Fifteen years of Czech EU membership – a debate
How have Czech perceptions of the EU changed since the country joined the bloc on May 1, 2004? Has the Brexit mess impacted discussion of a potential Czech departure from the EU? Will the country ever adopt the Euro? And what should we be looking out for in the European Parliament elections in a few weeks’ time? These were just some of the issues Ian Willoughby discussed in Olomouc recently with a number of experts: sociologist Jan Hartl of the STEM polling agency; Karel Barták, a former CTK journalist who was a Brussels insider during a lengthy spell working for the European Commission; Pavol Baboš, a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Political Science at Comenius University in Bratislava; and Filip Nerad, Czech Radio’s European analyst.
Jan Hartl: “These 15 years have been a period of a relatively favourable attitude of the Czech population towards the EU. That said, there have been better times, such as during the 1990s, when the EU was the big promise and much more attractive to people than membership in NATO – this was a surprise to many American journalists at that time.
“Support for the EU was stable in the 1990s: roughly about 60–65 percent of the population. After that, it went down a little bit, and it is notable that it improved in 1999 as a result of the fact that there was more publicity about the EU; not only with negative connotations, but also in a positive way. Then there was a steep decline during the financial crisis, followed by a little bit of recovery, then a very steep decline in 2015–2016 in connection with the migrant crisis.
“These days we are slowly recovering from the very bottom that we reached in 2010 and 2011. Support for the EU increased with the governments of ANO and Sobotka, and it is still slightly increasing at this moment.
“If there was a referendum next week, we would end up with say 52–53 percent voting Yes according to our recent polls. Strong opponents of the EU form about 25 percent of the population.”
Karel Barták: “I would say these 15 years were for our country a process of starting to understand how to act as a member state of the EU. This I think was quite a painful process for the Czech political representation. The first Czech presidency of the European Council was a good example of the lack of recognition, the lack of understanding of the EU.
“During the 1990s the EU was the big promise and much more attractive to people than membership in NATO – this was a surprise to many American journalists at that time.”
“At the same time, this presidency also showed that the people who were governing the country at that time – people who were quite often openly anti-European – started liking what the EU was doing, because they were involved and started understanding the idea.
“Nowadays from Brussels you can see that the Czech Republic that does not have sufficient punch or weight in the European institutions. The Czechs have low influence in the European Commission and in the European Parliament. We are really underrepresented, and I would say that this is the result of the weakness of the Czech political representation.”
Pavol Baboš, perhaps you could offer a Slovak perspective on this question?
Pavol Baboš: In my opinion, the 15 years of EU membership have been a success. Of course, there have been ups and downs, particularly during the financial crisis and then during the migration crisis. I agree with what has been said about the political weakness in Brussels of both Slovakia and the Czech Republic, whether in the European Parliament or in the Commission.
“I think that this is mainly due to two reasons. One is the size of the countries. There is nothing that can be done about this except to start making alliances, which Slovaks and Czechs mostly do. Then there is the problem of the capacity or capability of the representation. This is something that we can improve, but the Slovak administration, at least, has not been very willing.
Filip Nerad, how would you respond to this question – how has Czech membership of the EU gone so far?
Filip Nerad: “In my opinion, these 15 years have actually been 15 lost years. Our politicians have not explained what the EU is about and they have not tried to convince Czech people why it is good to be in the EU. And maybe that is the reason why the popularity or the support for the EU is so low in the Czech Republic.
“The majority of the Czech population has no sense of what the EU is all about or what is going on in Brussels. They have no idea about how the EU institutions work. So that is why there are rumours about dictates from Brussels – people do not understand how the EU works, so they believe these things. In my opinion, politicians should try more to explain to the people what the EU is all about. That is the job for, let’s say, the next decade.”
At the end of the third week in May we will have European Parliament elections. At the last election, something like 18 percent of Czechs actually took part. I guess there is no real reason to expect anything different this time. What can be done to combat that kind of apathy, or that kind of lack of interest in the European Parliament elections?
“If there was a referendum next week [on joining the EU], we would end up with say 52–53 percent voting Yes according to our recent polls.”
