Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on the Czech Republic.
The Czech Republic has a small, open economy; its main trading partner is Germany; and it is desperately seeking to diversify its export markets. This description would naturally lead to the conclusion that foreign policy should be one of the priorities of any Czech government.
But since the country entered the European Union in 2004 (and NATO five years earlier), and since the death in 2011 of former president Václav Havel, one of the world’s most respected politicians of the modern era, Czech foreign policy has lost its importance. In fact, even in the past, foreign policy has never been among the top five priorities of any governing coalition.
And now, there are ever-stronger attempts to narrow the scope of foreign policy and make it mainly a trade tool—a trend that can be witnessed in Hungary. Indeed, the Czech Republic’s foreign policy ambitions are almost nonexistent, scoring only 0.5 out of 5. For a country with an open, export-driven economy, this is a sad but realistic assessment.
Prague’s low level of ambition is due not only to a general lack of strategic thinking, which is hardly a specifically Czech weakness among European countries. Czech indifference is also due to nonexistent long-term policy visions on both the domestic and the external fronts.
In addition, there is a strongly rooted feeling that other EU members are opposed to taking Czech opinions into consideration when formulating common European policies. This belief may have long historical roots going back to the 1938 Munich Agreement, which allowed Nazi Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia, preventing a well-prepared and equipped country from defending itself.
That experience could account for the broader Czech attitude toward the EU and the wider world. During the interwar period, Czechoslovakia was one of the top 20 world economies and the last island of democracy facing Nazi aggression in Central Europe. Therefore, the Czechs—unlike the Poles or Balts—consider themselves a natural part of the Western world and do not feel the need to proclaim themselves Euro-optimists, even as they enjoy the fruits of European integration.
Foreign policy has never been among the top 5 priorities of any #Czech government.Tweet This
The Czech Republic’s lack of self-confidence and a general crisis of political leadership further contribute to the country’s stance on foreign policy questions. Those questions are handled by a very narrow political and academic elite concentrated in Prague. Decisions made by the elite are presented as if they were a common Czech view, which is often not the case.
For example, Prague’s traditionally robust approach to defending human rights, which developed thanks to Havel’s work and legacy, is not widely shared by the population. This disparity may partly explain the result of the country’s first direct presidential election in January 2013. Former foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, the living symbol of the country’s human rights policy, was defeated by the populist Miloš Zeman, who is now very sympathetic toward the Russian and Chinese regimes.
There is a tradition that Czech foreign policy has at least three centers of gravity—the president, the prime minister, and the foreign minister.
The Ukraine crisis is a good illustration of this: the Czech Republic has a pro-Russian president, a mild prime minister, and a relatively hawkish minister of foreign affairs. Czechs themselves do not feel threatened by the crisis, even though the Czech Republic has the biggest Ukrainian minority of all EU member states. And the Czech Republic has no external EU or NATO border (neutral Austria is considered a de facto member of the transatlantic alliance).
The current president is openly and loudly anti-Islamic, which is causing trouble for Czech trade relations with Arab countries, for example when the government attempts to open new markets in the region.
By contrast, the office of prime minister has since February 2014 become a focal point for Czech relations with the EU, in an attempt to repair the damage done by years of Euroskeptic (or rather, “Euro-ignorant”) governments. Those previous administrations had no systematic approach toward common European issues like future EU enlargement, relations with Eastern neighbors, or transatlantic trade.
#Czech foreign policy has a long tendency toward being the black sheep in the European family.Tweet This
In Czech foreign policy, there has been a long tendency toward being the black sheep in the European family. For a long time, the country’s EU debate was dominated by Václav Klaus, a Euroskeptic former prime minister and later president. Outside observers could easily get the impression that all Czechs were Euroskeptics. The real problem was that on the domestic scene, there was no pro-European counterbalance to Klaus.
The results of the Czech approach to European issues are well portrayed in a study by the Association of International Affairs, a think tank. The 2013 edition of its “Trends of Czech European Policy” report, based on research conducted among elites, concluded that “the Czech Republic is not capable of either formulating or asserting its interests in the EU. However, [the elites] expect an improvement in this situation over the next ten years.” Not surprisingly, the main benefit of EU membership is considered to be access to the union’s single market.
Czech Euroskeptic elites feel they have a lot in common on European issues with the Brits—such as a sense of splendid isolation. But for the Czech Republic, that isolation is self-proclaimed, the result of weak leadership and a decades-long lack of political vision. It will take a significant effort for Prague to raise its foreign policy game.
Martin Ehl is a journalist for Hospodářské noviny, a Czech daily.