This weekend voters in the Czech Republic will flock to polling stations to elect their president. The Czech president has largely ceremonial powers and much of his influence stems from the high respect many Czechs hold for the office. Apart from domestic politics, the election can be expected to produce an ever-lasting impact on the country’s position in Europe.
In a run-off Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg is set to face former Prime Minister Milos Zeman. Regardless of the outcome the new occupant of Prague Castle, the traditional seat of Czech Presidents, will be much more EU-friendly than the eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus, who is ending his second and final term. The fact that both presidential candidates declare their intention to hoist the EU flag on the Prague Castle is significant and represents a radical departure from the outgoing president.
Czech politics is never short of surprises. How else would you account for the conservative Schwarzenberg, who had been languishing in the polls, making a surprise last minute surge and now being neck-and-neck with the frontrunner Zeman in the second round? It is even more surprising with respect to country’s often difficult relations with the EU. Long seen as a troublemaker in Brussels and never quite shy of making a fuss over a purported loss of sovereignty, the Czech Republic now stands ready to elect an openly pro- European president. Both candidates now claim that more Europe rather than less is a cure to Czech economic woes. In fact, the leftist Zeman is a self-described European federalist and calls for establishment of EU-wide government.
To overcome Klaus’ legacy of rampant euroscepticism will be no small feat. Klaus, the outspoken critic of Brussels, for instance, held the EU hostage for months by refusing to sign the Lisbon Treaty. Klaus and his followers warn against transferring more powers to Brussels which they see as antithetical to Czech national interests. No surprise that Klaus takes pleasure to be described as the most anti-Brussels politician in the EU. As a result, deep- seated suspicions and misinformation tend to dominate the national debate on the country’s place in Europe.
Interestingly enough, Czechs are no more dismissive of their EU membership than Poles or Slovaks. The outgoing president has acted as a conduit to pump out fringe eurosceptic views. Once again, a parallel can be drawn with Poland who after the brief spell of Kaczynski’s government and its anti-EU agenda is now an enthusiastic supporter of an ever-closer integration. A country at the heart of Europe, such as the Czech Republic, can ill afford the luxury of remaining outside of European integration.
Rather than throwing periodical tantrums, it would be far more productive in the long-run to foster genuine debate about how to maximize the benefits of the country’s EU membership. The arrival of the new Czech president will in many ways herald a return to normalcy in the country’s relations with Brussels. An opportunity that should not go to waste.
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