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Czech Press Hails E.U. Referendum

Andrew Yurkovsky, World Press Review senior editor, June 26, 2003

Thousands of Prague residents celebrated the June 14 annoucement that Czechs had voted to join the European Union
The Ayes Have It: Thousands celebrate in Prague after Czechs voted by a 77-percent margin to endorse their country's entry into the European Union (Photo: Michal Ruzicka/AFP-Getty Images).
In a referendum that was widely viewed as a confidence vote in the government, Czechs overwhelmingly endorsed their country’s membership in the European Union at the polls on June 13-14. The ruling Social Democrats, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, had staked their future on a yes vote, but except for the Communist Party (KSCM), every other major party had also supported E.U. membership. President Vaclav Klaus, a long-time Euro-skeptic, refused to offer voters any guidance, declining even to reveal how he would vote. Commentators from across the political spectrum were quick to remark on the remaining struggles facing the Spidla government and the Czech people. At the same time, observers attempted to use the vote to gauge the relative strength of the country’s political forces.

More than 77 percent of those who cast ballots supported E.U. accession. Turnout for the referendum, the country’s first, was 55.2 percent. Pollsters were surprised by the large proportion of yes votes among retired people and the great number of improperly completed ballots (over 100,000), according to the independent Lidove Noviny (June 16). Political scientist Bohumil Dolezal, writing in the independent Mlada Fronta Dnes (June 16), favorably compared the Czech vote to similar referendums in other Visegrad countries—Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. The turnout was only slightly lower than in Poland, were participation was 58.9 percent. Support for the E.U. was highest in Lithuania and Slovenia, at 91 and 89.6 percent, respectively.

“The referendum results should be regarded with satisfaction but with caution,” wrote Dolezal. “They are entirely in keeping with those of the other Visegrad countries. Such referendums turned out much better only in Slovenia, which was not a part of the Russian camp, and in Lithuania, which the Russians had completely annexed.”

The weekly Respekt (June 16) captured the Czechs’ guarded enthusiasm with the following headline: “77 Percent of Nobel Prize Laureates for Skepticism Say ‘Yes’ to Europe.” Alexandr Mitrofanov of the left-wing Pravo expressed satisfaction with the democratic process (June 16). “First, a nod to old age,” wrote Mitrofanov. “Polls showed that people over 60 cast the most votes for the European Union. They outdistanced even those between the ages of 18-29. Fears regarding the older generation were unnecessary. For the first time, politicians have not decided our fate. Every one of us had a choice of deciding whether we joined by tipping the scales in one direction. It’s worth repeating this because up to now, a person has had few opportunities to get something positive from a political event. The referendum marks a break with that tradition.”

In a commentary in the June 17 issue of Mlada Fronta Dnes headlined “Unified Nation,” Tomas Sedlacek sounded an equally upbeat note: “This nation, despite the bad Euro mood among members of two political parties and the republic’s president, issued a positive, unambiguous, and surprisingly unified decision in favor of the E.U. No group of citizens, with the exception of KSCM voters, gave into the populist threats of loss of sovereignty or national identity, and the whole nation—regardless of age, level of education, region, or political affiliation—voted the same. And we can be proud of that positive unity.”

Regarding the Czech Republic’s future in a united Europe, most commentators saw benefits rather than disadvantages. Respekt’s Erik Tabery dismissed the danger that decision-making would shift to Brussels. “Czechs gain a unique, historic chance to share in the decision-making for all of Europe. It depends on them what shape they want to give the continent. Will we support Turkey’s accession [to the E.U.]? Where will our representatives stand regarding agricultural subsidies, which eliminate competition from poor countries and consume 30 percent of the European budget? Should we gather money for stockbreeders instead of giving it to education and science? It will be an interesting and open debate; it will be an interesting and open world.”

In a similar vein, Pravo’s Jiri Hanak wrote (June 16): “For 150 years of its modern existence, the Czech nation has been a football between Germany and Russia. For 150 years, Czech political leaders tried to solve this problem. [Frantisek] Palacky saw hope in the multinational Austrian monarchy; [Tomas] Masaryk saw it in the democratic West. [Edvard] Benes staked his bet on communist Russia. None of these efforts were successful. They couldn’t succeed in a Europe filled with selfish, powerful forms of sovereignty, flourishing nationalism, and racial and class dictatorship. By our own choice, on Saturday, June 14, we definitively became members of the European Union, a community of states, each of which voluntarily gives up a portion of its sovereignty for the sake of mutual solidarity, prosperity, and freedom. There, nationalism is regarded as a tasteless and dangerous illness. Do I think that entry into the E.U. would definitively solve this age-old problem? I would be cautious, but so far no one anywhere has ever thought up, or even realized, anything more security-enhancing than the maximal integration of Europe.”