Barták: “This is not just a question for the Czech Republic. EU elections have low participation in all EU countries, except for those where voting is compulsory. The problem is that Europe seems very distant, the citizens do not really understand how the EU works and why they should be voting. They do not understand which group the political parties from their own country belong to. So, generally in Europe, there is a big gap between the citizens and the EU.
“Secondly, I think the low participation shows the lack of understanding. Very often these elections are conducted on the level of domestic political parties, so people again look at domestic problems. People then tend to vote either against the government or against the established parties. European issues are not really represented. This is a problem that somehow must be tackled, and people somehow have to come up with ideas for creating pan-European parties. So far, nothing really seems to be working.”
What do you think can be done, or should be done, to change that, to bring the European Parliament closer to citizens?
Hartl: “I totally agree that the European issue, in general, is very underrepresented in the media. There is no public debate about important issues. If we asked people whether they are interested in how the EU works, the majority would say Yes. While the politicians say that the information is freely available, it is not sufficient. The issue is not whether the information is accessible on the internet. The issue is to find a certain human dimension of our European identity that people can relate to.
“To make this better would require a systematic effort over a number of years. And if I may say so, the field of public debate now is very deserted. There is no kind of reflection of the most important issues. There is no systematic feedback or communication. So, there is almost nothing and one cannot be surprised that people are not interested.
“If you want some figures, domestic parliamentary elections are important for some 70 percent of people, whereas for European Parliament elections it is about 38 percent – and in the end less than 20 percent of people attend the elections.”
What will be the main factors to watch out for in these European Parliament elections, from the local perspective?
Baboš: “There are several different things that will be interesting for me and for most Czech or Slovak citizens. The reason for the difference in turnout between European and domestic elections is that people look to see what will change in their lives if they vote for this or that party. The stakes are higher in the parliamentary elections so people perceive the EU elections to be the least important.
“The Czechs have low influence in the European Commission and in the European Parliament. This is the result of the weakness of the Czech political representation.”
“From a citizen’s perspective, I would watch out for how various parties and candidates would contribute to solving long-term European issues. I believe that the European Parliament and the European Commission are better suited for solving long-term problems, like environmental issues. National governments are not very interested in solving long term problems. Anything that goes beyond the electoral cycle is not in their interest, because it does not help get them re-elected.”
What do you think we can expect in these upcoming elections? For example, could ANO do better? Could populists do OK?
Nerad: “I am afraid that in the Central European region the main topic will again be migration. And migration is somewhat of a dead topic. If you look at the last EU summit, there was no mention of migration. So for EU politicians, migration is solved, and they don’t care about it. But for politicians here in central Europe, it is still a topic they can use in elections to get votes.
“The second main topic might be EU money, since we are now negotiating the next long-term EU budget. Our prime minister, Mr. Babiš, reiterates that we do not want European commissions to tell us for what purposes we should be using our EU grants. That’s why I think a big discussion will be about the independence of member states to do with EU money as they choose.”
We have all seen opinion polls that show the Czech people to be among the most Eurosceptic of nations in this region. Where do you think this Euroscepticism comes from?
“The problem is that when you look at the practices of the EU, you are confronted with the fact that people do not understand what is going on in the EU. The EU looks strange to them and because it looks strange and they do not understand it, they do not care. Their opinions are grounded on emotions, short-term perspectives and all kinds of minor issues.
“When it is said in the media that Czechs are Eurosceptic, it should be said that Czechs are enthusiastic Europeans, but that they have a high level of scepticism towards the EU. This sceptical attitude has been systematically created by our leading politicians. It is also a result of the fact – which is also present elsewhere in Europe – that whenever there is something problematic, you blame it on the EU.
“These 15 years have actually been 15 lost years. Our politicians have not explained what the EU is about and have not tried to convince Czech people why it is good to be in the EU.”
“On the other hand, when the result of Czech-EU cooperation is successful it is shown as a brave victory of our domestic politicians. This type of game is played all over Europe, but in our country it is very strong. It was systematically done especially by the leaders of the Civic Democrats and Mr. Klaus as the prime minister and as the president.
