The Czechs and further EU enlargement
"Imagine". Photo: flickr/ancama_99(toni)

Key quotes

Václav Klaus

“I am convinced that the European Union should be open to any country willing and ready to participate in the European integration process.”

President Václav Klaus, speaking on Turkey and the EU

Alexandr Vondra

“Enlargement can continue with as well as without Lisbon Treaty. Our institutions can be easily adapted by a technical amendment to the Nice Treaty. The EU enlargement is only a matter of political will….I would like to promise you that Czech Republic will do its foremost during its next year´s presidency, to gather enough of this political will – not only for Croatia, which is getting close to completing its accession talks, but for all future candidate countries in the Western Balkans.”

Alexandr Vondra, First Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs

Karel Schwarzenberg

“One of the priorities of the Czech Presidency is generating more energy and speeding up the integration of the Western Balkans. A very important task for the Czech Republic is to accelerate the process of Croatia’s EU accession.”

“If the right time for the integration of the West Balkan countries is passed up, that will be bad for all of Europe, not just the Balkans.”

Karel Schwarzenberg, Foreign Minister


Czech politics and the EU

In the run-up to the Czech EU Presidency in autumn 2008 Václav Klaus’ strongly critical remarks on Europe have received wide international attention. In a divided government and a divided ruling party the President’s voice carries considerable weight. But are the Czechs really “Eurosceptics”? Klaus himself rejects the term “Eurosceptic”. He prefers the term “Eurorealist” – a subject of long debate in the ruling ODS. The Economist newspaper has attempted to unravel Czech thinking on Europe:

“When it comes to the faith-based project of European political integration, the Czech Republic is a dangerously heretical place. This does not mean that the Czechs are hostile to the European Union—though many in Brussels lazily put them high up in their lists of ‘Eurosceptics’.

Rather, the Czechs have a taste for something more subversive: questioning EU conventional wisdom… There is also a gap between Mr Klaus and the voters. Two-thirds of Czechs told the latest Eurobarometer poll that their country has benefited from membership. This is more than the EU average. And ODS voters, the political home of Klaus, are more pro-European than most other voters.

History has taught Czechs to think sceptically, says Alexandr Vondra. (Deputy PM) As an often-invaded people, Czechs ‘have problems approaching anything with excitement.’ Czechs believe in Europe, but not in the grandiose visions of the project: the endless treaties and institutional changes that will solve all problems. In Brussels such pragmatism is heretical. Next year promises to be interesting.”

President Klaus is the leading exponent of what Dr Petr Drulák, the Director of the Institute for International Relations in Prague, calls the “autonomist” viewpoint. As well as his well-known views on Europe, Mr Klaus is ambivalent on touch-stone transatlantic issues such as the US anti-missile radar base to be located outside Prague. Mr Klaus was also against the US invasion of Iraq and the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia. He is also critical of international policy on Kosovo’s independence. He has famously challenged conventional scientific wisdom on climate change.

But Mr Klaus is also a pragmatist; he will also go down in Czech history as the prime minister who submitted the country’s application to join the EU. He has said repeatedly that he can see no alternative to EU membership, but he is deeply concerned about EU centralization and over-regulation. He is in favour of EU enlargement as it dilutes the EU’s political ambitions.

Petr DrulákThere is also a clear Europeanist tradition in the Czech political elite – those who give priority to relations with the EU and key EU member states. Many opposition Social Democrats take this view, according to Petr Drulák (Pictured left)

The third policy strand the internationalists are the smallest group in the current policy debates. They argue that relations with the EU and the US are of equal importance. According to Dr Drulák the internationalists and the fourth group, the Atlantacists, are well-represented in the current Government. The latter are particularly prominent. Atlantacists tend to prioritise the relation with the US, and NATO issues over EU relations. The relationship with US is of key importance to them because the USA is the one remaining superpower. The EU connection is still important – but secondary. This is a strong tendency within the ruling Civic Democrats ODS.

They include leading policy-makers such as Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs, Alexandr Vondra (a former Ambassador to Washington) and First Deputy Foreign Minister Tomáš Pojar. Both are also highly influential within Government on European policy-making. But both are instinctively transatlantic in their view-points.

Alexandr Vondra Tomáš Pojar (R) with US official John C Reed (L)
Alexandr Vondra – Tomáš Pojar (R) with US official John C Reed (L)

Václav HávelFormer president Václav Hável is also an Atlanticist. In his memoirs, To the Castle and Back, Havel writes enthusiastically of his stays in Washington DC and his links with the US political elite which he writes were often fostered around the dinner table of the former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Her father was a Czechoslovak diplomat before the war.

Havel has himself made clear his critical views on the EU:

“I have very fundamental reservations, but they are completely different from those of most of today’s Eurosceptics…The European Union occasionally suffers from the old European disease, which is to make compromises with evil, to close one’s eye to dictatorship… I think the new members of the EU, who have a relatively recent experience of totalitarianism, are perhaps duty-bound to take a more principled position – should it be necessary – and to monitor the European Union in that regard.”

(“Please be Brief” (Czech Title) or “To the Castle and Back” (English Title) by Václav Havel)

Public attitudes to the EU and enlargement

Croatia 73 %
Montenegro 50 %
Macedonia 43 %
Serbia 36 %
Kosovo 27 %
Albania 25 %

The “affinity effect” described by Czech policy-makers is clear in the opinion polls. Czech support for Croatia’s accession to the EU is the highest in the EU – higher even than in Croatia.

