Politics Member States

Czech Republic: In Prague, Europe is often far away

20 December 2011
Lidové noviny Prague

Celebrating the start of the Czech Presidency of the EU on 1 January 2009.

Celebrating the start of the Czech Presidency of the EU on 1 January 2009.

Twenty years after the "return to Europe" championed by former President Václav Havel, who died on December 18, the debate about the Czech Republic's relationship with the EU is dominated by two political camps that are both devoid of real ideas about the union's future.

“Back to Europe” was the election slogan of Civic Forum [a political movement in the Czech part of post-89 Czechoslovakia] in 1990, a slogan that supporters of European integration have frequently quoted in recent years in arguments with the so-called eurosceptics.

The Czech lands (Czechoslovakia) were, after all, forcibly dragged away by communism from their thousand-year membership in Western civilisation. As such, the Velvet Revolution was above all a return from exile, from “Babylonian captivity”. And since Europe is coming together, we too must – not under compulsion, but joyously – join it, even though the EU is of course not an organisation without flaws.

Eurosceptics have always disputed the simplicity and implicit validity of the above-mentioned theory. Of the fellowship of civilisation and the need to strengthen it, one hears, there can be no doubt; but this is not necessarily bound up with direct EU integration, particularly when the EU is starting to hinder unfairly some proven principles of civilisation, such as the free market. The sceptics’ attitude could be summed up as: “Europe yes, EU no” – or, in a more moderate version: “Europe yes, but a different EU”.

Although the Czech “euro debate” still continues to influence the domestic political scene, the government has in practice joined the mainstream of the Union. They were led there by a mix of weakness and pride among the respective ministers and other officials who suspected that they might suddenly move up into “higher positions.” What’s more, Czech politicians have lacked and continue to lack qualified loyal staff for any complicated manoeuvring in the lobbying thickets and bureaucratic maze of Brussels.

The “beautiful new world” of the West

This weakness became painfully and glaringly apparent in efforts to choose a European Commissioner. That eventual choice, Vladimir Špidla – for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities – supposedly armed with the languages [but actually deficient in English] and the contacts, hailed from the close-knit nomenklatura of the post-Velvet Revolution elite, and landed the job the way cronyism in this country gets you a licence to run a tobacconist’s stand.

Brussels thus represented a place where the so-called “European money” was dug out (rather inefficiently), where one headed for the intoxicating sense of a share in the management of the world, and which formed one of the intractable, though merely rhetorical, battle lines of domestic policy. As to the rest, even Vaclav Klaus, who belittled the Czech presidency of the EU as mainly a matter of “exchanging pens,” radiated bliss when he was able to chair the EU-Russia summit in May 2009 in Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East.

An unsuccessful Czech candidate for the post of EU commissioner [Miloš Kužvart, an ex-environment minister], who failed in part because of poor language skills, became famous for his phrase “I am very optimistic” in halting English – which accurately captures the prevalent Czech attitude to the West, hence to the EU after 1989: an optimism both expressed and intellectually rooted in “basic English”.

In a recent sociological survey on the post-communist regime, most Czechs were appreciative of the opportunity to travel freely and of the much more varied selection of goods on the market. This broad choice of largely consumer goods is precisely what the West is associated with, by and large. The Czechs do not ponder much on Western values, and as far as their behaviour and attitudes do somehow reflect “Western values”, these are rather unconscious or instinctive.

Now, however, the “beautiful new world” of the West is beginning to crumble, and not just because of poor management by the EU or the ill-advised and premature experiment with the euro. The wonderful years of Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ are gone forever, and the Czechs, whether euro-optimists or euro-pessimists, are finding it hard to come to grips with the harder times that have followed.

Sceptics are imprudently rubbing their hands

Both camps, it turns out, have surprisingly much in common – primarily, a certain shallowness. Only a few from both camps can grasp in any detail how EU institutions operate, while the majority persist in very general descriptions and polemics that play a large role in emotions, desires, personal aversions and, not least, disparagement of the longer and deeper historical currents.

“Europhiles” have often rejected criticism of the EU with the argument that the EU has prevented destructive wars between European states, and that this is sufficient in itself. But the two world wars led mainly to the marginalisation of Europe in global politics. The peak of European expansion came a hundred years ago, when Europe’s predatory powers were building colonial empires around the world.

By around 1970, all of them had shrunk back to their original starting points, which the Soviet Communist hydra failed to overwhelm thanks only to the United States. The EU has been an attempt to counter this history of decline by creating at least one pan-European power, should it lack the strength to do any more.

But there isn’t even the strength for a first attempt. And that is a frightening discovery. It’s not just that neither supporters nor opponents of the EU have a “Plan B”: they have no idea what comes next.  While the supporters are woolgathering cluelessly, the sceptics are imprudently rubbing their hands because their predictions, long shouted down by the europhiles, have come true. And so they feel some satisfaction.  It’s just that satisfaction, like anger, is no plan. A long-term deficit of solid critical debate on the West, capitalism, democracy and the European Union is only now beginning to take its toll.

Translated from the Czech by Anton Baer