“No intellectual groups or media came out in support for the EU. As you know, the news regarding the EU tends to be negative. When the EU works OK, there are no news reports.
Nerad: “I agree that there have been 15 years of constant explaining that the EU or Brussels is bad and that everything bad comes from Brussels. And most Czechs have been convinced that that is the case. There was a lack of people who would say something positive.
“Now I would say that this type of debate is starting. I would mention for example Radek Špicar and Tomáš Prouza. I think that after 15 years of membership we are finally starting this positive campaign for the EU while the last 15 years were mostly negative.”
Is there something in the Czech or Slovak national character that is kind of insular, inward-looking and unconfident perhaps on the international stage?
Baboš: “I would not like to make open claims about the Czech national character. But in the Slovak national character I would say that there is a certain degree of feeling oppressed or put down, of not being recognized. Politicians like to take advantage of this feeling for various reasons. They rarely make a positive campaign, saying that there are things to be proud of. In the Czech Republic there have been celebrations of the 15th anniversary of EU membership, while in Slovakia it has hardly been mentioned.
“For EU politicians, migration is solved and they don’t care about it. But for politicians here in central Europe, it is still a topic they can use in elections to get votes.”
“Most dissatisfaction or scepticism comes from wrongly set expectations, which were set 15 years ago by political parties that promoted the EU as some sort of economic paradise and which said that we will soon have an economy such as Germany’s. In Slovakia, some politicians even said Switzerland, even though Switzerland is not an EU member state. So despite economic growth, despite almost non-existent unemployment, we still compare ourselves with the Germans or the Dutch. Of course, those countries are richer, and they will be richer in 10 years’ time. The gap is just too big to close in a decade. So what we need is for politicians to paint the EU in a positive light, not in an unrealistic way of course, but in a way that shows the success in our membership. We have grown as well, and we are much closer to the West than we used to be 15 or 20 years ago.”
Hartl: “I would like to add one important point. In the Czech Republic, we can observe a general passivity. This is the result of the legacy of the Communist regime, when people were assigned a very passive role. The people are used to this and so it is very difficult to make people active. It has not been made easier by politicians, who have said that all European issues are very complicated and that EU matters should be left only to the experts. This has discouraged people from trying to understand politics, the economy and especially international relations. This is very comfortable for the politicians, who in this way took power out of the hands of the general public; it is much easier for them to conduct back-door politics. So the general passivity of the population, which is a historical fact, should be taken into serious account.”
“When it is said in the media that Czechs are Eurosceptic, it should be said that Czechs are enthusiastic Europeans, but that they have a high level of scepticism towards the EU. This sceptical attitude has been systematically created by our leading politicians.”
For all these 15 years, the Czech Republic has been a net beneficiary of EU funding and, as far as I know, it will be for a few years more at least. If you travel around the country, you see many projects, many buildings that have been renovated with EU money. Why don’t people appreciate that more?
Nerad: “There has been such an atmosphere of general mistrust of the EU that these projects with the support of the EU are not enough. I think that most people take it for granted. They also see it as our money being sent to the EU and then back, so I think it is due to this general atmosphere in the Czech Republic and to the perception of the EU.”
Baboš: “First of all, we need to realize that many people – and according to several polls most people – do appreciate EU membership. They do see the benefits of it. So when we are talking about Eurosceptic people, it is less than half of the population in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I think we need to have this in mind.
“A year and a half ago, we had an international project studying Euroscepticism at my university. We went to six countries: four in Eastern Europe and two in the West – Germany and Austria. In the East many people who were Eurosceptic told us they were sceptics because of something that was said on the internet or because of what they saw on TV. They do not have money for travelling, so what do they gain from free movement of people, since they do not cross the border?
“And while there is European money in schools, public infrastructure and so on, in Slovakia – and I assume also here in the Czech Republic – EU money is perceived as a source of corruption for many politicians. So they say that much of the money is stolen by both local and national politicians. This is another source of Euroscepticism for many people.”
“EU money is perceived as a source of corruption for many politicians.”
