Vol 0, No 25
21 June 1999
C Z E C H R E P U B L I C:
Let Sleeping Euro-dogs Lie
It is well-known that the Czech Republic is behind in its efforts to join the European Union. This month's warning from Ramiro Cibrian, the EU's envoy to Prague, set off a new round in the country's EU debate. Some local elites and Eurocrats have been pushing for early entry against the odds - trying to convince Central and Eastern Europe's most Eurosceptic nation to get busy on legislative harmonisation to no avail. Maybe it is time to simply admit it: the Czech Republic doesn't really want to join the EU.
It is a disturbing thought at first. This emerging democracy should want to join the project of European integration out of principle. Economic and security concerns certainly favour EU entry as soon as possible. But if the country itself doesn't want to join, why fight a losing battle to convince it otherwise?
In the latest finger-wagging from Brussels, Cibrian reiterated many criticisms from last November's EU evaluation of Czech ill-preparedness for accession. Co-ordinating Czech law with EU law requires the Czech government and Parliament to pass an enormous amount of legislation, and political foot-dragging has created a massive backlog.
Cibrian also noted that segments of both major political parties, the Social Democrats (CSSD) and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), had voiced reservations about joining the EU. Cibrian drew attention to the fractious Parliament and recalled recent anti-Brussels comments by the ODS and its leader, former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus.
Echoing much of what has been said of Klaus' ODS by foreign observers for years, Cibrian remarked that the party was "becoming more reserved on the subject of the EU and the timing of accession." He noted that the Czech Republic lacks the political will to undertake necessary reforms.
Klaus has been all too ready to play the anti-EU card, commenting two weeks ago, "There is a concentrated interest of a group of European bureaucrats - people who, I say with a smile, breakfast in Venice, lunch in Paris and dine in Copenhagen, so have an immense need for one currency so they don't have to change money thrice a day."
Although Klaus is the most expert at divining public opinion and catering to it (witness his anti-NATO stance during the Kosovo conflict), all Czech politicians pander to the deep-seated antipathy of the public toward the EU. The leaders are simply following the public mood, and the Czech public has tended toward Euroscepticism.
Some of the public's Euroscepticism is well-justified. The EU's unfair trading practices in the agricultural sector anger Czech producers, and the farmers' protests receive a lot of sympathy from the public. Then there was the European Parliament's resolution on 15 April calling on Prague to cancel the Benes decrees, laws which legalised the post-war expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia. The resolution was a nonbinding nugget of nonsense, aiming to throw a morsel to a small set of irredentist radicals and their Bavarian political protectors and was quite harmless, seeing as the decrees have probably expired anyway, according to many Czech legal experts. But the European Parliament's decision did serve to spread unnecessary panic among Germanophobic Czechs, forever fearful of a return of Sudeten Germans. Czechs rightly saw the European resolution as irresponsible interference.
Other aspects of Czech Euro-griping are less defensible. Czechs feel they get a bum rap from the European Commission (and other international groups) when EC officials examine how the Czech Republic handles Romani issues. EC criticism of the proposed wall in Usti nad Labem has led to Czech accusations of meddling and fostered bad blood between Prague and Brussels.
These and other factors have helped make Czechs the least enthusiastic toward the EU of all the Central European candidates. In a poll released by the Institute for Public Opinion Research (IVVM) in May, only 35 percent of Czechs said they would approve of EU entry if a referendum were held on the issue. While a more recent IVVM poll registered support at 45 percent, this was still far behind Poland, at 55 percent, and Hungary, at 68 percent.
The fact is that the Czech public is lukewarm toward the EU at best, and politicians know this all too well and act accordingly. The current legislative backlog is merely a reflection of popular attitudes.
Some leaders and public figures, most notably President Vaclav Havel, are exceptions and constantly encourage Czech politicians to make EU accession a non-partisan project. However, in the currently polarised political climate and without strong popular support for EU integration, the Europhiles seem to be wasting their breath.
On 1 June, Foreign Minister Jan Kavan insisted the country would catch up on lagging legislation and join the EU by 2003. But with regard to the upcoming EU evaluation of Czech preparedness, even Kavan has admitted that in several areas improvement over last year's negative report is unlikely. The Czech Republic is already well behind Estonia and Hungary, and the 2003 date seems more and more unrealistic every day.
Neither Havel's encouragement nor Kavan's guarded optimism can change public disdain and political lethargy. The country simply does not want to be in the EU.
Attitudes will eventually change - most likely after the embarrassment of not being included in the first wave of expansion - and the Czech Republic will eventually be a member of the EU. Such is the logic of its geographic position, size and history.
But if the Czech Republic does not really want to be a front runner for EU accession today, maybe it would be best to stop expecting it to be one.
Andrew Stroehlein, 21 June 1999
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