For the EU, the Czech Republic has long been Britain's partner in trouble. But the victory of a more Europe-friendly left in the recent elections might signal a radical new turn for Czech foreign policy.
What is the new political landscape in Prague after the elections? And what are the perspectives for the Czech EU policy? The Association for International Affairs (AMO), a Prague-based think-tank, has recently published results of a research project called “Trends of the Czech European Policy”. AMO’s analysis of the Czech European policy discourse is based on responses from 168 policy-makers, journalists, Czech EU officials and representatives of academia, business and the NGO sector. The survey was carried out during this summer’s cabinet crisis which led to the resignation of the unpopular conservative cabinet.
What we discovered were quite interesting results regarding the Czech Republic’s partners in the EU. Despite being a smaller Central European country, economically dependent on Germany, successive right-wing cabinets have in the past often praised and followed the United Kingdom (e.g. both countries strictly refused to join the Fiscal Compact and spun out the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty). However, as desirable as it was, the alliance with Great Britain, a country with a completely different political, historical and economic background, only remained a mantra for Czech conservatives. The UK, absorbing only 5 percent of Czech exports, never really repaid Czech affection to any appreciable degree.
According to the European experts who answered this survey, neighbouring states such as Slovakia, Germany and Poland are much more natural partners inside the EU, as they have interests compatible with those of the Czech Republic. The respondents saw bilateral relations with Slovakia and Germany in the most positive light, and those with Great Britain more positively than relations with Austria and France. On the other hand, in the next ten years the development of bilateral relations is expected to be positive with all partners but the United Kingdom – which may signal an upcoming change in Prague’s foreign policy.
‘Brexit’ may be a factor in this : the respondents say the Czech Republic and the UK have a common interest in the Single Market, and 95 percent of the respondents believe that a British exit from the EU would be harmful for the Czech Republic. Although a vast majority do not believe Brexit will happen, nearly 40 per cent admit certain changes in the legal framework of Britain’s EU membership will be needed. This may be a result of the promised referendum, which two thirds of the respondents predict will indeed be held.
By all accounts, it is likely that the next cabinet (which has yet to be formed following the recent elections) will seriously rethink the future of bilateral partnerships in Europe and focus on its cooperation with the ‘natural partners’ of the Czech Republic. Closer cooperation with the Visegrád Group members (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary) and Germany seems to be a more logical choice than courting a far-away single-player. On the other hand, the political and economic landscape will not change overnight (even if the new government is led by the Social Democrats) and the Czech Republic will remain a member of a pro-liberal, pro-Single Market group including the Netherlands, Sweden (both reliable European partners for the Czech Republic) and Great Britain. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Czechs will blindly follow British disintegration policy.
If anything, this poll shows that Czech European policy-makers and influencers are far more EU-friendly than the recent cabinets, which had to awkwardly balance the pro-integration policy of the junior coalition partners and the radical anti-EU discourse of former president Vaclav Klaus. Although the president had little formal power over European policy, his opinions dominated public debate and influenced many members of his Civic Democratic Party, which led the last governments. Klaus also managed to sustain a very high personal popularity thanks to his habit of fighting fictive external enemies, whether this was the Germans expelled from post-war Czechoslovakia, global ecology, human rights activists or “Brussels”.
But Klaus left power earlier this year on a sour note, concluding his second term with an unprecedented general pardon which outraged the public. Klaus and his opinions consequently lost much of their relevance outside of an increasingly narrow circle of supporters. Head Up!, a new political formation created a few weeks before the elections, was ideologically based on anti-European statements and actively supported by the late president. However, it ended up getting only 0,42 percent of votes. Considering the marginal results of the anti-EU libertarian party (the Free Citizens Party) and even smaller nationalist formations, we can surely assume that euroscepticism is not that deeply rooted in Czech society and was rather being misused by Mr Klaus to gain the attention of the Czech media and European politicians.
There seems to be a gradual change in the Czech attitude towards the EU: president Zeman considers himself a euro-federalist and the social democrats, who came first in the recent general elections, as well as the two centrist parties who are likely to become junior coalition partners, hold a generally pro-integration stance. On the other hand, neither the socialists nor their likely partners are really interested in the EU agenda, and lack experienced European policy thinkers. Perhaps the two main exceptions are former socialist PM Vladimír Špidla, who was EU Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs from 2004 to 2010, and Zuzana Roithová, an MEP for the centrist Christian Democrats, likely to be a junior coalition partner. But Špidla has distanced himself from party politics for the time being, and Roithová, despite being a very charismatic and respected woman, didn’t stand a chance in the January presidential elections and thus stayed in Brussels.
Besides the expectations of a more EU-friendly discourse, the centre-left government may rethink the neglected relations with its partners in European policy. The cabinet will very likely get on well with Germany, Poland and Slovakia and hopefully use the current European left-turn (e.g. France, Italy, Romania) to strengthen political cooperation on the bilateral as well as on the EU Council level. Unlike the UK, the Czech Republic cannot afford to walk its own path.