How has 10 years of EU membership impacted Czech society?

Photo: European Commission

As Czechs mark 10 years in the EU, much of the debate has focused on the material benefits of membership. But what about the less tangible aspects of the country’s accession to the bloc? In this special report, we explore some of the ways “re-joining Europe” has affected Czech society.

Photo: European Commission
It took nine years after the Czech Republic joined the European Union for the EU flag to be hoisted at Prague Castle, the symbol of the nation’s history and sovereignty. President Miloš Zeman invited European Commission chief Jose Barroso to attend the ceremony, signalling a departure from the staunch Euroscepticism of his predecessor in office, Václav Klaus.

A year later, the Czech Republic has a pro-EU government which has pledged to bring the country back to the EU mainstream. But the attitudes of most Czechs towards the bloc remain rather reserved. Earlier this month, a poll found that a mere 34 percent of Czechs trusted the EU.

Jan Červenka is an analyst for CVVM, a polling agency affiliated with the Czech Academy of Sciences. He says that in comparison with Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians, the Czechs’ attitude to the EU has always been somewhat lukewarm.

“For the few years following the accession, positive attitudes prevailed. But then, the crisis of the Euro-zone put Czechs’ relations with the EU under strain. We have also seen public support for Euro adoption slip significantly; now only about 20 percent of Czechs think we should adopt the single currency. However, Czechs’ attitudes to the EU are multi-layered and we can’t say they are unequivocally negative.”

The economic benefits of the country’s EU membership as well as easier travel and trade are among the things seen most positively, according to Jan Červenka. On the other hand, Brussels red tape and EU legislation are considered as negative. Many Czechs have also expressed concerns about the country’s sovereignty and national identity.

Jan Červenka,  photo: archive of CVVM
“There is a feeling of uncertainty fuelled by ongoing European integration. People know what to expect from the system of national states. But some of them are confused by the transition away from the national states. That I think is one of the important aspects.”

The ambiguous attitude towards the EU is perhaps one of the reasons why in some areas, the country has not improved so significantly, such as public administration, the rule of law, civil society as well as the society’s general values and moral standards. Commentator Jiří Pehe calls this “a democracy without democrats”.

“I think that the EU has offered a civilizational jump for the new member countries of the former Communist bloc. But what the EU might have underestimated was the size of the gap, so to speak, that still existed. Most of those countries were not psychologically prepared to make use of the institutional know-how and other help coming from the EU. But the process of creating democracy as a culture has been much slower.”

Some people have expressed surprise that yet another generation of Czechs, the people who became adults after the fall of Communism, carried on the habit of their parents. Do you see a major difference between the attitude of these people and their children? Are they more European and less post-communist?

“Absolutely. When we talk about the generational gap, we have to distinguish between the first post-communist generation which was born and spent their formative years under Communism.

“This generation has been lost to the cause of democracy in many ways as much as their parents or even more because their parents, or some of them at least, experienced the [pre-war] First Republic.”

“But the people who are now in their 20s are quite different. These are people who grew up in a free, open society; in a society where it’s normal to share your views with others. They have used the benefits of being in the EU without any problems.”

Much of the EU-inspired modernization of the Czech Republic in fact occurred before the country joined the bloc in 2004. On its way to the union, the country had to adapt its legislation and implement a host of other measures to be able to become an EU member state. But sociologist Tereza Stöckelová point to the widespread abuse of EU funds in the Czech Republic when she says the cultivation process seems to have stalled.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“This changed dramatically in 2004. Once we were in, we became more courageous to do things in our own ways. Also, I think the domestic gate-keepers of the Czech-EU relations become professional and established. For example, when it comes to the money from the EU’s structural funds, Brussels has very little control over what happens with the money here. So I think that in a way, we might become less Europeanized than we were in 2004.”

There are a number of areas where Czechs lag considerably behind Western societies. The EU’s push on curbing anti-Romany discrimination in the Czech Republic, for example, has yielded some results. Under pressure from Brussels, Czech authorities were forced to reform the educational system which massively segregated Romany children. There have also been verdicts by EU courts condemning cases of discrimination against Romanies.

However, the country only recently saw an outbreak of anti-Romany violence when hundreds of people joined riots targeting members of the minority in several sites across the country. Years ago, sociologist Ivan Gabal warned against such developments and called for comprehensive inclusion policies. Now a Christian Democrat MP, Mr Gabal says that in a positive development, these riots have failed to translate into a political movement.

“It was clear that [the riots were] politically initiated, and that it was an attempt to politically capitalize on these problems. We do have populist movements – one of them is in Parliament – but we don’t have really neo-Nazi or openly racist parties that would be successful, unlike in Hungary or Slovakia.

“So it was an unsuccessful attempt. Despite the general negative attitudes of the Czech public towards Romanies, the support for really extremist parties is really marginal.”

It is certainly difficult to find out what advances can be ascribed to the influence of the EU and which would have taken place regardless of the country’s membership in the EU. But the gap between the new generation of Czechs born after the fall of communism and the parents is very wide, says commentator for the weekly Respekt Jan Macháček.

Jan Macháček,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“People can see what the standards are in the West so it’s gradually improving, for instance in care for disabled people, and things like that. There are a lot of NGOs, I’d even say a proliferation of NGOs set up by young people who work with minorities and so on.

“But I would not be so positive about the overall moral standards. I think that in this aspect, the Czech Republic is still far behind Western Europe.”