Can Europe Make It?

The Czexit debate is coming - are you ready?

Czexit? With President Milos Zeman calling for a referendum, it is becoming increasingly possible.

Benjamin Tallis
13 July 2016

Czech president Milos Zeman. PAimages/Petr David Josek. All rights reserved.

Believe me, you don't want to feel like I did on the morning of June 24. And every day since.

Brexit means losing my EU citizenship and with it the ease with which I live and work here in the Czech Republic. But beyond practicalities, it means losing so much more.

I have spent much of my life working for, studying, researching or advising on the EU. Brexit means losing the chance to continue to contribute in the same way to the integration project that is Europe’s unique guarantor of peace, prosperity and liberal values. But its more than that too. I have lived the benefits and ideals of the EU, crossing borders freely, meeting people from across Europe, exercising my rights to mobility, residence and work.

This lead to meeting and marrying a wonderful Czech woman and settling in Prague. Unthinkable during our childhoods on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, but an everyday occurrence in the EU. Now, suddenly it felt like the rug had been pulled from under my feet, that I could lose my sense of place in this Europe that the EU provides with a matchless combination of freedom and security, social protection and possibility.

Seeking consolation, we’ve talked about me applying for Czech citizenship and I hope that, as our family lives here and that I work for a Czech Institution, pay taxes, contribute to public debate and am trying to learn the language, it might be a possibility. However, our conversations along these lines soon turned to the inevitable question – what if it happens here too? What if Brexit were to be followed by Czexit?

A few weeks ago this may have still seemed far-fetched but now, with the President calling for a referendum and the government moving to put enabling legislation on the books, it is becoming increasingly possible. As a potential ‘Brefugee’ (although I prefer Brémigré!), I hope that these reflections can be of use to Czechs who, like me, want to stay in the EU.

English Lessons

Brexit has shown Britain to be anything but a united kingdom. As well as Scotland and Northern Ireland, London and the other multicultural, internationally connected cities voted to stay, but this wasn't enough to counter the leave votes from the English suburbs, small towns and countryside. It is in these places that perhaps one of the biggest lessons can be learned.

Metropolitan elites and middle classes cannot afford to patronisingly dismiss the feelings of rest of the country, but nor should they pander to unfounded or xenophobic scapegoating of either migrants or the EU to paper over structural failings (as happened in the UK).

Rather, they should support meaningful action to address the socio-economic precariousness and political-cultural exclusion of those who feel left behind by globalisation and neglected by distant elites. This requires engaging these people, including Zeman voters, in conversation and listening to their concerns but also explaining what the benefits of EU membership are and how they will be better shared in future. 

Starting such conversations and spearheading such actions requires real political leadership. Half-hearted remain campaigners – like both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn - are easily spotted by the public and are thus ineffective. Those Czech politicians – from across the political spectrum - who do support the EU, must now stand up and be counted. They need to lead rather than follow and cannot allow populists to seize the initiative as they did on migration. 

However, politicians can’t do it alone. Many remain supporters in the UK were as unclear on the workings and benefits of the EU as the leave camp, which prevented them from positively influencing discussions on the streets and in the workplaces, pubs and cafes where opinions are formed and prejudices can be countered. We all need to know the clear, concise and catchy arguments that the EU deserves.

The UK referendum also showed the need for a positive inspirational campaign – the Remain camp’s combination of rational argument and scaremongering was shockingly insufficient.

The recent Czech past and the European present offer plentiful material from which to make a positive campaign – tyranny overcome and liberty enacted through mobility; meetings between people, for business and pleasure, instead of the hostilities of old.

However, a positive campaign must also be founded on a Czech-European future that more of the population can see their place in. This will require both hard work and humility but, if it means staying in the EU, it will be worth it. Believe me. 

This article was originally published in Czech in the political magazine Respekt.

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