Has the Czech Republic’s stance on refugee quotas damaged the country’s image abroad?

Photo: CTK

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has said that Czech-German relations are the best they have been in the modern era. The statement came on the heels of an article in Hospodářské noviny quoting diplomats who said that ties had actually dipped to their lowest point in 20 years. The reason? Differences over refugee quotas. While successful cooperation on many issues is unlikely to come undone, many analysts agree the Czech Republic has taken a rocky path, politically-speaking, adding there will be a cost.

Vladimír Handl,  photo: archive of International Institute of Foreign Relations
I spoke to Vladimír Handl, an expert on Czech-German relations at Prague’s Institute of International Relations.

“It is in a way a bizarre phenomenon: one would expect that the refugee crisis would be viewed differently on the political left, that it would be understood by the Christian party as well as some of the liberal parties, that they would take a more cooperative approach, but we aren’t seeing this at all. The first reason is that the parties opened the door to populist rhetoric, a populist trap, and they are now in a difficult position where they can’t really take it back. Compounding the problem is that parties in the government are really rather weak – acting really more like administrative units than traditional parties.”

The position contrasts starkly with the original intent of the coalition government: after all, they wanted to bring the Czech Republic back to the mainstream of the European Union, coming after cooler years under the previous government and the previous president. But now they have been tested quite strongly by the crisis…

“Yes. I think that the centre-left government led by the Social Democrats really wanted to bring the country back to the European mainstream and nominally they have. They signed the fiscal pact and they made the right gestures and basically supported the German stance on reforms and the euro crisis. But in fact what Czech diplomacy towards the EU did on the active side mostly represented very practical Czech interests such as EU funding. Czech diplomacy was not particularly active beyond that. And with the defensive stance on refugee quotas, the Czech Republic really is not in the mainstream.”

Photo: CTK
Most politicians agree that the migration crisis is not going to end any time soon; in that light, do you expect any kind of overhaul of the Czech position in a way that would be in more in line with Germany’s or other major EU players?

“I assume the Czech government right now is seeking a compromise and a way how to smooth things over and to try and find a way to work towards a more cooperative approach. The Czech Republic’s image has been damaged in Germany and other parts of the EU. The problem is that Czech parties face difficulties now in how to reframe the issue. In my view, the image of the country has been damaged in Germany and elsewhere and I think undoing the impact to the image of Czech policy as well as to the country as an able partner, capable of solidarity and cooperative solutions, will take quite some time.”