Yet in the same paper the same day, Martin Hekrdla foresaw a continuation of the existing division between European haves and have-nots: “For a long time, European society has not been divided into individual national ‘camps’ but two different societies: a global and mobile elite, which comfortably circulates in a broader world for work and happiness, and frequently unemployed service workers, who are tied to their region….The distance between these two categories of people now extends to the wider marketplace and, at this historic moment, it will be further extended. Our society is still unaware of this; otherwise the yes vote wouldn’t have been almost identical in the city and countryside, among businessmen and pensioners.”

The referendum may have represented an important test for the government, but Prime Minister Spidla was setting himself a new challenge even before the votes had been tallied. In an interview with Pravo (June 14), Spidla said the Cabinet would resign if the legislature rejected the government’s plans for finance reforms. Lidove Noviny’s Jana Bendova, noted (June 16) that the referendum gave the government a boost of self-confidence while depriving it of a rallying point for distinguishing itself from the opposition. “The victims are being laid on the altar of victory,” Bendova wrote. “Euro-Spidla is happy, while the domestic Spidla frowns. Public-finance reform awaits the government. Defeat on this score, despite the current victory, will put the government in its place.…Vladimir Spidla has closed his first year of muddling through with fireworks. The second calendar year begins with problems: finance reform and strikes. If it is successful, the government awaits a third year: We enter the E.U., and every difficulty from Brussels, every more-expensive cup of yogurt and pair of pants will be Spidla’s fault. Only then will the government and the prime minister take their final exams.”

On June 16, Pravo quoted a statement by Klaus on the referendum’s import, in which the president identified the same domestic issues that Spidla had remarked upon only days before: “There wasn’t and there isn’t a threat, either before or after the referendum, that our problems would be solved for us, as, unfortunately, some people promised in the dramatic pre-referendum tumult. The referendum hasn’t freed us from our domestic, internal political problems regarding state finances, pension reform, healthcare, education, the military, and I don’t know what else.”

The KSCM’s stand against the E.U., according to Respekt’s Erik Tabery, should benefit the Social Democrats’ standing. “The main argument against cooperation with the KSCM is its complete rejection of integration, which is the main goal of the Social Democrats.” Tabery, however, saw Mirek Topolanek’s center-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS) as a possible threat to the current government coalition, which comprises the Social Democrats, the Freedom Union-Democratic Union, and the Christian Democratic Union-Czechoslovak People’s Party. “If the governing parties hold together, they ought to realize that the ODS is a potential victor in the next elections,” wrote Tabery.

But then again, Tabery noted, the ODS has its own problems with internal dissent: Two ministers in the ODS shadow cabinet—Ivan Langer and Martin Riman—declared before the referendum that they opposed E.U. membership. “Would [Topolanek] behave in such a liberal manner if one of his deputies, in defiance of the party line, made a statement in support of tax hikes? And yet the question of E.U. membership is much more basic. Langer (Interior Ministry) and Riman (Transportation Ministry) could in time move from the shadows to real departments. A government mixed up with such conceptually contradictory and independent persons—tolerated, no less, by their leader—would be a much less functional conglomeration than the current coalition.”

Dolezal, in Mlada Fronta Dnes, offered an explanation for the cautious referendum tack of the ODS and Klaus: “Until the last minute, the president and the ODS attempted to preserve an aloofness. Clearly they did not want to take second place to the coalition and sought a free hand to clobber it in case of a bad result.” In the same paper, on June 17, Martin Komarek went further, criticizing Klaus for failing to take a clear stand on the referendum: “[The 77-percent yes vote] not just outflanked but overwhelmed him. So much so that he couldn’t find the strength to thank the people for their decision…. It’s clear, however, that a person who cannot in some way stand with his fellow citizens at the moment of such a fundamental decision has failed at being a president.”

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