The Czech Republic keeps an eye on Eastern Europe

Vít Beneš

Further EU enlargement has been a long-term priority of the Czech Republic and a steady ingredient of Czech European policy.[1] In the past years, Czech diplomacy invested a good deal of political capital in the enlargement cause, trying to repulse the critique of the “enlargement-sceptical” governments. The Czech political elites tacitly agree on the merits of the EU enlargement in general. On the other hand, disputes arise when individual countries are being discussed. In fact, consensus is limited to the support of the Balkan countries’ membership.[2] The negotiations with Croatia are unanimously supported by all political players. Even though the support for EU enlargement was not a topic of strong proclamations by the Czech political representation, Czech diplomacy continuously expressed its support.[3] Croatia’s case is also unproblematic due to the popularity of the country as a tourist destination among the Czech population.
Other Balkan countries are subsumed under a general priority in the EU enlargement to the Balkans. Individual actors rarely express preferences regarding individual countries. The key political actors and experts do not seem to prioritise one Balkan country over another. Everybody acknowledges that Croatia will enter the EU separately, but other Balkan countries are expected to join the EU within a short time span or as a group. All Balkan countries are expected to join the EU in a mid-term perspective. At this time, the focus is on keeping the enlargement agenda alive so that the individual countries can enter the EU depending on their merits.
On the other hand, Turkey is clearly a particular case. On the political level, Turkey’s accession is being discussed separately and more intensely, and the issue is controversial. The Czech Republic officially supports the accession of Turkey into the EU once all its entry conditions are met. The accession of Turkey into the EU is vocally supported by the Czech President.[4] Most parties either openly support the prospect of full membership or at least favour the continuation of negotiations.[5] The arguments voiced in the current debate often start with the observation that the suspension of talks by the EU would harm the reputation of the EU. Turkey is seen by supporters of its EU accession as an important partner in strengthening the EU’s energy security or as an important asset for the EU as a global political actor. On the other hand, the opponents of Turkish membership (the Christian Democrats – KDU-ČSL – and other, smaller parties including Public Affairs – VV)[6] point to the cultural and civilisational differences (“non-Europeaness”) of Turkey. Even though these parties are marginal on the political scene, their positions echo the attitudes of the silent majority of Czech citizens which oppose Turkey’s EU membership. According to a 2007 poll, 57 percent were against Turkey’s membership and only 27 percent were in favour of it.[7] Even though there are no newer opinion polls, we assume that this negative attitude persists.
In the examined period, the prospect of Iceland’s accession into the EU has been discussed by the media and think tanks in the wake of Iceland’s bid to join the EU. Since Iceland is a developed West European country, and there are no negative feelings towards it, the prospect of its membership is almost unequivocally accepted by all relevant actors. Czech political parties are ready to come up with innovative ideas when it comes to EU enlargement. For example, the right-wing parties seem to support the idea that, in the long-term period, Israel also should belong in the EU. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, communists dream about an EU “from Vancouver to Vancouver”.[8]
Most of the Czech political parties officially support further EU enlargement in their programme documents.[9] Nevertheless, the issue of EU enlargement was not present in the election campaign. The same can be said about public attitudes: the Czech population supports further EU enlargement – according to the last Eurobarometer (Autumn 2009), 63 percent of Czech citizens support further EU enlargement while 31 percent oppose the policy, the Eurobarometer even recorded an increase in support.[10] On the other hand, support for further EU enlargement has not been manifested in public discussions.
In late 2009, the Czech Štefan Füle became Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy.[11] This appointment has been welcomed by all political actors as a natural expression of the Czech Republic’s long-term interests in EU enlargement. Even though the daily activity of the European Commission is somehow remote to the Czech media, they continue reporting the steps taken by Commissioner Füle.[12] Nevertheless, the issue of EU enlargement has been sidelined by the Greek crisis and the subsequent discussion about the fate of the Eurozone. EU enlargement as such or the prospects of individual candidate countries have not been discussed in the public debate and thus we have recorded no shifts in the positions of relevant actors.
With regard to the eastern dimension of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), we may argue that it consumed some of the energy and attention previously devoted to enlargement. Czech diplomats participated in several activities (seminars, forums) devoted to the Eastern Partnership.[13] The diplomacy of Mirek Topolánek’s government focused its attention on the east, as it concentrated on fomenting a strong European position towards Russia on energy and other issues and towards the eastern neighbourhood in general. Fischer’s government (in power since mid-2009) kept the focus on the Eastern Partnership, even though the discourse has somehow changed.
Originally, the Eastern Partnership was perceived as a counterbalance to France’s Union for the Mediterranean,[14] which would ensure the EU’s attention and presence in the region of Eastern Europe in times of more assertive Russian foreign policy. In the first half of 2010, the Czech discourse changed a bit; for example, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Kohout and his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, stressed in a joint article that the Eastern Partnership is not a private club and that third countries like Russia and Turkey are most welcome to participate in it.[15]

