The rise of euroscepticism in Central Europe has been well documented, particularly in the Czech Republic. Among the nations of the Visegrad Four, anti-EU sentiments have long provided easy fuel for political actors willing to appeal to populist instincts to secure political power, but rarely do such sentiments crystallize into concrete anti-European movements. In the Czech Republic, however, political instability and populist rhetoric employed at the highest level is frequently warned against as a harbinger for a potential earthquake in Czech – and potentially Central European – relations with the EU. But how likely is such an event in real terms?
It is no secret that the Czech Republic harbours one of the highest levels of eurosceptic sentiment in the European Union, a fact which has drawn plenty of analytical attention from outsiders and – particularly in light of the tectonic consequences of the Brexit referendum in 2016 – no end of warnings and extrapolations by parties concerned that a similar ‘Czexit’ referendum could very well take place. In the immediate term, it is certainly justifiable for external investors and third parties to be concerned by Czech euroscepticism as an economic and political risk; Eurobarometer has historically recorded significant levels of discontent with the EU both pre- and post-accession, which has never appreciably declined, and in late 2017 36% of Czechs recorded were unhappy with their status as an EU member, the highest percentage of any EU Member State.
The roots of Euroscepticism
Euroscepticism in Czech is an ongoing study; whilst the country benefits enormously from EU funding, the EU is nevertheless often held as the cause of economic woes by a salient portion of the Czech populace. Grassroots resentment over inequalities in salary between the Czech Republic and neighbour countries (for example, in Germany, where an occupation as sales assistant can yield a salary five times greater than its Czech counterpart) is widespread.
Socially, the story is similar: the advent of Brussels-imposed migration quotas in 2015 was almost universally poorly received in the Czech Republic, where anti-migrant and Islamophobic sentiment is extremely widespread, and to this day the migrant quota debacle has dramatically deteriorated Czech perceptions of EU membership, regardless of the fact that the migration quotas were rejected by the Czech government, and that Czech economy and society continues to benefit from and grow with the aid of EU funding programmes.
The EU continues to be scapegoated by Czech politicians seeking support from the eurosceptic vote. In real terms, the consequences of this may be dramatic: persistent whispers at the highest levels of Czech politics calling for a Czexit referendum suggests that Czech euroscepticism could, if unchecked, become the groundswell behind an anti-EU movement that eventually leads to a referendum on Union membership with dramatic consequences.
However, whilst the victory of Czech President Miloš Zeman in the January elections of this year, and the reappointment of Andrei Babiš to the post of Prime Minister were received by European analysts as indicators that euroscepticism is gaining ground steadily, the reality may be quite different. Both Mr. Zeman and Mr. Babiš stand to gain very little from a Czech departure from the European Union; Mr. Babiš in particular is unlikely to follow through with any threatened referendum on Czech membership given his economic interests in remaining within the EU. In particular, however, it is noticeable that both Mr. Zeman and Mr. Babiš have distanced themselves publically from the extreme anti-EU voices within the Czech government, refusing to enter into cooperation with hardline or single-policy parties advocating for EU departure. Following the 2018 presidential election results, only one extreme eurosceptic party entered the Lower House of the Czech Parliament, the SPD (Freedom and Direct Democracy) party under Tonio Okamura.
Ahead of the October 2018 Czech parliamentary elections, the outlook on the future of Czech euroscepticism may not be as negative as has been posited by some analyses. As long as political movers rely upon the European Union’s status as scapegoat – whether in the form of President Zeman’s reprimands over perceived bureaucratic incompetence in Brussels, or Prime Minister Babiš’ invocation of the sensitive subject of migration quotas – to build their support base, Czech euroscepticism will be considered a potential risk to EU-Czech relations and the interests of external actors in the Czech Republic. However, those with the greatest power in Czech politics – although perfectly content to utilise euroscepticism and populism as tools in their political arsenal – are very well aware of the damage a Czech departure from the European Union would cause to the Czech Republic.
Louis is a political analyst and researcher currently based in Prague, Czech Republic. He has worked previously as political advisor in one of the major political groups in the European Parliament, assigned to the Foreign Affairs, Security and Defense and Human Rights committees.