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The Presidency lunch - Friday 13 March 2009
at the Sussex Ox, Milton Street, near Alfriston

The Czech Presidency of the EU

Click here to find out more about the Czech Presidency of the EU

The Czech Republic held the EU Presidency from January to June 2009. To focus on this we were joined in a lunch by Zdeněk Kavan, who came at very short notice, after the Czech Embassy in London faced an unexpected workload following the death of the Ambassador few weeks earlier. He is a Lecturer in Development Studies and International Relations at the University of Sussex. His research interests have been nationalism, democracy and citizenship in Eastern and Central Europe, human rights and issues of international legitimacy. He is co-author of one of the first published studies of the Velvet Revolution.

Zdeněk Kavan began by emphasising that he was in no way speaking on behalf of the Czech government. He was an academic studying what politicians and others do, not a policy maker. Nevertheless his focus was on the current problems that the Czech Presidency of the EU and the Czech government faced.

The 20-year period since the Velvet Revolution had seen a shift from centralised to democratic politics. There was a nostalgic concept of a “return to Europe” which had been characteristic of this period. It was mostly a mythological sense of Czech identity, emphasising “we are not like the Easterners”, and seeking a clear differentiation from the Russians. This was to suggest that Communism was imposed on the Czechs.

Until 1989 it was conventional to speak of East versus West. Yet the Czech Republic clearly sits in a central position in Europe, as does Hungary and Poland. They thus claimed privileged access to western Europe, and of course to the EU. Yet western Europe remains confused about “central” Europe. Where were the new boundaries, culturally or ideologically?  One analysis identifies the cultures embedded in Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy.

In this first period after 1989 the Czechs tried to work out which foreigners they would most prefer to work alongside. Obviously the least popular were the Russians. But the most popular were the Americans and the Japanese (not their nearer neighbours the Germans). In the second period the Germans became more popular, because they were commercially successful. But there remained deep suspicions based on a fear that the Sudetan Germans expelled after World War Two would return. In this period the most popular foreigners became the Slovaks. The mood has now entered a third period, which derives from realising that the EU is a tough master. Some populist anti-Europeanism has arisen, with its focus on who does and who does not allow free movement of labour. In two years time the 7 year delay in opening up the land market to foreigners comes to an end. The current europhobic President Václav Klaus plays on the loss of sovereignty.

The current government has been an uneasy alliance without a majority in Parliament. Václav Klaus founded the Civic Democrats (now the main party in government) and during his time has pushed eurosceptic policies. Then in recent local elections the Social Democrat opposition swept the board. An extraordinary national congress of the Civic Democrats voted to expel the representatives of Václav Klaus.

The Czech EU Presidency has thus been weakened by the political impasse at home. It remains the only EU country other than Ireland not to have endorsed the Lisbon Treaty. The embarrassment of a euro-hostile President nominally representing the EU presidency has boosted the case for an elected European Union president replacing the rotating presidency.

David Černý, the artist responsible, said "Entropa is not a real pan-European work by artists-provocateurs, but a mystification."

From the first week of the Czech EU presidency the ambiguity of Czech attitudes to Europe was illustrated by the extraordinary satirical artwork placed in the lobby of the European Council building. Entropa could be judged a major success if its conceptual artist set out to offend as many as possible. It is right that Art should challenge Politics, but Entropa was taken as symbolic of the Czech government’s contempt for its European partners. That would be an unfair inference, in that the result of the commissioning of Entropa came as a great surprise to the Czech government itself. Basically, they had been ‘conned’ by a leading conceptual artist.

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Zdenek Kavan answers questions at the Sussex Ox lunch


Who are the natural allies of the Czechs?
The Czechs tend to be friendly with neighbours of their immediate neighbours. This can be seen with the problems Austria has with the Temelin nuclear power plant on its border. Longer-standing problems in relations with Hungarians have been eased by the separation of Slovakia, with its substantial ethnic Hungarian minority.

The emergence of the Visegrad Group, with the Czechs, Poles, Hungarians and Slovaks seeking to work towards common EU policies has been significant. It could have had stronger and earlier influence – the group could have jointly negotiated terms of EU entry, but instead chose to make separate competitive applications. It is thus now forced into a defensive role.

What has been the effect of the global financial crisis on the Czech Republic?
In central Europe it is clear that the Hungarians have been in the greatest difficulty. Much of Czech banking is tied in with Austrian banks. There is nevertheless a high risk of knock-on effects of toxic debt spreading into central Europe.

What will the Czechs decide about the Lisbon Treaty?
The current government has adopted a ‘weasel’ compromise – let’s wait and see what the Irish decide. The lower house of Parliament has endorsed the treaty. President Klaus and his supporters in the Senate have however embarked on delaying tactics by referring parts of the Lisbon Treaty, almost paragraph by paragraph, to the Constitutional Court. In its first ruling the Court decided there was no constitutional conflict, but that has not closed the matter.

What level of public support is there for the EU?
There has always been fluctuating support in the opinion polls. But the Czech presidency of the EU has resulted in increased positive attitudes to the EU.

In the new democratic politics why has the Communist Party, with the third largest vote, been sidelined?
It is true that if allied with the Social Democrats there would be a left-of-centre majority in Parliament. But analysis of communist voters shows that the support is largely made up of losers in today’s society, for instance pensioners, and the young expressing rebellion against their elders. It is difficult for the Social Democrats, although the policies of the two left parties are quite close. Being “soft on communism” is the fear. There is however a possibility of the Communists reaching a deal with the Social Democrats, on supporting common policies, but without being in a government team. There is nevertheless a growing nostalgia for the past, carrying the implication that life was then more stable and easier to live.

Why has the Czech government been so low profile in its efforts to separate President Klaus from the current EU presidency role?
Opinion polls show that Václav Klaus has quite high popular appeal. In surveys he comes out far more trusted than either the government or Parliament.

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