Czechs discuss future of European Union on 50th anniversary

Photo: European Commission

The European Union marks its 50th birthday this weekend with a huge party in Berlin, but for some there's little to celebrate. The secrecy surrounding the Declaration of Berlin - which will set out the future direction of the EU - has angered several members, including the Czech Republic. So just how far has the EU come, and where should it go next? Rob Cameron invited two people with very different views on EU integration to discuss just that - Tomas Jirsa, a young centre-right activist and adviser to Prague's mayor Pavel Bem, and Martin Shabu, from the Czech NGO Yes for Europe.

Martin Shabu: "We've already been celebrating. On Tuesday we had a big conference, with Vaclav Havel, the former president, European Commissioners and former ministers of foreign affairs from France. So we've already celebrated this anniversary. But I think any time there is a chance to remind us what were the founding ideas which created this unique organisation, it's a reason to celebrate."

Tomas, will you be cracking open the champagne on Sunday?

Tomas Jirsa: "I wouldn't go that far, to say I'll be cracking open a bottle of champagne on Sunday. I'd rather say that this celebration is a two-sided coin. I think on one hand I would celebrate the fact - and I think of it as positive aspect of the European Union - that we have fifty years of relative stability and peace in Europe. On the other hand, the recent developments in the European Union are not as I would expect them to be, looking at the economic performance, looking at the political situation in the whole of the European Union. So there are positives after fifty years of the European Union's existence, but I see negatives in recent developments."

Do you think the positives outweigh the negatives Martin?

MS: "It's seems at the moment that there's more negative news about the EU, which creates a general feeling among the public that there's something wrong going on in the EU."

And do you think there is something wrong with the EU now?

MS: "I think we've come to a moment where the EU cannot simply be an economic union. It has to have a certain political dimension."

Tomas, I can see you shaking your head.

Tomas Jirsa
TJ: "It's not even in the very basics of the European Union that were created fifty years ago. I think the four freedoms - that's perfect for me. But what's going on now is that we see everything above these four freedoms, all the political constructions such as the European Constitution - that's what is creating a very negative reaction throughout European citizens all over Europe."

So Tomas is saying it's because they're trying to making it more than an economic union that's causing those negative feelings.

MS: "Back to the roots. Let's go back to 1993, when Mr Klaus signed the application for the chance to enter the EU. It was already a political union. The Maastrict Treaty had already been signed. Everybody knew there was a certain political aspect involved in the discussion. Nobody could ignore it."

TJ: "I think political union is reasonable to a certain extent. I agree that the Maastrict Treaty was some kind of a cornerstone that basically changed the direction. And we can see that in the last fourteen years, Europe is going far away from its citizens. I just read a Financial Times opinion poll about all European countries, France, Italy, Spain etc, and how they feel about the euro. Two thirds of French people think that the euro has brought negative effects to their economy. Only five percent in France, and other countries, think that the euro is a good project. So what I'm saying is that recent developments, recent meaning the last 10-15 years, brought new projects into the integration process that have actually taken the European Union away from its citizens."

MS: "You're right, but I see the start of this in the 1950s. I agree with you, there are feelings that Europe is very far from its citizens. But it's based on the fact that the politicians are not able to decide whether we really want to have political union. Of course, if you create an atmosphere of neglect and an atmosphere where certain issues are not clear, and it's not clear what are the powers of the national capitals, and what are the powers of the supranational bodies, then you get into trouble, and you can create many myths about the European Union, how bureaucratic it is, how far from the citizen it is, even though there are many advantages."

What direction should the EU go in then? Tomas, what's your vision of the EU?

Photo: European Commission
TJ - "My ideal EU is an EU that says now let's stop and think a bit about where we're going. We have China on one hand, and the United States on the other. Our economic performance is extremely unsatisfactory. In twenty years, China will be the second biggest economy after the United States and we will just be some kind of small and not important part of the world economy."

MS: "I cannot agree that again it's a debate about whether we should just limit the integration project just to economic matters. I don't agree. Political issues and economic issues are interlinked. If you want to make a deal with China, then you have to say if you're fine with human rights abuses. And this is not simply about saying - the market will solve everything! From this point of view, my ideal Europe is a Europe which of course tries to improve its economic performance. That's for sure. I completely agree. But then I have to see European integration as a unified voice in the globalised world as having one voice when speaking to Russia, not having a different voice from Berlin, from France, from the Czech Republic, from Poland. It's simply not sustainable."