By: Stephanie Dixon
Last summer’s Brexit stirred up controversy across Europe regarding the role and necessity of the European Union (EU), particularly in one of the EU’s youngest member states.
The Czech Republic, along with Hungary, Poland and a handful of former Soviet bloc countries, only recently joined the EU in 2004. However, the Czech Republic, in particular, has historically ranked high among the Eurosceptic nations in the EU, with polls showing the people to be generally more distrustful of forfeiting sovereignty to outside organizations
With the Czech Republic’s long history of oppression by outside authorities, it comes as no surprise that this anti-EU sentiment exists. But is it enough for the young member state to actually “Czech out” of the EU? Mitchell Young, Professor of European Studies at Charles University, thinks not.
“There’s definitely a fringe movement,” says Young. “But I think in general, there’s not really much support for leaving the EU completely.”
Nevertheless, a February 2016 poll by the STEM agency reported three-fifths of Czechs were unhappy with their EU membership and 62 percent said they would vote against staying in the EU in a referendum.
It is possible that Czech Euroscepticism has been snowballing toward a populist movement for years. However, this increased anti-EU sentiment also could be simply a sign of the times. Similar exit movements, such as Frexit, Italeave and Oustria, have also surfaced across Europe. These movements mainly have been in response to the EU’s recent regulations regarding political refugees from Syria.
“What happened is, the whole question of the EU got taken over by this question of refugees and sending money away and all this kind of populist nonsense, the same sort of stuff that Trump got elected on,” Young said. “They weren’t voting on Brexit…one group was voting on ‘do we want migrants in the country,’ and the other group was voting on ‘do we want economic freedom and relations with other European countries.’”
Young thinks that holding a referendum on whether or not to stay would be dangerous for the Czechs, just as it was for the UK. Many people would be voting based on “falsehoods and scare rhetoric.” Young also thinks that Czech politicians are playing a large role in unearthing this Eurosceptic sentiment with their constant scapegoating of the EU.
“The EU is always sort of the whipping post of Czech politicians,” Young said. “So any time something gets done that they didn’t want, they blame it on the EU. This takes a toll on the way the Czech people feel towards the EU as a whole.”
Petr Mach, on the other hand, thinks that an independent Czech Republic would “definitely be viable.” While the movement for a referendum bill is still at its beginnings, Mach thinks it may work its way up through Parliament in the coming years.
Mach is the Chairman of the Free Citizens Party in the Czech Republic and a Member of the European Parliament, the law-making body for the EU. Ironically, his party is one of the only parties that is openly Eurosceptic and in favor of a so-called Czexit.
“Czechs want to be part of the European integration in general, of the free travel and free trade area,” Mach said. “But Czechs are fed up with the dictate of quotas on the redistribution of migrants imposed by Brussels.”
While Mach is a proponent of the Czech Republic leaving the EU, he is not in favor of completely cutting off ties with EU member nations.
“My party supports “Czexit,” but at the same time, we are in favor of joining another European grouping, the European Free Trade Area (EFTA). Therefore, trade should not be affected by a Czexit,” Mach said.
Of the many implications that leaving the EU has, trade is one of the most important. According to Young, it is the main reason leaving the EU would be “disastrous” for the Czechs.
“The Czech economy is hugely tied to the German economy, I think it’s more than 50 percent,” Young said. “Leaving the EU would mean large amounts of bureaucracy, paperwork, customs and taxes, which cut profits out. You’d see a huge drop in the economic outlook of the country.”
Young believes that a Czexit also would result in Czechs having fewer opportunities to work abroad and travel. Tourism also would take a huge hit, not to mention the huge loss of income due to the large amounts of money that the EU is still pumping into the country.
Young also thinks there would be an increase in corruption and “strange ways of investing money” without the EU’s influence in the country. According to Young, the EU steered the Czech Republic through the ‘90s, and most people were supportive of the changes they were making back in their early days of EU membership. The EU played a large role in enacting environmental laws, infrastructure projects and justice system reforms.
“Of course these all existed—it’s not like the EU invented them—but they really focused on these things and got the Czechs to focus on some of the corruption issues, some of the other strange legal issues, and those things have improved a lot,” Young said.
There is no telling if the issue of a “Czexit” will make an appearance in the upcoming fall elections in the Czech Republic. Though many of the political parties in power center their platforms around populist anti-EU propaganda, none of them are particularly for the movement. Young thinks the more pressing issue will be the question of whether or not to adopt the Euro, an issue that has been on the table for years and could dramatically affect trade within the EU.
Another issue that both Young and Mach think will be prominent in the election is the Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babiš, who has been under investigation for fraud by both the Czech government and the EU. Babiš, who is planning to run for prime minister, is the second-richest man in the Czech Republic and owns more than 250 Czech companies, including several of the country’s main media sources.
“The current big issue is whether the oligarch Babiš, the biggest receiver of EU subsidies, the biggest processor of the mandated biofuels and owner of the biggest media is going to win or not,” Mach said.
With other more pressing issues at the forefront of the election, it is hard to tell whether or not a Czexit will be seriously discussed or come to fruition in the near future. Young thinks it is simply a phase that the Czechs will grow out of.
“I think these things kind of come in trends,” Young said. “We had this big flow, and now it’s kind of ebbing with support. However, if by some miracle it does happen, it would be an utter disaster for this country.”