Confidence in the future of the EU is fragile. While there is renewed optimism due to the defeat of Eurosceptic parties in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Austria, the ongoing Brexit negotiations fuel the anti-establishment voices, including that of the frontrunner to become the next Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš.
“Europe is a great project. But European politicians should seriously ask why the UK is leaving. They are dealing with the wrong issues in pursuing further integration,” said Babiš, leader of the ANO 2011 party, in an interview for the Daily Telegraph. ANO leads the polls ahead of the October 20-21 elections, with the support of close to 30% of the electorate. An electorate which overwhelmingly agrees with Babiš’ stance on the Eurozone. He’s ruling out the possibility of Czechia adopting the Euro, contradicting the political agenda of European Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker.
In a different context, the Czech legislative elections at the end of this week might be business as usual. Important, sure, but not game-changing for the European Union. However, now more than ever, the EU needs all the support it can get in each of the national capitals. Will it continue to count on that of Prague? To find it out, we asked the EU Parliamentarians from Czechia for their views and crossed checked their statements with their actual voting behavior when taking positions on EU decisions.
The Eurozone Needs Reform
“We believe that Czechia should adopt the Euro only once it is beneficial for both Czech citizens and businesses and it should remain our domestic political decision,” MEP Dita Charanzová told VoteWatch.eu. Charanzová, who is representing ANO 2011 in the European Parliament, said that she understands the critical stance of Babiš: “It is clear that the Eurozone will need a reform in order to stabilise and make it possible to deal properly with cases such as Greece.” This view is shared by all main Czech parties, as our data on voting behavior in the European Parliament confirms.
However, the support for the EU as such remains: when asked about the referendum to decide on the country’s EU and NATO membership, called by President Milos Zeman, Charanzová was firm: “I am strongly opposed to Mr. Zeman’s view on this issue. It is fundamental for our country to remain part of and active Member of both the EU and NATO. For a better future of our children we need to remain strongly anchored in the area of European integration and transatlantic relations.”
*Are you curious to find out what are Ms. Charanzová’s views on other burning issues such as Visegrad group attitude towards the EU, the current Czechia-Russia relationship or even China’s interest in strengthening the cooperation with Central European countries? Read our exclusive interview with Ms. Charanzová and discover her views on all the topics mentioned above.
Czech Membership in the EU and NATO, Essential
The idea of the referendum also goes against MEP Pavel Svoboda’s views. “President Zeman´s approach is real populism, which plays into the hands of politicians who would like to improve relations with Russia, but it is the government which is responsible for defining foreign policy,” said the Czech MEP who is representing the pro-European KDU-ČSL party in the European Parliament. He also insists that “less Brussels means more Moscow” and that, in his opinion, there will be no substantial change in the current foreign policy of Czechia after the elections.
*Read the full interview with Mr. Svoboda to learn how the Chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs in the EP perceives the developments in Poland and Hungary.
There seems to be agreement between Czech MEPs in that the legislative elections won’t change anything in respect to the country’s membership in the European Union and NATO. “It is in the interests of Czechia to belong to both the EU and NATO and I do not think that the upcoming legislative elections will change anything in this state of affairs,” Pavel Poc, member of the CSSD delegation, told VoteWatch.eu. He highlighted the important strategic role that Czechia can have in the region and in mediating relationships with Russia. “Prague is “in the middle” and the role of mediator could strengthen the role of my country much more when embraced properly.” Poc also emphasized that the only way to deal with Russia in equal terms is “through the common foreign policy of the EU.” However, it is worth noting the nuances: our data indicates that Mr Poc, along with his party did vote against strengthening the EU’s capacity to fight Russia on the communication front.
Importantly, ANO, KDU-CSL, Top09, Stan and CSSD, all delivered their support to the plan of EU’s building its own military capabilities, voting in favour of establishing structured cooperation and an EU general HQ.
*Mr. Poc also explains in our exclusive interview which strategy the EU should adopt with the aim of countering the climate change. Read more about his views in the interview transcript.
Kateřina Konečná, an MEP for the Communists, has a rather different approach on the relations with Russia: “I believe we must all understand that we are all (EU and Russia) facing the same global problems – terrorism, instability, global warming, etc. Therefore, cooperation on these issues is absolutely essential.” Along with her radical-left group, she voted both against strengthening EU’s anti-propaganda capacities and the establishment of structured cooperation.
*Ms. Konečná also said in our interview that “Trump administration is a disaster”. Find out what is the reason behind this statement by reading the full interview with the Communist MEP.
China Has Yet to Deliver, if It Expects to Build Bridges in CEE
An emergent player in Central and Eastern Europe is China, who has institutionalized the dialogue with these countries in what is called the 16+1 format and has promised substantial investments in the area as part of its “belt and road” macro-project. At declarative level, EU Parliamentarians representing Czechia would like a more strict approach by the EU to protect European business from Chinese (unfair) competition. MEP Charanzova told VoteWatch: “I am in favour of a strict approach when it comes to protecting EU businesses from unfair competition from China”. Mr Poc agrees: “We ought to keep in mind that China is not an equal partner to the EU when it comes to workers’ rights and the status of its citizens. Consequently, it is essential that the EU keep its economic interests firmly in mind when dealing with China”.
MEP Svoboda does not look convinced of the Chinese promises and is of the opinion that “so far the impact of Chinese investment is quite small in terms of job creation etc. when compared with the impact of European investors activities. Chinese presence in Czechia has to do with geopolitics more than with business”. The only one that would seem favorable to a softer stance on China is MEP Konečná, who, again, places this relationship in the broader international perspective: “We already talked about Trump´s decision to pull out the US from the Paris Agreement. Imagine China would do the same. That would be a disaster and cooperation is the key to make sure that will not happen”.
However, the analysis of actual positions taken by EU Parliamentarians when voting show that the picture is more blurred, as the members of 3 leading parties, ANO, KDU-CSL and TOP09 did not back a document that was outright rejecting the granting of market economy status by the EU to China (while CSSD did vote for the rejection of this status).
To Worry or Not to Worry?
Despite the reassuring stance of the Czech MEPs in Brussels, the Czech politicians back home do have a reputation of “troublemakers”. It is worth reminding that former president, Vaclav Klaus, stalled the ratification of Lisbon Treaty in 2009. On the top of that, the Czech public opinion is strongly skeptical about EU integration and about joining the Eurozone. Refugee quotas are also a very controversial subject in Prague and an anti-refugee party, Freedom and Direct Democracy, is steadily rising in the polls.
The current government, made up of the Czech Social Democratic Party (S&D), ANO 2011 (ALDE/ADLE) and the Christian Democratic KDU–ČSL (EPP), has decided to stick to a pro-European course, thus distancing itself from the positions adopted by other governments from the Visegrad group, namely Poland and Hungary. The relatively low appetite for investing in the an “integrated Visegrad strategy” is proven also by the fact that ANO and CSSD did not shy away from voting in favour of activating the “rule of law” procedure against Hungary, when the matter was debated in the European Parliament.
However, this situation can potentially change after the election, as the country is likely to face a tortuous coalition formation process. Although ANO 2011 is expected to win the elections, it will struggle to find allies to form the next government because of Babiš’ judicial troubles and alleged conflict of interests. This might push Babiš to embrace some of the extremist and Eurosceptic parties in order to find a viable coalition.
The outcome of this process will determine the future of the Czech Republic in the EU – and influence the future of the EU itself. Will Czechia keep its current cooperative approach with Brussels or will it join Poland and Hungary in their fight against the European Commission and its allies?
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