EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

The migration crisis has been and still is a dominant issue within European politics. The European solution based on the solidarity principle was the refugee redistribution quota. In opposing to this plan, the V4 became a symbol of non-solidarity in Europe. The migration crisis exposed a clash of fundamental values in Europe. Particularly within the V4, it has often been politicized by European populist politicians to fuel a nationalistic populist agenda revolving around challenged national identities, welfare systems and security.

Thus, the nationalist populists have mainly framed the migration crisis as a threat to European security and European values.

The Czech Republic also refused to adhere to the European refugee redistribution quota. Why and how did the migrant crisis led to the rise of populism in the Czech Republic?

Bad economy and high unemployment rate are usual explanations for anti-migration sentiments. This is known as economic populism. In bad economic circumstances, people fear that migrants take over jobs at the expense of the local population. However, the Czech Republic has one of the highest GDP growth rates and lowest unemployment levels in Europe[1]. In 2017 the unemployment rate in the Czech Republic dropped to 2,7%, which is the lowest in the EU[2]. Furthermore, all the main trading partners of the Czech Republic are EU members. Thus, in the Czech Republic has low unemployment and strong economy, depending on export to EU countries. So why do people oppose immigration and the EU? In order to understand this, we have to look beyond the economic factors and take historical, social and political context into account.

The refusal to take in migrants is partly based in the history of the Central European region, which make them more focused on their own region and less on Europe as a whole[3]. The dark and painful history mainly refers to the periods that Central Europe has been ruled by others: The Austro-Hungarian Empire, then the Nazis, followed by Moscow.

After regaining freedom and sovereignty, there is a strong defiance against being ruled by Brussels in the Czech Republic, irrespective of whether or not this is actually the case.

In the social sphere, there are two major observations in relation to the migration crisis and refusal of the redistribution quota. First, the victimization or inferiority complex deriving from the historical background is strong in the Czech Republic. The Czech population wants to set their own rules and do not let Brussels tell them what do to. Second, the Czech society is not used to immigrants. The society is homogenous and the immigration rate is low. Most immigrants come from the region: Ukrainians, Slovaks and some Polish, German and Russian immigrants. The only other group of immigrants is Vietnamese due to their shared communist past. Thus, there are hardly any migrants from the Middle East nor from Africa. Despite of this lack of MENA-countries migrants, the Czech anti-immigrant narrative surrounding migrants from this region is amongst the strongest in Europe, owing in part to the aforementioned politicization by populist politicians, in part to the general securitization narrative surrounding MENA-countries migrants that has increasingly gained traction since 9/11. Therefore, the narrative surrounding migrants is more polarized in the Czech Republic than most Western countries, despite the fact that the group of migrants in the Czech Republic is both smaller and less diverse compared to most Western European countries.

What are the cardinal reasons for the creation of such an unstable environment in which populist narratives can so easily take hold? When examining the political situation, first, we can observe that there have been 13 governments in 20 years in the Czech Republic. The frequent turnover of governments results in an unstable situation as well as building of distrust in politicians and the elite in general. This gives rise to anti-establishment or populist movements. Secondly, after the fall of communism, the Czech Republic and neighbouring countries worked hard and successfully at approaching the West. They swiftly acceded to the EU in 2004, just a decade after fall of communism. There was a fast transition full of optimism and pro-European sentiments. However, it seemed that after joining the EU there was no clear direction or ambition among the elites in the Czech Republic. Indeed, most seemed content to rest on the laurels of their accession achievements. Moreover, the Czechs seemed to forget about the obligations that joining the EU also entails. Thus, the utopian idea that hardship, obligations and requirements were only part of the accession process and not the EU membership itself was crushed during the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008. This in combination with the hardline and Eurosceptic rhetoric of President Klaus, which was very different from President Havel, gave rise to the first wave of populism. The migration crisis became the catalyst for the second wave of populism.

As all the above indicates, there is a strong anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiment in the Czech Republic. The results of the Czech parliamentary elections in October 2017 show a victory for the populist parties and a loss for the traditional parties. The anti-establishment party ANO won the elections with 30 percent of the vote and the far-right party got more than 10 percent. The migration crisis is one of the main explanatory factors of the rise of populism in the Czech Republic. At the moment, being pro-European and pro-migration would be political suicide in the Czech Republic. Therefore, it is not in the interest of the populist politicians to solve the migration crisis soon, shamefully so given the fact that the Czech Republic could play a constructive and pivotal role in a united European solution to the migration crisis – if it wanted to.

Author: Marliese Vollebregt: Intern at the Embassy of the Netherlands in the Czech Republic & Student International Relations (MA) and Public Administration (MSc) at Leiden University (Netherlands).











[1] The World Factbook CIA Czech Republic (2017) Last accessed: 13 December 2017

[2] Eurostat Statistics – Unemployment (2017) Last accessed: 17 January 2018

[3] Kořan, M. (2015) Central Europe in the European Union: A story of hypocrisy. Warsaw: Visegrad Insight Res Publica. No.2:8 pp. 70-73


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