The Czech Republic gives up on the EU – and foreign policy: A reaction

Benjamin Tallis, Mark Galeotti, Michal Koran, Jakub Eberle, and Ondrej Ditrych react at on an interview with Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek is justified in lamenting economic inequality and low pay, but his EU-bashing conveniently hides the fact that his own government has done little to address them.

A recent interview with Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek has caused controversy and laid bare the parlous state of foreign policy in the country. He lashed out at the European Commission and European Parliament, advocated restrictions on free movement, sympathised with Brexiteers and refused to accept that the Czech Republic should shelter refugees.

Zaoralek has previously expressed strong support for the EU and claims to have been misquoted, but his record in office speaks for itself and tells the same, negative story as the interview: unimaginative and small minded on major policy issues, uncooperative with European institutions and key partners, as well as irresponsible with regard to EU and Schengen membership. The interview and the wider foreign policy context in the Czech Republic not only show the dangerous slide of the governing Social Democrats (CSSD) into nationalist populism but also the recklessly self-serving and narrow minded attitude of much of the current Czech political elite.

The stance on refugees is depressingly familiar, but Prague has previously supported free movement in principle, if not to the extent of actually sharing the burdens as well as the benefits of Schengen membership. The newer, more closed stance mimics the responses of some other social democratic parties across Europe but also the more social nationalist leanings of other Visegrad Four (V4) governments.

Out of touch with reality

The social element of this new alignment remains unconvincing, however. The V4, including the Czech Republic, recently rejected EU-wide social and wage harmonisation measures that would have boosted incomes and working conditions in the region. Similarly, curbing free movement may appeal to nativist sentiments but is out of touch with economic reality.

The Czech Republic boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the EU (3.4%) and employers are pressuring the government to accept more foreign workers to ease labour shortages. A recent Eurobarometer survey shows that this is reflected in the public mood: Czechs’ fear of unemployment is among the lowest in the Union.

Zaorálek is justified in lamenting economic inequality and low pay, but his EU-bashing conveniently hides the fact that his own government has done little to address them. The Social Democrats have not acted to boost salaries, even in the public sector. Nor have they made robust investments in research and education or used Czech economic ties with Germany to social ends.

It is worrying to hear that Zaoralek’s main “lesson” drawn from Brexit is of the threat the British supposedly felt from “2 million people coming from the East.” He may not realise it, but for Brits, that East includes the Czech Republic. He must know, however, that this ‘threat’ was stirred-up by xenophobes rather than being backed-up by any credible sociological or economic evidence. Ahead of Czech parliamentary elections later this year, his ‘lesson’ reveals a particular form of nativist populism at work.

Borderline populism in a ‘small’ country

As elsewhere, state borders are held up in the Czech Republic as a symbol of the limits of the national political community – and as lines of defence from foreign threats. The EU represents a counter-view: the transformation of hostile relations between national political communities into common membership of a larger, European political community of common values in which nations of different sizes can pursue their interests. Until recently Czechs generally saw the benefits of EU membership, including free movement, as outweighing any costs from supposed loss of control.

Now, however, the country’s top diplomat has appropriated the populist rhetoric of enclosure, circling the national(ist) wagons against foreign foes. It is hard to see what Zaoralek admires about the EU (as he claims to) when he paints it as an alien ‘them’ opposing the Czech ‘us’ – a dictatorial outside force that sanctions the inflow of threatening outsiders in the form of both foreign workers and refugees. This ‘externalised’ view of the EU – fashionable in the V4 – relates to Zaoralek’s claims that the “big countries” make the deals and decisions that new EU members, still not sufficiently respected, must accept.

This rhetoric (echoing Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán) cannot obscure the fact that Zaoralek has spent the last three years as the foreign minister of an EU member state. He has had ample opportunity to influence the very problems he describes. That he – and his government colleagues – have manifestly failed to do so should elicit self-reflection rather than lashing out at others in a populist, pre-election spasm.

There is, however, a persistent, inaccurate and damagingly self-fulfilling belief in the Czech Republic that it is a small nation whose irrelevance is matched only by the sense of victimhood stemming (partly) from Habsburg domination, Nazi occupation and Soviet suppression. Lately, albeit with some notable exceptions, this has consistently manifested itself in a sense of disgruntled impotence and buck passing which have fostered the ineffective yet self-serving political elite epitomized by Zaoralek.

The Czech Republic is, in fact, a mid-ranking EU state in wealth and population and needs to start acting like it. In the past it has been able to leverage its EU membership to mobilize positions that serve its interests as well as European values by being a responsible and constructive partner. If it is to do so again, it needs to act its size in foreign policy, which requires more than introverted, small-country populism and bigger leaders than the current crop.

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