Petr Uhl: British Tories and the Czech ODS are two Trojan horses inside the EU
The European Union should change. The form of that change, however, will now be the subject of much discussion, as there are very different ideas for it being proposed.
One of the basic disputes will be over whether the Union should be loosened or whether it should go the way of federalization. As part of the Czech Republic's request to enter the European Union, then-Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus submitted a solemn declaration, called a memorandum, to the Council of the EU at its Rome meeting in January 1996 on behalf of the Czech Government.
According to that memorandum, the Czech Government acknowledged the "benefit and the irreversibility of the process of European integration, [...]which has guaranteed the citizens of the Member States correct international relations, economic prosperity, peace, political stability, and unheard-of freedom for many decades." The coalition government of Christian Democrats, Civic Democrats (ODS) and the ODA (which back then was even more right-wing than the ODS) honorably acknowledged their Eastern European doubts, stating that, "After our recent resumption of full state sovereignty it was not easy to accept the idea that it will be necessary to abandon that sovereignty in certain areas."
The Klaus cabinet, however, bravely came to the conclusion "that in the development of modern Europe, the exchange of part of our own state sovereignty in return for co-responsibility and shared participation in supra-state sovereignty is unavoidable for the benefit of our own country and for all of Europe." Those were the gründer (founding) days, or in American terms the "pioneer" days, in the sense of the white Protestant men who colonized the Wild West in the 19th century.
The men here were strong guys too, but the state had been significantly weakened in its international relations by the division of Czechoslovakia. Czech society nervously sought a moral anchor through the simple exchange of tokens with its allies - previously this had been with the USSR, the Warsaw Pact, and Comecon, now it would be with the USA, NATO and the EU - and also sought a change of values.
Previously the values had been obedience to the party state and order. Now the values were the rights of those who are fiercer and stronger to an unregulated freedom.
Neoliberalism is not determinative in the EU
The EU today stands for the same principles it did back then. While asocial, neoliberal approaches do arise within it, they are not determinative.
Such approaches are frequently rejected by the two strongest groups of MEPs (factions) at the European Parliament (i.e., the Christian Democrats and the Socialists), while the Greens reject them consistently. In other words, it is not the European Union that has changed in all this time, but the ODS that has changed.
Václav Klaus has changed even more. Today, even without Klaus, the ODS is not just a Euro-critical and nationalist party, it is all but an anti-EU one.
The party underwent a significant political turning point after the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 and 2009. Up until the treaty was signed in December 2007 by Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, neither the Czech Republic nor the ODS had tried to throw any pitchforks at the deal, even though the apparent, declared purpose of the treaty was to intensify EU integration, i.e., to constantly increase the proportion of EU sovereignty at the expense of state sovereignty.
The Czech Republic, especially Czech President Klaus, began to cause difficulties for that process during 2008 and 2009. The primary stream of anti-integration attitudes in the EU, however, came from the Tories, the British Conservative Party.
Frequently, in a milder form, the British Labour Party would join that stream of thought, but from an opposite position to that of the Conservatives, namely, rebuking the EU (partially correctly) for being too asocial and capitalist. However, if the EU rules had not been in place, the capitalists would have been skinning people alive, at least in the eastern part of Europe, where trade unions don't work very well, nor do other mechanisms of civil society.
Resistance to a common Europe from the left, as we know it from the positions taken by current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, continues to this day, of course. When Prime Minister Tony Blair was in office (1997-2007), the British Labour Party fell seriously ill with Conservative ideology, including the notions of British exceptionalism, the privatization of everything under the sun, and tightening the social screws.
Of course, most of British society is not comprised of rabble-rousers on the EU issue, not even in the English countryside, or London, or the big English cities, to say nothing of Northern Ireland or Scotland. I know this because in 1998 I was in England serving the United Nations for a week during an inspection visit.
