Martin Dvořák: “20 years after EU referendum Czechs are pragmatic Europeans”

On June 13 and 14, 2003, Czechs voted overwhelmingly (77 percent) to enter the EU. We discuss that historic vote, and current attitudes to the union, with Martin Dvořák, Czech Minister for European Affairs.

Martin Dvořák  | Photo: Jiřina Šmídová,  Czech Radio

When it comes to diplomatic and international experience, there are few Czechs who can match the resumé of Martin Dvořák. Czech Minister for European Affairs started his political career in the revolutionary year of 1989 as one of the co-founders of the Civic Forum movement in Hradec Králové. After serving as the first post-communist mayor of the capital city of Eastern Bohemia, he joined the United Nations Interim Administration of Kosovo for several years and later became a member of the international reconstruction teams in Iraq. Then he spent nearly two decades in diplomatic posts in Washington, DC, New York, and Kuwait, to become the deputy minister of foreign affairs in 2021. This year he was asked to become the minister for European affairs:

Outsider’s advantage

“Coming from outside can be an advantage,” says Martin Dvořák, explaining that his experience in America and the Middle East taught him patience and willingness to listen before starting any negotiations.  These skills come more than handy in the often frustratingly lengthy dealings of the EU institutions, especially the European Council. He understands why some Czechs may have a skeptical view of the whole European project but points out that the majority of them still consider EU membership a good thing.

Logo of the official government campaign to support the entry of the Czech Republic into the EU in 2003

The result of the referendum held on May 13 and 14, 2003, was a resounding “yes” for membership of the Czech Republic in the European Union.  Over 77 percent of voters supported the accession to the union which finally took place in 2004. Looking back 20 years later, Martin Dvořák says he was surprised neither by the referendum result nor the subsequent decline in EU popularity:

“Since the very beginning, right after the signing ceremony of the accession agreement, Czech society was bombarded by the Eurosceptical narrative. We were told that somewhere in Brussels are men that are trying to force us to accept unpopular and plain stupid decisions.”

This kind of populist message was repeatedly used to score domestic political points and even win elections, according to Mr. Dvořák.  But the fact remains that the majority of Czechs still want to be part of a united Europe and this applies especially to the young generation. As a 2022 poll for the Seznam website showed, over 70 percent of Czechs under 30 years of age are happy with EU membership, and “Czexit” is all but unthinkable for them.

EU membership as a marriage

Wedding | Illustrative Photo: StockSnap,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

To sum it up: “On your marriage day, you also love your bride perhaps 100 percent. After twenty years of living with her, your unreserved love may also decline perhaps to even fifty percent,” chuckles Minister Dvořák adding that it does not mean that you want a divorce.

In the full interview for Radio Prague International, Martin Dvořák also discusses the impact of the war in Ukraine on the Czech perception of the European Union.