November 2, 2017
The Czechs have elected their new House of Deputies. One party arose from that election as the clear, undisputed victor: ANO, a self-declared pro-European party, member of ALDE—European Liberal Democrats led by the well-known federalist, Guy Verhofstadt. The self-declaration of being pro-European is crucial, since the movement, although a supporter of Czech Republic’s staying in the Union, declared that it was opposed to the adoption of the common currency, opposed to the refugee reallocation mechanism, and opposed to other measures that are unpopular with the public—all of which are contrary to ALDE’s vision of the role of the Union. Since its inception, ANO has confounded the public with its ambivalence on certain topics, and the recent election has not changed that.
ANO’s leader, Andrej Babiš, dubbed “Europe’s Donald Trump” by Western and Eastern media alike, found himself at the center of a number of scandals in the weeks preceding the election. Allegedly, he ‘cheated Brussels’ by misappropriating European subsidies when he obtained funds for his conglomerate’s (Agrofert) construction project—subsidies designated for small and medium businesses (Agrofert’s assets and revenues are in the billions of euros, holding over 200 companies). Additionally, Babiš’ past as an StB agent recently resurfaced when the Slovak Constitutional Court corroborated the allegations and sent the case to a lower court to be reopened. These scandals were thought to hinder ANO in the election, at least to some degree, but its landslide victory indicates otherwise. In fact, as one of the commentators on ČT24’s election afternoon programme put it, if anything, ‘cheating Brussels’ only helped Babiš accumulate more votes, confirming that Euroscepticism is firmly rooted in the Czech general public.
Czech Euroscepticism can be easily observed from Eurobarometers.
No matter what comparison one makes—with the EU average, or even with the region (V4+Austria)—the Czechs score low when it comes to pro-EU sentiments. Whereas 42% of Europeans trust the EU, only 30% of the Czechs feel the same way (a figure that is low even by regional standards, which are in the 42-46% range).
The only Europeans who trust the EU less than the Czechs are the Greeks—even the British fare better. 40% of Europeans have a positive image of the EU; the region falls within the 35-36%, except for the Czechs who score at 25%. When it comes to the positive view of the future of the Union, the Czechs have close company under the European average of 56%, but Austria’s 55% and Hungary’s 49% still outperform Czech 47%. The last category, “feeling as a European citizen,” is more optimistic. Although the Czechs score both under the EU average (68%) and the regional range (70-80%), 57% is still a majority of people. This should also help shed light on the pertinent question: would the Czechs vote to leave the Union in a hypothetical referendum? Many would say yes, but one could argue, that given the, albeit lukewarm, support of the EU and proclamations of pro-Europeanism from the now-ruling party ANO, the Czech Republic could steer away from a ‘Czexit’ scenario with the requisite political will and leadership.
Why is the Czech Republic such an outlier even in comparison to the region with which it so firmly identifies itself? The ‘post-communist country’ argument, premised on the lack of democratic tradition in the post-communist world, is unsatisfactory given the vast differences between the scores of these countries—the Czechs score the worst of the lot, while countries like Estonia or Poland often position themselves among the countries with the most pro-EU respondents (e.g. Poland’s 70% positive view of the future of the EU). Neither the economic perspective achieves a satisfactory explanation. The Czech economy is amongst the fastest growing in the EU and has one of the lowest unemployment rates.
So, what fuels the Czech Euroscepticism, given that the usual key factors do not account for this?
Arguably, the educational system and the media are partly to blame. The Czech Republic’s educational system emphasizes the notion of a “victimised nation” and fails to sufficiently educate the students about the EU. These flaws provide fertile ground for sensationalist populism that the media use to make profit, thus forsaking their traditional role in the development of a democratic culture in a society.
The way national history is taught at Czech schools emphasises a romanticised and over-simplified nationalist account of the past, focuses strongly on the notion of victimhood, and fails to present links between the national, European, and World history in general. This is compounded by the systemic preference for fact-recollection rather than critical thinking, which is a problem with the Czech educational system as a whole. To put is simply, the students listen to a narrative that sounds like if it was informed by 19th century nationalist historians, which recounts the story of a wealthy and independent Czech nation that throughout centuries lost its sovereignty to various oppressors. The notion that the Czechs were “victims” of foreign oppression, of foreign diktat, is emphasized, permeated by a discourse of ‘them’ and us.’ Anyone familiar with the far right’s rhetoric will find this discourse familiar, and the aforementioned is precisely why it is so effective in the Czech Republic. As for the EU, it is usually a topic of “Introduction to Social Sciences,” not contemporary history lessons, and what the average Czech learns about it is that it is an international organisation in Brussels, coupled with, at best, a rudimentary introduction to its various organs and institutions. The consequences of this flawed educational system are a simplification of historical understanding, institutionalization of a flawed premise of ‘victimhood’, and an inability to navigate the complexities of a globalized world in the 21st century. Essentially, the educational system fosters the Eurosceptics of tomorrow.
The media, usually an important pillar of informing the public, further aggravate the situation. Apart from a few serious institutions, who actually send correspondents to Brussels, most media outlets only report about the EU when there is some crisis or failure (or when ‘evil Brussels’ prohibits French fries).
It exacerbates and ties into the ‘us-them’ discourse, which further alienates the Union from the people, as it is rare to read or hear about the EU as “us”. More often than not, the news from Brussels is worded in terms of ‘Brussels telling us’ what we can or cannot eat, how many refugees we are to take, or ‘Brussels’ suing a country over something.
Many Czech politicians, who never shy away from an opportunity to blame something on ‘Brussels’, capitalize on and compound these democratically underdeveloped media outlets for personal gain. Issues are too often politicized for domestic consumption rather than tackled responsibly. The only losers of this collusion are the Czech people and democracy; the media outlets and politicians mutually benefit at Brussels’ expense.
It should be in all citizens’ interests to have a free, well-developed democracy. In that light, the seeming indifference of a substantial segment of the public toward Babiš’ blatant conflict of interests is alarming, or toward Okumura’s proposition for the nationalisation of the Czech Television and Czech Radio. That is perhaps the real tragedy of this past election: in the absence of a strong, democratic culture—in part due to a flawed educational system— the Czech public seems to have given up. It seems that the Czechs are at the whims of populists, and that the generations who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today, just as the generations whose democratic future is now at stake, could not care less.EUROPEUM