We were there to ascertain whether and why (from a legal standpoint) and also how (from the perspective of Britain's international obligations) the authorities were imprisoning asylum-seekers. Back then this was a problem in only two countries in Europe: Great Britain and Romania.
The bureaucrats and police officers there did their best to deceive us, and the judges spoke evasively. During two meetings of several hours each with people from civic associations, however, I came to understand that there exists a different Britain and England that is the opposite of the Britain of the Conservative Party and of Tony Blair.
The civic activists and lawyers back then were calling for Britain to adopt a Constitution (which it still doesn't have) in order to better protect human rights there. They also expressed themselves in favor of overturning the monarchy and against what remains of feudalism, the majority-rule electoral system, and the two-party system.
Some even questioned the market economy, i.e., capitalism. As these post-referendum days are now showing us, even today most of British society is not actually in favor of the UK leaving the EU.
The close results of the referendum were the result of dismal social conditions there, and most of all, the result of a media and political campaign full of demagoguery and lies. Generally speaking, those lies are considered to have been more frequently presented by adherents of leaving the EU than they were by those advocating for the UK to remain.
The role of the British in the EU
In 2007, when it was still possible to change the text of the Lisbon Treaty before signing it, the Czech Government merely advocated for Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and the blue flag with the golden stars, previously the official flag of the European Community, not to become the EU's anthem and flag (even though they are commonly used as such). The British advocacy was of an entirely different magnitude - together with the Danes, they had been putting the brakes on the developmental and integrational intensification of the EU since it was the European Community, even before the Maastricht Treaty of 1992.
There are not many Danes in Europe, but Great Britain had to be not only carefully listened to, but accommodated. That is why the UK managed to force the EU to introduce mechanisms for altering its own rules, for creating optionalities, a system of exceptions, diversions, the principle of voluntary compliance - and uncertainty.
The strongest interventions pushed through by the UK in the EU were its rejection of the Schengen common border area, rejection of the common currency (the Euro), and rejection of stronger protections for social rights - mainly collective ones, but also individual ones. In other EU countries these British tendencies did not prevail to the same degree.
These tendencies were much stronger, however (and still are) in the Czech Republic, which for nationalist (sovereignist) reasons has foolishly rejected and continues to reject the Euro even though, unlike Great Britain, the Czech Republic first pledged to join it. Unline the gentlemanly British, however, the Czechs address the issue by simply not upholding the treaties they sign or the obligations flowing from them, since the EU has weak compliance and enforcement instruments.
We in the Czech Republic lament even more loudly here now the fact that "we" did not negotiate even more EU exceptions for ourselves back then. The usefulness of the EU is measured here through the "national interest", which according to the ODS (and frequently according to the Czech Social Democrats as well) does not consist of political integration or of a common, gradually shared policy on agriculture, civil and criminal law, energy, the environment, fiscal matters, transportation or primarily defense and foreign affairs, and certainly does not consist of protecting human rights or of solidarity inside the EU and solidarity with the rest of the world.
That is how the usefulness of the EU is seen by its own bodies and in other countries. In the Czech Republic, though, its usefulness is mainly about the amount of material advantages and money that can be milked from the EU cow.
The nationalist vocabulary was taken up by ODS and after them, by other political forces from the European ultra-right. Even in the Visegrad group, Prague is now supporting conservative, dark forces, an anti-democratic and nationalist position that makes today's V4 represent, in my opinion, the most reactionary inter-state political group inside the EU.
What to do after Brexit
With urgency in his voice, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico of the (allegedly) Social Democratic "Směr" party has now called for a change of policy in the European Union. In his view, the change must be a fundamental one.
Many European politicians agree with him. What kind of change is being sought?
The ultra-right, which of course does not include conservative forces of the type of the German Christian Democratic Union, but does include the more aggressive segment of the Czech ODS, has a clear prescription: Relax the Union, regulate less, boost competition and flexibility (those are what they see as the main issues), weaken regulations and absolutely abandon any attempts at federalization. That is the permanent program aiming at transforming the EU into a free association in a common market deprived of "human rights-ism", "NGO-ism", and all of the "icing on the cake", as Klaus calls protecting the environment and human rights.
