Can Europe Make It?

A reflection on Czech Euroscepticism before the EU elections

Euroscepticism seems to be a constant in the Czech political landscape. How will this reluctance toward the EU affect the upcoming European elections? Euro elections landscape, 2014.

Jan Hornát
16 January 2014
Shutterstock/Juraj Kovac. All rights reserved.

Shutterstock/Juraj Kovac. All rights reserved.The 2009 elections to the European Parliament saw a 28.1 per cent voter turnout in the Czech Republic. This was one of the lowest voter participation numbers in the entire EU. In the latest Eurobarometer survey, only 19 percent of Czechs have claimed that they feel their voice in the EU counts and a 2013 Pew poll showed that 38 percent of Czechs hold favourable views of the EU – these figures are also among the lowest amid EU members. The distrust of the Czech population toward the EU has not changed since the 2009 elections and thus the turnout in the upcoming vote will very likely be quite low when compared to the EU average.

The roots of Czech Euroscepticism

The run-up to the 2014 elections to the European Parliament deserves a short reflection on the roots of Czech Euroscepticism. In the 1990s, one of the priorities of Czech foreign policy was to “return to the West” – to join NATO and the European Union. This was not only a political and pragmatic choice, but also a cultural choice. In a sense, the EU and NATO were perceived as symbols that would ensure and uphold Czech democracy. Once the twin goal of joining NATO and the EU was achieved, Czech foreign policy – to a certain extent – lost its guiding principle. This begs the question: if the accession to the EU was so important for the Czechs, why has the country become one of the most Eurosceptic members?

A part of the answer to the question lies with former president Vaclav Klaus. Czech Republic joined the EU on May 1, 2004. At the time, Klaus had already been president for one year - stepping into the EU with a president who was always very vocal and explicit about his negative stance toward European integration did not help in forming an objective view of the union among the nascent EU citizenry in the Czech Republic.

Another part of the answer is the Czech mainstream media discourse – which, in a way, can be linked to the tone that Klaus set during his presidency. Czech mainstream media often highlight and cling to the most “foolish” and “useless” EU directives and regulations (e.g. ban on classic light bulbs, parameters for chicken cages etc.) and fail to inform anyone about key EU legislation. This approach further strengthens the widespread impression that the European Parliament is a useless and costly institution. In addition, certain commentators and news outlets label the EU, “the new Comecon” and claim that – through its directives and regulations – the EU aims to “control every move” of European citizens. Such allegations, implicitly comparing the EU to a communist organization, feed Czech Eurosceptic moods.

Euroscepticism, however, may also arise from an intrinsic Czech national trait. There seems to exist the notion that only the Czechs themselves can take care of their business and only they can find the best solutions to their country’s problems – any suggestions or recommendations coming from outside are often viewed with suspicion. This belief is perhaps a heritage from Austro-Hungarian times, when the Czechs felt oppressed by the Austrian Kaiser, or from 1938, when Czechoslovaks felt betrayed by their western European friends in Munich, or even from the “friendly” occupation by Warsaw Pact countries in 1968. In all these cases, foreign powers dictated the state of affairs to the Czechs and this experience is ingrained in the national psyche.

Current President Milos Zeman came to the office claiming to be a supporter of EU integration and even calling himself a Eurofederalist. At the same time, he seems to embrace Putin’s Russia. Even though this is not an “either-or” question – Europe should and must cooperate with Russia on certain issues – Zeman’s ambiguous position would make it hard to predict which side he would choose, if he were confronted with a decision to select only one.

Prospects for the elections

At present, the Czech Republic is represented by four political parties in the European Parliament – the Civic Democrats (ODS), the Social Democrats (CSSD), the Communist Party (KSCM) and the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL). National parliamentary elections have ploughed up the mix of political power in the Czech Republic and the new political landscape will affect European elections too. The unexpected success of the ANO movement in the national elections will likely result in the gain of European Parliament mandates. On top of the party’s list will be, according to various sources, former member of the Prodi Commission Pavel Telicka, who is allegedly considering ANO’s cooperation with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

Political party TOP 09 (member of the European People’s Party) is also likely to win its historically first mandates in the European Parliament – it is the first Czech party to have released its political programme for the upcoming elections. In the programme, TOP 09 is supportive of the fiscal pact and austerity budgets, but is against the financial transaction tax and Turkey’s membership in the EU. A similar position is expected from ANO.

The Czech Communist Party – whose voters have an enviable turnout in every election, no matter if regional, national or European – will have little problem in acquiring at least two or three of the 21 mandates for Czech MEPs. The Social Democrats (CSSD), being the winner of the national elections, also have a good chance of maintaining their current seven seats in the European Parliament. By contrast, the Civic Democrats (currently with 9 MEPs) should consider it a success if they get even three seats, having received a disappointing 7.7 percent in last October’s national elections.

The Green Party – presenting itself as the “most pro-European party in the Czech Republic” – was the first to formally launch its election campaign, but so far, only the Christian Democrats have presented concrete candidates for the European elections. Other parties are expected to release their candidate lists and programmes in January or February. At this point, anti-EU and extremist parties from both sides of the political spectrum are expected to receive an irrelevant portion of the overall vote. The possibility that such parties may succeed in the European elections in the Czech Republic is further diminished by the fact that public grievances from the consequences of the financial crisis are primarily projected onto and blamed on Czech politicians and not on the EU as a whole (as opposed to Greece for example).

Drawing from the experience of preceding European elections, the parties’ election campaigns will again be a confusing mix of domestic and European-level topics. The parties will take advantage of the fact that Czech voters have little notion of the actual competencies of the European Parliament and they will target their political opponents, not on the basis of European level policies and concepts, but on the basis of domestic failures and scandals – thereby bringing the political fight onto the terrain that is most familiar both to politicians and the electorate.

For this reason, the European Parliament's recent effort to fund a massive information campaign for EU citizens ahead of the elections may be a boon, not only in raising voter turnout, but also in increasing awareness of EU-level politics. But the real effects of the campaign are yet to be seen.

Czech Euroscepticism has one specific trait – it is very passive. In the upcoming elections to the European Parliament, it will manifest itself not in the success of Eurosceptic parties, but rather in the citizens not voting at all. This was already apparent in the national parliamentary elections, when the ambitious anti-EU voting bloc Hlavu vzhuru (loosely translated as “Keep your head high”) gained a mere 0.42 percent, despite being the only political entity supported by former president Vaclav Klaus. So perhaps what we are calling Czech “Euroscepticism” is in fact closer to an overall “Euroreluctance”.

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