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Analysis: Czechs Still Fear Fireworks Mark Pyrrhic Victory

By Michael Shafir

(Click here to see RFE/RL's "EU Expands Eastward" webpage.)

As fireworks lit up Prague's historic Old Town after midnight on 1 May to mark the country's accession to the European Union, divisions among the country's political elites over the significance and the implications of the step were equally prominent over the Czech capital's horizon.

Former President Vaclav Havel was expected to celebrate the event together with the speakers of both houses of parliament and representatives of the 25 old and new EU members in the Czech Senate's Wallenstein Gardens on the evening of 1 May -- an extension of celebrations that began one day earlier in the company of Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, Czech and European writers, and other luminaries.

"As it always is in this world, it won't come for free, it will take work, and it won't be easy for everyone -- especially at the beginning, in a new environment," Spidla told an audience on 30 April. "But I am sure that we will overcome and that this historic choice will pay off for us."

On the other hand, the current occupant of Prague Castle, President Vaclav Klaus, had announced that he saw no need to take part in the celebrations and that for him the evening would be spent quietly, without doing "anything special." Klaus ended up delivering a television speech in which he urged Czechs not to "lose ourselves" or "blur our identity" and warned: "Today we are not entering Europe, because we have long been in [Europe] and always will be -- including in the period of our greatest subjugation. Today we are entering the European Union; and our task is thus far more prosaic: to learn to orient ourselves and operate within the Brussels structures and in the formation of a complex supranational entity, which has nothing at all in common with poetry."

The Czech Republic's self-described "Euro-realist" head of state announced his intention of "doing nothing" to celebrate EU accession during a recent trip to China -- arguably not the most appropriate spot for such a comment. It was also during that trip that Klaus lashed out at EU enlargement: In an article published in the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes," Klaus wrote that the Czech Republic would cease to exist as an independent country and urged his countrymen to "do everything we can so we are not lost in the EU, so that our unique existence over 1,000 years will not crumble and be lost." A former prime minister under whose leadership the country applied for EU membership, Klaus has often stated that joining the EU is to be regarded as a "marriage of convenience," not of love, and that the Czech Republic has had no choice but to join the union out of fear of finding itself in isolation on the continent. He has squandered few occasions to bash "Brussels bureaucrats" or insist that manifold aspects of EU overregulation or financial indiscretion will have a negative impact on his country.

In the Czech Republic's case, a feeling of entitlement dates all the way back to the 1938 Munich Agreement, when France and Britain "sold out" the independent Czechoslovak state to Hitler's Germany.
These are also, by and large, the positions of the senior opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS), whose honorary chairman Klaus remains. The ODS is comfortably leading in opinion polls. It would be imprudent to attribute that popularity solely to the party's positions on the EU, but it demonstrates that -- at a minimum -- there are many Czechs who do not object to such Euro-skepticism. In a June 2003 referendum on EU membership, Czech voters endorsed membership by a large majority of 77 percent, but turnout was also a mere 55 percent. Since then, however, Czechs have become increasingly skeptical of EU enlargement.

A recent poll for the widest-circulation Czech daily, "Mlada fronta Dnes," suggested that a majority of Czechs reject Klaus's talk of "the dissolving of [the Czech Republic] in the EU." But fears abound of higher prices after accession, a decreased level of control over events, and a lack of preparedness for EU membership, according to the same research. One-third of Czechs believe the country's political leadership conducted itself poorly in negotiations over the terms of accession, the pollsters concluded.

Other independent polls suggest Czechs are less supportive of EU membership than either Hungarians or Poles, with a negligible difference between "Euro-optimists" and "Euro-skeptics," at roughly one-third each of the total population.

Three main factors appear to have contributed most strongly to the drop in popularity of EU membership: the immediate costs of enlargement for the Czech taxpayer; panic among the EU's 15 "old" members over a possible invasion of cheap labor from the "new" members; and persistent squabbles over the postwar Benes Decrees with neighboring Germany and Austria, but also with segments of the Hungarian political elite.

The decision of the Czech government to use the goal of value-added-tax harmonization with the EU effectively to increase taxation (a move that President Klaus unsuccessfully vetoed) -- amid talk of elusive fiscal discipline ahead of adopting the euro, moreover -- has highlighted fears of higher costs. Few Czechs, or for that matter few nationals from among the other new members, are likely to gain much solace from the long-term promises of EU advantages.

Second, Czechs and other accession citizens feel they are being treated unfairly by being depicted as potential invaders in search of jobs in Western Europe -- all the more so as their own government has opted not to impose retaliatory measures (unlike Hungary and Poland). But they also feel that their western partners are betraying the ideals enounced during the long period of communist dominance over the eastern part of the continent. As Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Zdenek Skromach put it recently, the sentiment is widespread that the West was able to fight communism successfully and raise living standards in part because Easterners presented a telling picture of the alternative. Consequently the West "owes us something," Skromach said, suggesting that the time is ripe for the repayment of that debt by doing precisely what the West most fears -- namely, channeling funds into the eastern part of the continent. In the Czech Republic's case (even more than in Slovakia), that feeling of entitlement dates all the way back to the 1938 Munich Agreement, when France and Britain "sold out" the independent Czechoslovak state to Hitler's Germany.

That "debt" has helped turn the thorny issue of the 1945-46 Benes Decrees into one that helps build a consensus across party lines. The insistence of organizations representing expelled Sudeten Germans that the decrees be abolished -- and the backing of that insistence by politicians from Germany's Christian Democratic Union, Austria's Freedom Party, and Hungary's FIDESZ -- heighten suspicions in the Czech Republic that disputes will continue well into the era of EU membership.

The fireworks in Prague after midnight on 1 May were nevertheless a sign that optimism has prevailed. It is now up to Czechs and their fellow EU citizens to demonstrate that those pyrotechnics did not mark a Pyrrhic victory.