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Attitudes of the Czech Public and Politicians to the EU

(An abstract of a talk by Jiri Pehe at a conference "Reclaiming the Future: The Central European Quest", Dublin, 4-5 October)

A few months before the end of accession negotiations, support for accession to the European Union is quite low in the Czech Republic. If a referendum on accession were to be held today, it seems a majority of people would vote in favor of membership, but support has been diminishing in the last few months. What are the reasons?

1. Czech political leaders have not been very effective in explaining advantages of membership to the public. The discussion of the EU has been reduced to technical aspects of negotiations.

2. The parliamentary political parties are almost evenly split between those resolutely supporting membership and those that are against membership or are Euroskeptic.

3. The increasingly anti-EU attitudes of former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus are responsible for the public's growing ambivalence about the EU.

4. The issue of EU membership has been tied to the so-called Benes decrees, under which some 3 million ethnic Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II and their property confiscated. Klaus, in particular, has been responsible for tying the two issues.

5. The Czech Republic's relationship with two neighbors, who are already members of the EU-Germany and Austria-has been complicated not only by the Benes decrees controversy but (especially in case of Austria) also by a dispute over the Temelin nuclear power plant.

6. The EU itself bears a degree of responsibility for the growing ambivalence about the EU among the Czech public. The EU's inability to move forward on important reforms as well as its lack of resolve on enlargement have alienated some former supporters of EU membership.

7. Czech public opinion on the EU is not adversely influenced by seemingly insurmountable issues, such as agricultural reforms. In comparison with a majority of other candidate countries, the Czech Republic is in a good position on negotiating difficult chapters.

8. The inability of Czech politicians to communicate to the public advantages of membership, and effectively counter domestic Euroskeptics, is puzzling, as the advantages are quite apparent. Three quarters of Czech foreign trade is already with the EU economic area. The harmonization of the Czech legislation with that of the EU has improved significantly the legal and investment environments in the country, making the Czech Republic one of the most attractive destinations for FDI. The EU has already significantly helped with projects that have improved the country's infrastructure. It has also successfully mediated disputes that the Czech Republic has had, for example, with Austria. In sum, should the Czech government be able to improve its communication strategy, reversing the current decline in support for EU membership should not be difficult.

Conference Reclaiming the Future: Central European Quest, Dublin European Institute, Dublin 4. - 5. 10. 2002