The second Czech presidency of the European Union will be little burdened by the memory of the inglorious end of the first attempt, when we finally sweetened the deal for ourselves instead of Europe. So many events have taken place since 2009 that this story has lost its gravity. By contrast, recent events in Europe have shown how crucial deeper cooperation between the countries of the Union is. We now have a chance to show that we can coordinate and support this cooperation, instead of the usual distant attitude that has characterised Czech policy towards the EU for most of our membership.
The whole history of Czech membership of the European Union is a strange story, the roots of which are difficult to understand. One of the slogans of the changes just after November 89 was ‘Back to Europe’, and few doubted that 40 years of integration into the Soviet-dominated Eastern grouping of satellites was an unfortunate deviation from the natural course of our history. If any major current had already proposed a different foreign policy orientation, it was the pursuit of a third way between East and West, a late echo of the theory of Ota Šik and others of the long outdated ideas of 1968. It was quickly forgotten and replaced by a clear consensus among the main political forces that the Czech Republic’s place was in the European Union, and that joining it became a top priority for all governments. Having achieved this goal in 2004 and shortly thereafter, this consensus was relatively firm, and was further confirmed by the referendum on EU accession, when 77% of voters voted in favour.
However, bubbling beneath the surface of the overwhelming support for EU membership was a wellspring of a particular sense of exceptionalism and furianism, manifested in a tendency to position membership as “we would do better on our own”. This current grew stronger, encouraged by the chauvinism of a part of the political representation, often with an anti-German edge – some ODS representatives such as Václav Klaus and Jan Zahradil were particularly prominent, but even the Zeman current of the ČSSD was not left behind in this respect. The economic crisis in 2009-2013 and the Greek crisis in 2012 were a significant reinforcement of these tendencies. The Czech Republic at these moments was one of the countries that pretended that if it were not for the EU, they would not have any problems, but did not come up with any relevant proposals for solving the situation. This attitude prevailed even during the Czech EU Presidency in 2009.
The feeling that the EU’s problems are something outside us, and that if there is a deeper systemic crisis, we will not be affected, grew stronger and stronger. These tendencies – apart from the refugee crisis – were most visibly reflected in the attitude towards the single currency, the euro, which the Czech Republic had committed to adopting in the accession treaties, but calculatedly claimed that the commitment was not time-bound. Another increasingly common argument was that the mechanisms governing the euro were different when the country joined the EU and therefore the commitment was not unambiguous – an absurd argument in itself, as the EU is inherently a dynamic system that is constantly evolving and changing. Support for the euro was at the lowest level of any EU country, and all governments and major political parties on it endorsed the attitude of “we will take on the EU what we think is beneficial for us, but otherwise we will do it our own way”.
Developments within the European Union and overall developments in the countries to the west of us have unfortunately further supported these tendencies. Especially under the influence of the migrant crisis, but also cultural debates and globalisation changes, the fears of a large part of the population about developments within the EU have intensified, whether it be the influx of refugees from different cultures, the green deal or the ban on combustion engines or the debate on gender numbers. Due to its isolation from the major social debates that had taken place in Europe and the West (especially in the late 1960s and beyond), Czech society was caught off guard by the scale of the changes, while at the same time lacking experience of how wide a spectrum such debates could cover without threatening the stability of society. The feeling that we would actually be better off in the small Czech sandbox deepened.
The years 2021 and 2022 brought a significant change. On the domestic political scene, the period of strong influence of Miloš Zeman came to an end and the ANO movement was defeated in the parliamentary elections. Although it did not develop these views ideologically (unlike Zeman and an ever-decreasing part of ODS), politically it relied on population groups in which these fears were strongly rooted. The ensuing Russian aggression led to a realisation of the importance of our integration into Western structures – NATO to a greater extent, but also the EU’s position as the representative of the West within the European space has become much stronger. With it also grew the awareness that, for all its problems, the West is a political and intellectual space to which we belong and whose functionality is absolutely essential for us.
The Czech Presidency is an opportunity to reflect this historic development and to make it clear that our country no longer wants to be a spectator watching the game from the bench – ideally from the guest sector – but is fully engaged in finding solutions to the problems facing Europe. Russian imperialism and the associated energy crisis, the need to reduce dependence on fossil resources, but also the post-Cold War rise in inflation, the climate crisis, the need to improve the performance of economies and others are topics in which the Czech Republic has a strong interest. It can hardly be expected to become the main driver of these, but it can start to play a very important role. The strengthening of the position of the former socialist states after the start of the war in Ukraine also provides an opportunity to do so – Poland and Hungary’s position within the EU is weakened by the policies of their governments, and the Czech Republic is the largest and most economically powerful of the other states, alongside Romania. This is a great opportunity for us, and if this government can grasp it, we could return to the foundations on which the Czech Republic’s post-war development was based – and head back to Europe.
Ivan Pilip, economist and politician, now an entrepreneur. In the 1990s, he was a minister in the governments of Václav Klaus and Josef Tošovský, and from 2004-2007 he served as vice-governor of the European Investment Bank.
This article was translated from the Czech original published at casopis Přítomnost.
published: 27. 6. 2022