The Czech Republic’s fractious politics hold a lesson for Europe

The Czech Republic’s fractious politics hold a lesson for Europe

The Czech Republic in 2018 stands at a dividing line in Europe, pitting the older established members of the EU such as France and Germany against the newer former Warsaw Pact members that are still struggling to wane themselves off Russian influence and find their place in 21st century Europe.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis lost a confidence vote on 16 January, signaling the demise of his short-lived minority government. With his resignation, the future of Czech politics is now in the hands of President Zeman, a populist who is close to Russia and harbors what his critics call xenophobic views.

Political uncertainty plays into Moscow’s hands

Zeman won reelection on 27 January with 51.4 percent of the vote, while his opponent, academic Jiri Drahos, received 48.6 percent of the vote: a very close tally, but one that is already being billed as a win for populism and pro-Russian forces in Central Europe. Zeman was formerly a left-wing prime minister, and aged 73, has claimed this to be his ‘last political victory’, as he is limited by the Czech constitution to two terms. The post of president is ceremonial but incredibly important, as Zeman can appoint judges to the Constitutional Court, name the prime minister, and sign bills into law. He has already wielded considerable contrarian influence, being one of the few European heads of state to endorse Donald Trump’s bid for President, and making overtures to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping of China while proposing a referendum on EU membership.

Babis’ ANO party first gained support by campaigning against corruption and the EU’s migrant quotas, a popular stance in Central Europe which has united the Visegrad Four (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) against Brussels and the open-door policy of Angela Merkel in Germany. However, Babis has faced his own allegations of corruption and misuse of funds coming from an EU subsidy program when he was a private businessman and the Czech Republic’s second-richest person. He has now lost considerable support, has been stripped of his immunity, and the Czech Republic’s current stalemate threatens to further divide the country from Brussels and the European establishment, with Moscow keen to reap the benefits of this uncertainty.

Is Central Europe drifting away from EU values?

This latest news from the Czech Republic confirms a worrying trend for European politics in the coming year, as populist and anti-immigration forces unite against perceived injustices and interference from the establishment pro-Europe camp in Brussels.

While the Franco-German alliance is strong, the alliance amongst Central European nations is equally so, and the political climate in the Czech Republic, as well as in Hungary, Poland, and recently Austria, has compounded the risk of far-right and populist forces gaining positions of power and seeking to exploit existing divisions within the eurozone. The risks of democratic backsliding and efforts to muzzle an independent media and the judiciary remain high in Central Europe.

Recent developments from the Czech Republic also point to the risk of European parties and political leaders coming under Russian influence. Consequences may include not toeing the EU line when it comes to sanctions against Russia’s aggressive actions in eastern Ukraine, or subscribing to migrant quotas in the name of solidarity with other EU states. One of the main campaign issues of the presidential election was migration policy, and like a number of other Western nations, the Czech Republic has fallen victim to disinformation campaigns or as some would call them, ‘fake news’ related to this contentious issue.

The EU’s refugee resettlement scheme was opposed by both contenders. This signals a dramatic shift to the right in the Czech Republic, which is grappling with a fundamental identity crisis that has gripped Hungary and Poland over the course of the past year, namely over religion, assimilation, and what those factors mean for the future of their respective nations.

In short, the recent vote in the Czech Republic highlights the risks and the presence of strong Eurosceptic and populist forces amongst the EU’s less established and less robust democratic members. There are even more significant elections facing European voters in 2018, namely in Italy, that could produce populist, euro-sceptic governing coalitions in more established, founding member states of the European Union.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.