Piotr Maciej Kaczynski (pictured left) has recently summarised the connection with Croatia and its impact on Czech policy:

“The Czech Republic’s priority in the Western Balkans, especially Croatia, is the result of several factors. First, there is general support for further EU enlargement. Second, close societal ties have a long history, going back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and communist times. Third, there are well-established economic contacts; in 2007 about one million Czechs visited Croatia during the summer months. After the Irish referendum, the Czechs were hesitant on whether to continue the ratification process – until leaders of France and Germany openly stated that no future EU enlargement is possible without the Lisbon Treaty. That argument played a major role in convincing the Czech Republic to continue with ratification, as the country is a strong supporter of Croatian accession.”

(“The Fifth Enlargement of the EU, Five Years On: The Case of Poland and the Czech Republic” by Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, IFRI November 2008)

By contrast Albania has a severe image problem in the Czech Republic. When questioned, analysts say this is related to the focus on Albanian organised crime in the Czech news media and to the lack of knowledge of the region beyond Serbia and their first-hand experience of Croatian and Montenegrin resorts.

The Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek himself commented on the lack of direct connection with Albania during his official visit to Tirana in April 2008:

“In 2007, only two thousand Czech tourists visited Albania. I suspect Czech tourists were dissuaded from visiting Albania chiefly due to the frequent electricity failures and the related drinking water shortages, and also to insufficient infrastructure and inadequate environmental standards – especially low water quality on the Adriatic coast as well as to waste management problems.”

(Interview with the Albanian Daily News)

Mirek Topolánek has also given his support to Albania’s ambitions to join both NATO and the EU. “The Czech Republic strongly supports Albania’s integration into both organizations,” he said.

On Bosnia and Herzegovina Prime Minister Topolánek has taken a similar line:

“We belong among those countries, which are of the opinion that without integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina and other countries of the West Balkans into the Euro-Atlantic structures it is not possible to stabilise this region.”

Serbia is also an important player for Czech policy – but not to the exclusion of the others. Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra said:

“We would also like to pay very much attention to Serbia, who – in our view – deserves lots of credit for the progress that has been achieved lately. Without Serbia on board, the Balkans will never be truly stable.

There is a political consensus on further EU enlargement – it links into the parties’ core views on Europe as well as the prevailing affinity with the Balkan region. The views of the main Czech parties have been synthesized by David Král, the Research Director of Europeum – the Prague-based European Policy Centre:

“ČSSD (Social-Democrats) view EU enlargement as a continuation of the idealistic goal of European reunification and a way of projecting stability and prosperity in the European continent. Potentially, they might fear that further EU enlargement might hinder deeper (especially political) integration in Europe, fostering differentiated integration where the Czech Republic would not be able to be a member of the core group.

ODS (Civic Democrats – the conservative party) tend to follow the Thatcherite discourse, where by accepting more members the EU would become more “diluted”, it will be forced to find more flexibility, it will have to follow economic rather than political integration, and will help to retain a more ‘souverainist’ approach to EU integration in general.

KDU-ČSL (Christian Democrats) align very much in their support for enlargement, but unlike the previous parties, they tend to stress more the value-based dimension of the EU, including Judeo-Christian roots of European civilisation, which plays a role, especially in relation to Turkey.

The Communists are not very vocal on this issue, and their position is not articulated clearly, given their rather reserved approach to the EU as such”.

(The Czech Position on further EU enlargement, particularly in relation to Turkey and Ukraine. David Král, 5 December 2005)

Economic ties with South Eastern Europe

Croatia and Serbia are the two priority countries in the Western Balkans in the Czech Republic’s “Export Strategy 2006-2010”. Trade turnover with Serbia has risen by more than 50 per cent in the last two years and now averages 387 million euros a year, according to the Committee for Czech and Serbian Economic Co-operation, at its most recent meeting in November 2008. Exports to Croatia are 332 million euros. Imports are 72 million euros – excluding services. Czech companies regularly complain of the difficulty they are having establishing themselves in Croatia’s tourism industry – despite the large number visitors from the Czech Republic each year.

The Czech Republic and Albania signed a bilateral agreement to increase their trade, in April 2008. Trade turnover currently totals 16 million euros – of which 15 million euros are Czech exports. Czech companies have an interest in Albania’s power, transport, infrastructure and mining industries. The energy conglomerate ČEZ won the tender for a 76 per cent share in Albania’s distribution company Operatori i Sistemit te Shperndarjes (OSSH sh.a.) in 2008. ČEZ offered 102 million euros. CEZ cancelled on 28 January 2009 a planned investment in Bosnia and Herzegovina which had been worth up to 1.4 billion euros. This would have been the largest-ever foreign direct investment in BiH. According to press reports the cancellation is a result of the economic crisis. The contract for the investment in a new Gacko II power plant and coal mine was first signed by CEZ with “Elektroprivreda” Republike Srpske Trebinje-Matićno in 2007.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia are the target countries in the Western Balkans for Czech economic development co-operation. In BiH there are four Czech-financed projects with a total budget of 4 million euros in the area of mining and environmental damage, waste management, support for hospitals and electrification projects. In Serbia there are eight projects with a total budget of 6 million euros in mining, support for hospitals, waste management, modernization of power stations, water treatment and modernizing heating networks.

BiH and Serbia are also beneficiaries of the Czech Republic’s small development aid programmes. According the Prague-based PASOS network, in its report “Democracy’s New Champions,” BiH receives a total of some 2 million euros Czech bilateral development assistance a year. The official allocation for Serbia and Montenegro (agreed in 2006 before Montenegro’s independence) was 4.2 million. The main emphasis is now on Serbia. The Sumadija region and particularly the city of Kragujevac are a key focus given long-standing links with Southern Moravia.

16 February 2009