A year or two ago we started hearing the word Czexit. I wonder if the whole enormous mess around Brexit will serve as a kind of lesson or warning to anybody who would try to push for the Czech public exiting the EU? Could the Czech Republic ever leave the EU?
Barták: “You can never know what will happen in the future. But we know that more than half of the Czech people are in favour of the EU. So there is no imminent danger. At the same time, if we continue on degrading and ridiculing the European project, it will happen that this present issue will continue to grow.
“At the same time, Brexit is, I think, a complete disaster but also an eye-opener for many people. Brexit brought the debate about European issues back to the forefront. I don’t think that we had so much debate in the media over the last 10 years as we have had since the whole Brexit story started. Thanks to the consequences of Brexit, people are starting to see the importance of European integration, which is normally a part of our everyday life that we do not think about. So from this point of view, I think Brexit has been beneficial, at least for the internal debate about Europe.”
Hartl: “I do not like the word Czexit. The problem of catchy labels such as Czexit or Brexit is that everyone repeats them and then they become something normal, even attractive. And for people that do not know much about the EU, they become something like a symbol.”
“Brexit brought the debate about European issues back to the forefront. I don’t think that we had so much debate in the media over the last 10 years as we have had since the whole Brexit story started.”
Nerad: “This whole mess around Brexit has shown people that exiting the EU cannot bring anything positive. It can only bring a lot of problems. It has shown that even the politicians of such a high-class country such as the UK do not know how to exit the EU. So I think it is a good lesson for anybody who plays with the idea of exiting the EU, whatever country they may be from.”
Would you be confident that if it came to a vote that the Czechs would vote to stay? In the UK it also looked like the people were going to vote to stay.
Nerad: “It has been said that the majority of people are in favour of staying in the EU. But the danger is still very high. In a referendum you never know. We know that regarding the British referendum there were all these rumours, the people did not have enough information about what they there voting for. So there is always danger that some clever marketer would come up with a strategy, an idea, on how to persuade people to vote to leave. But nowadays I think that the probability of Czechs voting to exit is low.”
Something else we started hearing about a year or two ago was the idea of a two-speed Europe, where a kind of core group of countries would start leaving the others behind – or at least on a lower level. Do you think that is still a possibility? And if it were to come about what would it mean for the Czech Republic or Slovakia?
Barták: “In a way we already have a two-speed Europe. We have the Eurozone and those who are out of the Eurozone. If we have two or three more countries join the Eurozone in the nearest future, you will have a very strong group of people who will say, Yes, let’s move on, let’s create a very strong core of the EU that would be integrated faster than the others. To make this more institutionalized, you would need a change of the EU treaties, but that is another story.”
I come from a country that has the Euro and I looked forward to the Czechs getting the Euro before they joined the EU, 15 years ago. Obviously that hasn’t happened. Will it ever happen?
Nerad: “It should happen because we are obliged to accept the Euro. But there is no date, and I am afraid that it will take many years. Every Czech government has so far put the decision – to even start the debate about accepting the Euro – to its successor. Sobotka’s government said that it should be the next government, Babiš’s government said, OK, it will be the next one. I’m afraid that this will go on and on. There is no pro-Euro party in our political system – except for maybe TOP 09 I do not know of any other that directly supports accepting the Euro. There is no will among the parties, no will among our political representation.”
“There is an obligation for the Czech Republic to accept the common currency. At the same time, it is highly unpopular among the population.”
Barták: “You are right that there is an obligation for the Czech Republic to accept the common currency. At the same time, it is highly unpopular among the population. What we would need is a moment where people would change their minds, where they would see that there is some kind of merit to having the Euro. If you talk to the vast majority of Czech entrepreneurs, they will tell you, Yes, we need the Euro, we are suffering because we do not have it. But nonetheless, it is not popular, so what can you do? The politicians are just following the crowd, nobody is really trying to convince the people. I think what we would need some kind of crisis to make people change their minds. Otherwise, it will take quite a long time.”
Hartl: “It sounds incredible, but around 2005–2006 we had about 52 percent of people in favour of accepting the Euro. Now the latest figures are around 17 percent. No politician would go against those numbers.”