be united and to jointly resolve such things as security and energy security?

Jan Hartl: Undoubtedly. It was Russia which was perceived as the biggest threat to our country in the past. This was complicated by the fact that the older generation was torn by the threat of Russia on the one side and the threat of Germany on the other. This gradually disappeared with the older generation dying out and in the past decade the attitude towards Russia improved quite considerably. Now there are indications that the young generation would be mainly pro-Ukraine. But we do not push too hard for the results, for the big picture. Opinions on such things take longer to form. I would be reserved on this and wait for two or three months to see what the impact of the Ukrainian crisis will be.

Right, the new centre-left government has now vowed to effect a U-turn and bring the country back to the EU mainstream, to be more active in debates. Let’s have a listen to the deputy foreign minister, Mr. Petr Drulak, talking about what the Czech Republic can offer the EU if it sets its mind to being more cooperative.

Petr Drulák: We are a smaller country, which has its limitations but also its advantages. In terms of limitations you do not have the economic, administrative or military capacity of the bigger countries, on the other hand as a smaller country you do not have a stake in many issues around you like the big powers do –which means that you can often be impartial on international issues and conflicts and you can offer your services to a variety of international actors in a way that the big powers cannot, because the big powers will always be biased and have their own big power interests. So that is a common role for small states and we hope to capitalize on that.”

“Of course, we are also a central European country, which means that we have a unique experience –it is a geo-political experience but it is also a transformation experience and I would say we have a greater understanding for countries in transition, countries in the process of building a market economy, democratic structures and countries which are striving to join the EU. We ourselves joined the EU recently and we can help by sharing our experience.”

So gentlemen, do you agree with that? Is that our strength, is that what we can offer?

European Parliament,  photo: WL,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Jiří Pehe: Well, we can certainly offer all that, but we can also offer what we failed to offer in the past and that is being more active and behaving as a real member of the European Union, because I think that in the last 8 – 10 years especially during the two governments led by the Civic Democratic Party we intentionally stayed away from the mainstream of what was going on in the European Union. So I would argue that before we put on the table all these advantages or supposed advantages that we have we should make sure that we are seen as being back at the table, that we really want to contribute to discussions on the future of the European Union and that our first reaction will not be this is something that does not concern us now, and we can wait, like in the case of some of the agreements that were adopted recently by the Eurozone and the EU where the Czech attitude was – Ok, we don’t have to decide on this now because we will not have the euro before 2020. Simply a more active attitude, I think that would go a long way.

It is nice that the symbolic gestures have been made and that President Zeman has hoisted the EU flag at Prague Castle and that when the prime minister goes to Brussels he is much more pro-European on the surface, but I think we really need to follow this up with real policies.

This new government is more committed to adopting the euro – which indeed the Czech Republic has committed itself to adopt – and says it wants to adopt the single currency by 2020. The public is still very lukewarm about the euro and skeptical about the future of the joint currency following the euro-zone’s debt crisis. Clearly there are economic conditions to be met, but how important is the political decision? How important is the euro for people’s European identity? Will it make them feel more European if they use the euro?

Jiří Pehe: Absolutely, I think that all we need is to go to Slovakia and see what it has done for Slovakia. In Slovakia opinion polls show quite clearly that most people are actually satisfied with their switch to the euro and they see it as a positive step, so yes, it is the responsibility of the political leadership. We can see that in Slovakia, before it joined the euro zone, there had also been skeptical views about what such a step would mean and whether it is the right decision but I would say that fortunately for the Slovaks they had a political leadership that was willing and able to go for it, and that’s what it takes. In the Czech Republic there is low support for the euro at this point, but as I mentioned before the views of a lot of Czechs on anything European are rather shallow – that ranges from political issues to the euro – and I think there is an opportunity for Czech politicians to step in and explain certain things. It is also a political commitment. This debate we are hearing in the Czech Republic about adopting the euro or not is, in my opinion, totally tainted by the fact that no one mentions that we have already committed ourselves to adopting the euro. It is not that we have a choice. Some politicians get away with talking about having a referendum on adopting the euro, but we already had a referendum on adopting the euro. It was in 2002 before we joined the European Union and in the accession treaty it says that we will adopt the euro once we meet the conditions. So there should really be no discussion about that. There should be a discussion about meeting those conditions and once we meet them we should simply say - OK, we are there and we are going to adopt the euro. And I think this indecisiveness that we see on the part of many politicians –or opportunism, I would say, playing with public opinion that’s very detrimental to this whole idea.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
Jan Hartl: Its just excuses, excuses and excuses for our own domestic political steps. One thing that we should also mention is that our politicians like to stress immediate material profits, anything that can be calculated and adoption of the euro is undoubtedly also a symbolic message to our people – a message that we belong to the family of most developed European countries. This clearly paid off in Slovakia and if you talk to our politicians and if you talk to our economists they do not trust in anything that is not calculable, in something that has only a symbolic value, but a symbolic value is very important –it is an interpretation of what is happening around us.