The short-term aim, after Brexit, is now to weaken the EU for as long as possible and as much as possible by keeping Great Britain part of EU relations, structures and treaties. For 25 years, the British have been quite useful as a break on EU integration, so we'll let them remain for some time, not just the two years that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty unclearly mentions, but even longer - maybe 10 years, I heard from one economist.
That is also why most western politicians in the Eurozone are insisting on Great Britain's rapid departure now. The British voters' decision will introduce many difficulties and weaken the EU, but for many advocates of federalization, it is actually a relief.
Four factions at the European Parliament - Christian Democrats, Greens, Liberals and Socialists - in which 70 % of all MEPs are associated have proposed a resolution through which the EP will call on the UK to finally and formally announce its departure from the EU. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and other European politicians have also immediately emphasized that the informal agreement concluded this year by the Council of the EU with David Cameron naturally no longer applies.
That agreement has now been abolished by the results of the British referendum. That same day, as a Czech citizen, I suffered a real shock when I saw what Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said about the referendum results on television.
Sobotka literally bragged that it was precisely he who had coordinated that debate among approximately 10 Member States that resulted in concluding that agreement with Cameron. It was a shameful agreement that contravened all the basic principles of hte EU and apparently could never have been upheld by any EU bodies, i.e., not by the Commission and mainly not by the European Parliament.
It is good that the British referendum means that agreement has fallen through, as the Council of the EU, representing the Member States, merely attempted a move of capitulation through it. Czech Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek, Prime Minister Sobotka, and even the Czech member of the European Commission, Věra Jourová, have now all publicly said today that there is plenty of time, that it is up to the British to announce when the UK will leave the EU, and that it won't harm anything to wait.
These Czechs, however, are a minority at the EU, as they have been for years. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has more than one interpretation.
The EU actually needs reform, but it needs the opposite reform to the one that has been advocated by the Tories, by the ODS along those lines, and by the ultra-right, the opposite of the reform co-created by the Czech Government when it established the detention (capture) centers for foreign nationals that have been so promoted by Czech Interior Minister Milan "Gotcha" Chovanec, or by building fences of barbed wire and setting up roadblocks at the border with Macedonia and elsewhere, or by vetoing all proposals for the redistribution of refugees among the Member States. Yes, the European Union definitely must change.
More democracy cannot be arranged, and a feeling of civic solidarity with the EU cannot be prompted by our continuing to base EU policy on this undignified horse-trading that makes it possible for each state - i.e., not for its citizens, but for whoever is momentarily governing - to arbitrarily choose what it wants to allow or not in the "national" interest. For example, whether to reject immigrants or reject the redistribution of asylum-seekers, whether to choose among them according to their (alleged) religious beliefs, like the Czech Republic and Slovakia have done, whether to restrict women's rights (like in Poland), whether to cut back democratic rights (like in Hungary) and the court guarantees of freedoms and rights (like Hungary and Poland), whether to reject, in the interests of the armaments and hunting lobby, tightening regulations for access to assault weapons (the recent position of the Czech Republic on this issue at a time when we are repressing terrorism was especially arrogant), and so forth and so on.
The basic choice, however, is this: We need, both Czech and European society need, more Europe, not less. State sovereignty (or in the right-wing vocabulary, national sovereignty) must gradually weaken, and not just to the benefit of EU bodies, but also to the benefit of municipal and regional self-administrations, i.e., to the benefit of the sovereignty of the citizen and the emancipation of each human being - that is the main aim of all political efforts.
The road to that is through a federal Europe. A United States of Europe, as Winston Churchill called for after the war.
Reprinted in translation with the kind permission of the author. First published on news server DeníkReferendum.cz.
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