Even though Czech political parties differ in their assessments of Russia and its foreign policy, the Eastern Partnership is unequivocally assessed positively.[16] There is a consensus among Czech politicians, the media and analysts that the initiative represents one of the successes of last year’s Czech EU Presidency. On the other hand, the Eastern Partnership remains an “expert-driven” policy. As far as we can judge from the Czech media, the general public remains disinterested and uninformed in regard to it. In contrast to Poland, Czech society does not feel any deep emotional attachment to the region. As a consequence, the political parties rarely mention the Eastern Partnership as such in their electoral programmes, let alone in their election campaigns. The Eastern Partnership remains a domain of some party experts (the initiative fits into broader concerns over containing Russia and spreading democracy), professional diplomats and academics. While EU enlargement represents a tangible and understandable policy for the ordinary citizen, public awareness of the Eastern Partnership seems to be relatively low. The Union for the Mediterranean is not discussed in the media at all and it receives only limited (if any) attention from political parties, experts and academics.

[1] See, e.g., Beneš, Vít: A cherished child left out in the cold: the Czech Republic and her enlargement priority, in: Drulák, P./Šabič, Z. (eds.): The Czech and Slovenian EU presidencies in a comparative perspective, Dordrecht: Republic of Letters, 2010 in print.

[2] Balkán do EU patří, shodují se politické strany [Political parties agree: the Balkans belong in the EU], 29 April 2010, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[3] Government of the Czech Republic: J. Chmiel se setkal s chorvatským vyjednavačem pro vstup do EU [J. Chmiel met with the Croatian negotiator], 29 March 2010, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010); Czech Social Democratic Party: ČSSD usiluje o co nejrychlejší vstup Chorvatska do EU [Social Democrats support a speedy entrance of Croatia into the EU], 17 May 2010, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[4] Czech Television: Klaus a řecký prezident se shodli na rozšiřování EU i o Turecko [Klaus and the Greek president agreed on the EU enlargement including Turkey], 2 December 2009, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[5] Eurozprá Srovnání programů politických stran v neekonomických tématech [A comparison of the party programmes in non-economic areas], 6 May 2010, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[6] Lidovci, Zemanovci a Věci veřejné nechtějí Turecko v Evropské unii [The Christian Democrats, Zeman’s Party and Public Affairs do not want Turkey in the European Union], 25 April 2010, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[7] Public Opinion Research Centre: Postoje českých občanů k Evropské unii a jejímu rozšiřování [The attitudes of the Czech citizens towards the EU and its enlargement], 21 February 2007, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[8] Balkán do EU patří, shodují se politické strany [The Balkans fits into the EU, political parties agree], 29 April 2010, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[9] Czech Social Democratic Party: Zahraniční politika [Foreign policy], Lubomír Zaorálek, shadow minister of foreign affairs, 30 January 2010, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010); Civic Democratic Party: Podrobný volební program [Detailed election programme], available at: (last access: 24 June 2010); Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09: Zahraniční politika [Foreign Policy], Election programme 2010, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[10] Standard Eurobarometer 72, December 2009, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[11] Czech News Agency: Czech Fuele to be EU commissioner for enlargement, 27 November 2009, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[12] Czech News Agency: Czech press survey - November 28, 28 November 2009, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[13] Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Czech-Slovak Forum on the Eastern Policy, 18 January 2010, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010); Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Minister Kohout opened a seminar on Eastern Partnership in Madrid, 27 January 2010, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[14] Týden: EU: nadšení i zdrženlivost ohledně Unie pro Středomoří [EU: Enthusiasm and restraint regarding the Union for the Mediterranean], 14 March 2008, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[15] Westerwelle, Guido/Kohout, Jan: Joint article on the European Union’s Eastern Partnership by Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic Jan Kohout, Financial Times Deutschland, 4 March 2010, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010).

[16] See, e.g., Government of the Czech Republic: Achievements of the Czech Presidency: Europe without Barriers, September 2009, available at: (last access: 24 June 2010); Král, David/Bartovic, Vladimír/Řiháčková, Věra: The 2009 Czech EU Presidency: Contested Leadership at a Time of Crisis, Stockholm: Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies, 2009.