Five years of membership fuels reflections over Czechs’ EU record

Photo: European Commission

The Czech Republic formally entered the European Union along with nine other countries on May 1, 2004, in what is the biggest enlargement staged so far by the EU. Five years on, the anniversary has been greeted with satisfaction rather than celebration. But there is still a feeling that the country could have done more to make its EU mark.

Photo: European Commission
A simulated summit of EU leaders by students at Prague’s University of Economics during a European day was staged at the prestigious institution last week.

It was one of the few events which marked the fifth anniversary of the Czech Republic’s EU entry along with nine other countries, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, on May 1, 2004. The debate’s good natured banter, the fact that half of the participants were female and the Czech working language were some of the clearest giveaways that this was not the real thing.

Apart from the student participants themselves, the public debate attracted only a handful of onlookers. In all honesty, the anniversary has not been greeted with celebrations or treated as an historic landmark. EU affairs are still clouded by the fall of the Czech government in the middle of its EU presidency and the lurking question of whether the country will ratify the EU’s reforming Lisbon treaty.

But half a decade on, the man who can take much of the credit, or blame, for negotiating the Czech Republic’s EU entry, the country’s first Commissioner in Brussels, Pavel Telička, sees some causes for satisfaction.

“The five years have been dominantly successful which does not mean that everyone has to see it exactly the same way, does not mean that there were not deficiencies, discrepancies, difficulties, problems, mistakes. It does not also mean that everyone in the country might have experienced only of the positive implications.”

For Mr Telička, now a consultant in Brussels, the new EU kid on the block in 2004 has made progress and can feel itself to be a full member even though the talk of old and new members, old and new Europe persists.

“I would say now that the Czech Republic is fully integrated, is clearly benefiting, has managed - mainly thanks to the current Czech presidency - to make a few footprints and managed to really get involved in shaping some policy.”

But he feels that success has come in spite of Czech politicians’ ambivalent, sometime hostile, attitude towards the EU which has meant that the country has not made the most of membership and exploited all the chances it has had to exert its influence.

“If you perceive the relationship with the EU in a lukewarm, rather I would say negative and sometimes even somewhat antagonistic terms, you do influence your position inside the EU. It does not mean that you have to be happy about every single decision that is being taken. It does not mean you have to be enthusiastic about some aspects of certain policies. But you need to be integrated, you need to be somewhere in the mainstream to have sufficient influence.”

Petr Drulák
Such was the tone of some of the comments coming out of Prague in the past that Mr Telička says he has been on the receiving end of phone calls him asking whether the Czech Republic was really happy with its EU membership or would be happier out of it.

The criticism of the Czech political elite and its handling of EU matters is echoed by the director of the Prague-based Institute of International Relations, Petr Drulák.

“As far as the failures are concerned, I think that the Czech European elite has not really become aware of the importance of the European Union. The failure of the Czech presidency is actually a sorry example, a sad example of that. Because actually, the presidency was quite well prepared, the start was not bad and then, you know, due to internal bickering the whole project actually failed. I think that this is a very bad advert for the Czech Republic. This lack of political responsibility, lack of the European reflex is, I think, one of the big failures.”

For many of its early years of membership, the Czech Republic was a laggard at putting EU legislation into effect, a record which it has only recently really put behind it. But Brussels is still waiting for action from Prague on some dossiers, as Mr Drulák explains.

Photo: European Commission
“A famous example is the Czech law on the civil service. It was something that was promised to the EU Commission before accession, then it was put off for years and today it is still not in the offing.”

Mr Drulák believes the half-hearted way that some of the new members enacted EU law argues for a much tougher system if and when another enlargement comes around.

On another front, the Czech Republic, unlike neighbour Slovakia, has still not joined the euro zone or even given a clear indication when that could happen, with a debate still raging within the country whether such a step is right or wrong.

On the other hand, the Czechs and other new EU members from Central and Eastern Europe can still point to the refusal of some of the older members, such as Germany and Austria, to fully open their labour markets.

On the positive side, Mr Drulák says the Czech Republic’s success in joining the border-free Schengen zone at the end of 2007 was a milestone event.

“I think it is important that we actually managed to fulfil, to finish, the accession process in terms of getting into the Schengen zone, which was quite important. It was actually about convincing the rest of the European Union that our administrative systems are sound enough and they can be trusted.”

Pavel Telička credits the EU presidency more than the entry anniversary with putting Czech EU membership into perspective and pushing it forward. Even though the presidency effectively ran its course with the collapse of the coalition government in late March, he believes it was fundamental in converting some in the sometimes eurosceptic centre-right wing Civic Democrats.

“I think that the presidency in this respect was a relatively positive turning point. Imagine the outgoing prime minister saying something like he said three months ago in Ostrava: that energy security without a common energy policy is an absolute nonsense. I can not imagine Mirek Topolánek saying that a year, a year and a half ago.”

Petr Drulák also sees the presidency as a turning point. But he is sceptical about the longevity of lessons that might have been learnt during the presidency by one set of politicians who might soon be succeeded by another. He says the Czech presidency’s surprise termination - with a whimper rather than a bang - will cause deep soul searching. This should, he believes, be more meaningful than the conversions that took place before and during its existence.

“I think now we are actually at the bottom. We can not fall much further than that. I mean, the Czech political elite confirmed many prejudices about the EU presidency. I thought and still believe these prejudice are unfair to the Czech Republic. So I think that from now on we can only improve. I would expect this failure will be a major incentive for a reflection, for a thorough reflection about Czech politics and our attitudes towards the European Union and our attitudes towards the rest of the world.”

Whether and what form that soul searching takes should determine if the Czech Republic can bury the doubts that have frequently accompanied its EU membership so far.