The British EU referendum has been followed closely in the Czech Republic. The government accepted the result with disappointment, while many in opposition, emboldened by public opinion polls showing growing Czech dissatisfaction with the EU, saw it as an inspiration. Yet the post-Brexit debate might just as well be an opportunity to anchor the Czech Republic more deeply in the European Union.
The Czech government sworn into office in 2014 put active EU membership at the top of its domestic and foreign policy agenda. This ambition was duly reflected in all the new conceptual documents adopted in 2015. Yet this was not going to be an easy task in view of Czechs’ lukewarm attitude towards the European Union and the legacy of years of EU-bashing from top echelons of Czech politics.
Morever, the Sobotka government’s early approach to the refugee crisis – the number one test of European solidarity in the second half of 2015 – ran counter to this new ambition, as some of the “anti-quota” and “anti-Brussels” rhetoric resembled the discourse of former President Václav Klaus, a prominent Eurosceptic. And while public opinion polls showed that Czechs indeed have no appetite for hosting refugees, especially those from the Middle East and North Africa, the government did little to create an atmosphere more conducive to a reasonable debate on the CR’s rights and responsibilities.
After all, the road to membership in the European Union entailed both a domestic transformation and new foreign policy leverage. Joining the EU provided the country with an opportunity to pursue its interests and present its opinions on a larger stage. While membership did not deliver on all the hopes that accompanied it initially, it has enabled Czechs to co-shape the common European space and to veto decisions which they deem not to be in their interest.
Calling for a Czexit
The British vote, a harbinger of the possible fragmentation of that common space, was naturally perceived with disappointment by Czech pro-EU elites. Yet while the government reiterated their commitment to working on European unity, opposition voices argued otherwise. The Free (Svobodní), a marginal political party, launched a petition calling for a Czexit referendum. The Free are not represented in the Czech parliament and have only one MEP, who received 5 percent of the vote in 2014. A few MPs, such as Tomio Okamura, have tried to put Czexit on the agenda of the Czech parliament, while former President Václav Klaus, who long ago pledged to work on the disintegration of the European Union, was unsurprisingly “inspired”  by the outcome. The Civic Democrats (ODS), a party that has formed half of the Czech Republic’s post-1993 governments, suggested that the CR should “use Brexit as an impetus for negotiating better conditions for the CR in the EU”. Yes, there are far too many similarities to the British case.
What is even more disconcerting, however, is the Czech public’s long standing reluctance to view the EU as a project that works to their benefit. In opinion polls conducted between 2004 and 2015, the percentage of people who fully believed that EU decisions were taken on behalf of “people like me” ranged between 2 percent and 5 percent. A poll in the fall of 2015 showed that in the event of a new referendum on EU membership, over 60 percent of Czechs would vote against. Czech turnout in European Parliament elections has been well below the EU average from the beginning: while the first elections following the CR’s accession to the EU saw 28 percent of eligible Czech voters turn out to vote (representing 45 percent of the EU average), in 2014 only 18 percent took part (43 percent of the EU average).
This is the result of a complex set of factors, including a long neglected debate on the rights and responsibilities of EU membership, as well as popular disenchantment with the gap between the hope of catching up to Western incomes and the slow pace of that process.
On the topic of catching up to the West, the British Leave campaign, with its outbursts of xenophobia, has hopefully put an end to the flood of commentary in the wake of the refugee crisis on the divisions between “Eastern” and “Western” Europe, and going so far as to suggest that the 2004 enlargement should not have happened.
Like other EU-peans, the Czechs should now consider their own domestic responsibilities for making the EU project work. While some in Central Europe were quick to blame the outcome of the British referendum on the European Union’s “bad policies”, the fact is that the EU can only deliver what its member states allow it to deliver. The EU’s achievements – from food security to border-free travel – are all results of long negotiation and eventual compromise between members.
As the post-referendum debate unfolds in London and other European capitals, even Brexit campaigners are backing away from embracing the consequences of their victory. It is likely that other EU states, including the Czech Republic, will learn from this experience without necessarily having to repeat the same process. In less than a month, the distortions of the Leave campaign have been exposed and the gravity of the economic and international consequences of Brexit has become more evident. Indeed, the British vote could empower those who believe that sovereignty, democracy and European cooperation are not mutually exclusive. In order for this to happen, we do not need massive PR campaigns, but rather a lot of everyday “little steps”, to borrow from Masaryk’s dictum on democracy.
Strengthening the quality of the public education system is probably the most reliable way to encourage a more fact-based debate on the EU. Another helpful step would be to abandon journalistic shortcuts such as “Brussels wants” and to introduce a bit more nuance into reporting on what is going on in EU institutions, why and who benefits. Importantly, resisting the temptation to run for office on an anti-EU platform, especially now that we are already seeing the consequences, would be an important game-changer. After all, in view of all the visible benefits of EU membership, it should not be that difficult for responsible politicians to demonstrate that proposals for a Czexit cannot really deliver more to Czech citizens than staying in the EU and working to improve it.
The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
This article is part of our special Europe's future after "Brexit".
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