The Czech Republic is an apt arena for the political battle between Europhiles and Euroskeptics, and last week it became just that.
Populist politicians from five countries, led by France’s Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, gathered in Prague for a European election rally in support of their Czech political ally Tomio Okamura and his far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party on April 25.
In the city’s historic Wenceslas Square, Wilders accused the EU of “pampering Islam for decades” and facilitating “Islamic immigration.” He told the rally: “Europe is on the brink of cultural suicide. And the European Union will never defend our national interests and our freedom.”
At the same time, in the eastern city of Olomouc — 250 kilometers from Prague — business leaders and academics tried to persuade the public that the EU remains the country’s best bet for peace and prosperity.
Only one in three Czechs believes their country’s EU membership is “a good thing.”
“When you consider how much EU membership has helped us, both economically and socially, and yet how much we’re complaining about it, it’s mind-blowing,” said Radek Špicar, vice president of the Czech Confederation of Industry and one of the organizers of the event.
For both pro- and anti-EU forces, the Czech Republic is a key battleground. In no other member country — with the possible exception of the U.K. — is EU membership a bigger point of dispute.
Euroskepticism on the rise
A recent Eurobarometer survey found that only one in three Czechs believes their country’s EU membership is “a good thing,” the lowest level in all 28 member states. In addition, only 47 percent of Czechs said they would vote to remain in the EU if a referendum on membership were held, the second-lowest number behind the U.K.’s 45 percent.
Yet paradoxically, 58 percent of Czech respondents to the Eurobarometer survey said that their country has benefited from being an EU member. And they’re correct: For a start, the Czech Republic is a net beneficiary of EU funds. The country also has the lowest unemployment rate in the bloc at 2.1 percent.
Still, the number of Czechs who see EU membership as beneficial for their country is also on the decline, with 58 percent representing a drop of 6 percentage points compared to a 2018 Eurobarometer survey.
Analysts have offered a number of explanations for Czechs’ Euroskepticism — including the decline of traditional political parties that were strongly associated with the EU; dissatisfaction that wages are lower than in neighboring countries such as Germany; a nationalist approach to teaching history; and populist rhetoric from the country’s current leaders.
Under its anti-migrant Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and the fiercely anti-Muslim President Miloš Zeman, the Czech Republic has seen the political mood grow volatile and divisive. On April 21, Dominik Feri, a vocal EU supporter and the only black member of the Czech parliament, was assaulted by two men during a wine-tasting event in the south of the country, local media reported.
At the Euroskeptics’ Prague event last week, some 500 SPD supporters and several dozen counterdemonstrators gathered in Wenceslas Square, where 30 years ago Václav Havel announced the fall of the Czechoslovak communist regime to more than 1 million ecstatic Czechs.
The early speakers, who included the former UKIP member Janice Atkinson, were largely drowned out by the protesters, who used klaxons, sirens, drums, bells and whistles to disrupt the event, before being gently escorted away by riot police.
National Rally leader Le Pen, who was greeted by dozens of Czech flags and anti-migrant and anti-Islam placards, warned the enthusiastic audience that the EU is out to destroy the Czech nation.
EU membership looks certain to remain a divisive component of Czech politics and its society for years to come.
“Today, the European Union does not have the capacity to send tanks into our cities or shoot into crowds,” she said, to raucous cheers. “But let’s not deceive ourselves … To render the process of national destruction irreversible, [the EU] has initiated the submersion of Europe by organized migration. My country offers a sad example. If you are not alert, it will be your future: Entire quarters are already beyond all legal authority and have become zones of non-France.”
In his speech, SPD leader Okamura referred to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as an “alcoholic” and called for a referendum on the Czech Republic’s EU membership. Juncker has repeatedly denied accusations of alcoholism, saying he occasionally stumbles because he suffers from sciatica.
The SPD currently holds no seats in the European Parliament, having been founded in 2015, and has not formally joined any European political family. For some years, however, it has been allied to the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group, a Euroskeptic faction that is home to Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party and Le Pen’s National Rally.
Yet while enthusiasm for the EU is on the decline, that hasn’t so far translated into major support for anti-EU parties.
Okamura’s SPD is projected to win one of the Czech Republic’s 21 seats in the European Parliament with about 7 percent of the vote. In the 2017 Czech general election, the SPD received 10.64 percent of the vote, handing them 22 of 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
Although the 2017 result was considered a success, and while many voters share Okamura’s Euroskepticism, extremist parties have never fared well in the country — in large part because of the Czech Republic’s experience under communism.
Nevertheless, in Olomouc, the organizers fretted about the rise of Czech Euroskepticism and the role of misinformation.
“Our political elites refuse to educate the people and communicate fairly about the EU,” Špicar said. “We don’t have any leaders courageous enough to even open that debate.”
The meeting in Olomouc, held at the city’s Museum of Natural History, was part of an initiative started in 2018 by Špicar and the city’s Palacký University. They regularly organize similar debates across the country, often in small towns rarely frequented by politicians, with the declared aim of fostering fact-based discourse on Czech EU membership.
“We are basically doing the politicians’ work for them,” said Palacký University’s rector, Jaroslav Miller, warning that the Czech Republic has become an “open field” for misinformation. (The Euroskeptics’ Prague event, for instance, was a subject of fake news: according to the news site Aktuálně.cz, Russian sources claimed that 25,000 people had attended the gathering.)
Some 90 people, representing a cross-section of the city’s population and a mix of views, attended the meeting. One of the panelists, David Navrátil, chief economist at the country’s biggest bank Česká spořitelna, argued that leaving the EU — dubbed Czexit — would be disastrous as the Czech Republic is highly dependent on EU markets, which purchase 90 percent of its exports.
“Czexit would be an enormous tragedy for Czech business,” he said. “We would become much poorer very quickly. It would be such a catastrophe that it’s not even possible to contemplate seriously.”
However, Libor Hrančik, a 62-year-old small business owner, maintained that the Czechs would be better off on their own. “When you look at the way the EU is treating the U.K. right now, it’s a perfect example of the arrogance of the Brussels bureaucrats who aren’t accountable to anyone,” he said. “I want us to be able to decide alone about our political affairs, about immigration, about the economy.”
Roman Bek, a 75-year-old pensioner, countered: “I stand behind Europe with all my force. Czexit is complete nonsense. The country would continue to exist, of course, but the big question is whether we are truly capable of managing ourselves politically and economically.”
EU membership looks certain to remain a divisive component of Czech politics and its society for years to come, as even those who oversaw accession are reconsidering the advantages of being in the bloc.
On the Czech Republic’s 15th accession anniversary — the country joined the bloc alongside nine others on May 1, 2004 — former President Václav Klaus told local television that he pushed for membership as prime minister in the 1990s as he saw no other alternative for his country, despite having personal reservations about it.
Klaus, who served as president when the country joined in 2004, said that today, the situation was different as the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership had canceled each other out.
“I’d say it was now 50-50,” he said. “I don’t think it was a great victory. We also lost a lot of things by joining the European Union.”
Yet he added that it would be foolhardy for the Czech Republic to follow Britain’s example and leave the bloc.