Softs remain soft…and attractive; Czech Soft Eurosceptic parties in the run-up to the 2017 parliamentary elections

Vít Hloušek and Petr Kaniok

What a political party thinks about the European integration hardly matters in election campaigns. Such statements has always been an idiom even for Czech party politics where EU issues always been, for several reasons, more salient than, for example, in Slovakia. This year’s parliamentary election, and the campaign leading up to them, confirms this once again. This does not, however, mean that EU politics and policies have not played any role. Recent developments in the EU involving a variety of crisis have particularly fuelled Eurosceptic streams. In this piece we review the ‘Soft’ ones – placing them in the context of established pro-European parties.

The first usual suspect, of course, represents they Civic Democrats (ODS). They did their traditional Soft Eurosceptic homework by drafting the paper A Strong Czechia in Europe of the 21st Century in April 2017. Here, there was a clear link going back to the 16-year-old Manifesto of the Czech Eurorealism which is hardly surprising given the fact that both of these papers were co-authored by Civic Democratic MEP Jan Zahradil. Both A Strong Czechia in Europe and the party’s election manifesto A Strong Program for a Strong Czechia discuss the EU’s situation as a crisis comprising migration, economics, security and trust. The Civic Democrats repeatedly stress that there is no other way than to remain an EU member but that the EU must be substantially transformed into a multi-speed Europe that would offer the Czechs the opportunity to participate only in what they want to without taking other obligations from other EU members. According to the Civic Democrats, the Czech authorities must “deny all legislation which contradicts Czech national interests, such as quotas for the refugees or regulation of the legal possession of weapons.” This approach, together with the promise to voters that the Civic Democrats, will negotiate an opt-out from the obligation to adopt the Euro are showing that the slogan of ‘Eurorealism’ hid a rather unrealistic treatment of any future Czech political representation’s bargaining potential is hidden. The Civic Democrats are offering detailed scheme of how to reform the EU demonstrating thereby that they are minor but still vital members of the European Conservatives and Reformists European Parliament (EP) grouping but they do not bother to assess feasibility of their proposals.

The second in the Soft Eurosceptic camp are, again not surprisingly, the Czech Communists (KSČM). Although the Communists have been previously labelled as Hard Eurosceptics, the scope and intensity of their critique towards the EU does not qualify them for this camp anymore. First, for example, the Communists´ interest in the EU affairs is remarkably lower than in the case of the Civic Democrats. To put it simply, the EU does not represent a policy of prominent interest for the Communists. It sometimes feels that the party mentions the EU in a critical tone because such a message, a very trivial one, is expected from its supporters. Particularly those core ones who still feel some sort of nostalgia for the “old times”. Hence, as in previous years, the Communists ritually called for “substantial institutional reform of the EU that would ensure equal position of EU Member states” or for “an increased role of the European Parliament as well as national parliaments at the expense of the influence of bureaucrats”. The Communists also criticized EU migration policy and rejected the “enforced quotas system”. This point, however, was perhaps the only innovation of the party´s approach towards the EU. The remaining slogans could be found in manifestos issued for all previous elections.

All the governmental parties are formally and rhetorically very much pro-EU. However, a detailed look suggests that words do not always match actions. A good example of this is Andrej Babiš’ Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) movement. Mr Babiš was “Rookie of the year” in the 2013 elections when his movement made a significant breakthrough. However in the run-up to the October 2017 poll no one was questioning whether ANO would win the election just how substantial its lead would be. The obvious superstar of the Czech party scene has developed into such a position due to a combination of Mr Babiš’s charisma, ANO’s strong presence in mainstream newspapers (owned, incidentally by Mr. Babiš) and dexterous populism; including the party’s policy towards the European integration.

As such, ANO is a movement that pays very limited attention to Brussels. The list of party statements and media appearances is long and contains hundreds of entries just for one calendar year, but entries on the EU are very rare and when they occur they quite sensitively follow what “the people” want to hear and what they currently associate the EU with. Such topics are particularly the money from the Structural Funds (which Mr Babiš and his team fight for) and refugees or security concerns (which Mr Babiš and his team will resolve).

Not surprisingly, this approach is very visible in the ANO 2017 election manifesto. Here EU affairs are discussed from the perspective of Czech interests. For example, ANO only agrees to the Czech Republic joining the Eurozone only after it has been substantially reformed. ANO also claims that immigration policy has to remain in hands of Member States. Even though ANO says that the Czech membership in the EU is a key principle of its policy, the EU is understood only as a utility to carry out Czech interests in a better way. ANO also suggests reform of the EU: “to do less and more effectively and only in these areas where the EU can bring added value”. This is quite an interesting approach for a party whose MEPs sit in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe EP grouping which has labelled itself as pro-European.

The Social Democrats are the party with the main share of responsibility for Czech EU policy – holding both the positions of Minister of Foreign Affairs and State Secretary for the EU Affairs maintained their official Europhile profile, rhetorically at least. The party´s manifesto, for example, advocated the Czech Republic being in the EU “core”, one speed European integration as well as calling for it to join the Eurozone. This clear profile was, however, problematized several times by key party politicians’ media appearance For example, in an interview for Austrian daily ‘Die Presse’, prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka claimed that “we do not want to have more Muslims in the Czech Republic” obviously addressing concerns about EU migration policy expressed by some parts of the Czech electorate.

The Christian Democratic electoral manifesto Responsibly for a Common Home is based on the metaphor of a common house for different generations of Czechs. This metaphor leaves only a little space for thorough discussions of the party’s EU policy. Moreover, the party treats the EU and its position on European integration as part of its foreign policy programme, more than 13 years after Czechia became an EU member. Both the party’s election manifesto and its long-term program adopted in May 2017, Basic Directions of the Policy of KDU-ČSL for the Period of 2017-2019 are rather vague. They express general support for the idea of European integration as the only tool for assuring peace and prosperity in Europe, but this is “compensated” for with references to Czech national interests and sovereignty and the necessity to reform the EU in order to achieve more subsidiarity.

The Christian Democrats highlight the EU as a community based on a common Christian heritage and values. This predestines their strong “no” to any vision of Turkish EU membership as well as the party’s attention to migration issues. Here, the Christian Democrats reject any permanent relocation mechanisms and focus on blocking the inflow of migrants and increasing the level of protection of the external Schengen borders. Currently, the Czech Christian Democrats are changing into a slightly more critical actor in terms of assessment of the current state of the EU. They highlight the principle of subsidiarity to give “a bigger space to decision-making at the national and regional levels” including the notion of flexible integration and the use of the “cards” mechanism more often.

The EU flag is hence only carried just by the TOP 09 party led by Miroslav Kalousek. Undoubtedly, Mr Kalousek’s party is the most enthusiastically pro-European party among the incumbents in the House of Deputies. In the 2017 campaign 2017, it starts already with the symbolical slogan of the campaign “nEUhneme” (We won´t move over) stressing the letter “E” and “U”. Its position towards the EU is discussed in the long-term program Successful Country – Resilient Society: Vision of the Czech Republic in 2030. It is a vision of the Europeanisation and modernisation of the Czech society fresher than the typical electoral manifesto yet less readable and emotionally catchy than Mr Babiš´s book dreaming about the future of the Czech Republic, as well as in its election manifesto of the same title.

The preamble of the programme summarizes the party’s policy on the EU issues concisely: “We are the part of the EU and we want to be its active and responsible member…We will decide (in the elections) … to remain a firm constituent of Western Europe or to become a periphery of the EU under still bigger Russian influence,” promises TOP 09. The EU is treated as the natural (and, together with NATO, the only) guarantee of Czech security. TOP 09 belongs (together with Greens) to the few parties that do not treat their EU policies as a part of their foreign policy agenda. “We are the EU” says the slogan: entering the Eurozone, turning to the core and mainstream of the integration process, maintaining close co-operation, including on migration issues, are the tools. TOP 09 is a straight pro-EU party, which agrees with the Czech mainstream (which is more openly or covertly Eurosceptic) only at one point, namely: rejection of any permanent mechanism relocating refugees among the EU member countries.

If we should sum up the role of EU for Soft Eurosceptics and pro-European parties, there would be three interesting points. Firstly, there has been quite remarkable stability in parties´ positions towards the EU. Neither earlier crisis as the Eurozone one, nor the newer EU troubles as Brexit or the refugee crisis, have changed parties´ approaches much. That means, we can hardly speak about any signs of a hardening of the Soft Eurosceptic family due to these multiple crisis. Secondly, the pro-EU camp seems to be very heterogeneous and flexible when it comes to borrowing metaphors and positions particularly from traditional Soft Eurosceptics. This is particularly the case of ANO, but we could identify this tendency also in Czech Communist rhetoric. The latter party in particular does not dare to, for example, call for a return of power back to national states and regions. What has been defined as Soft Euroscepticism does seem to keep its attractiveness and even increases it. These findings could suggest that there are much fewer differences between the Soft Eurosceptics and pro-European camp as it was assumed. Or, that there could be similar differences between the pro-EU parties in terms of their Soft and Hard positions as have been defined in the case of Eurosceptics.

Vít Hloušek (hlousek@fss.muni.cz) is Professor of European Politics at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Brno. His pedagogical research areas of specialization cover the contemporary history and comparative politics of Central-Eastern European countries with a special focus on Europeanisation of domestic party politics. His is the author of the books Origin, Ideology and Transformation of Political Parties. East-Central and Western Europe Compared (Routledge, with L. Kopecek) and Europeanised Defiance – Czech Euroscepticism since 2004 (Barbara Budrich Publishers, with P. Kaniok and V. Havlik), among others.

Petr Kaniok (kaniok@fss.muni.cz) works as Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Brno. He is interested in the political system of the European Union, European citizenship and the politics of CEE countries. Most recently, his work has been published by Journal of Contemporary European Research and East European Politics.

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