It is useful to divide the history of relations between the European Union and the Czech Republic (and previously with Czechoslovakia) into several periods. The first period was that of “courtship”, which lasted from 1989-1995, the second that of the accession process during 1995-2003, and the third that of membership, which began in 2004 and is ongoing.
The first period took place in the spirit of the post-revolution ethos, during which the generally shared idea of a “return to Europe” played an important role. Of course, this return was complicated by the fact that many Czech politicians were convinced of Czech exceptionalism. They believed the Czech Republic (especially after it separated from Slovakia in 1993) was so much better off, economically, than other post-communist countries that it deserved special treatment from the EU. Many were also convinced that the Czechs were better prepared than other post-communist states, thanks to their pre-war experience with democracy, to construct a functioning democratic system.
During this period, therefore, it can be said that there was a clash of two political cultures: On the one hand, the sober EU approach, which did not want to lower its standards for the new members under the pressure of politically motivated challenges to enlarge as fast as possible; and on the other hand, the too-high expectations of Czech politicians and citizens, who were motivated by belief in their own exceptionalism. The EU’s wary approach essentially froze these expectations, which served to strengthen nationalist-oriented politics.
In particular, then-PM Václav Klaus insisted that the Czech Republic should be accepted into the EU practically immediately. He was, therefore, opposed from the beginning to the former communist countries playing the role of “pupils” who had to do their homework under the supervision of Brussels and the EU Member States.
Even though Klaus signed the association agreement for the Czech Republic and submitted its membership application, his government did little to meet the membership criteria. By the end of the 1990s, the Czechs were rather at the tail end of the group of candidate countries as far as the fulfillment of membership criteria was concerned.
After the Social Democrats took over the government in 1998, the situation began to change. ČSSD made use of its time in government to accelerate the accession talks. The party also had many fewer problems than Klaus with the reality that the candidate countries were in an unequal role vis-à-vis the EU because they had to first meet EU-drafted criteria.
Klaus’s ODS party made use of its time in opposition to more clearly profile itself as a euro-skeptic party. Its approach to EU membership was not very enthusiastic and was restricted to “realistic” declarations, such as “we have no alternative to membership.” When the discussion inside the EU began to turn towards the possible adoption of an EU Constitution, ODS politicians began to define themselves even more radically in opposition to further political integration of the EU and criticized the Constitution.
In general, the EU had the greatest influence on events in the Czech Republic during the years from 1995-2002. Even though Czech politicians questioned the necessity of some of the reforms required by the EU, they had to submit to the “dictates” of Brussels in the end. They also did so under pressure from the Czech public, most of whom supported EU membership.
The first five years of the Czech Republic’s EU membership were a complicated period. Just as in some of the other new Member States, populism was on the rise, a reaction to the previous period of complex, sometimes unpopular reforms. Even among politicians of those parties that had led the country into the EU, the preponderant attitude for some time was that the Czech Republic, now that it was a full-fledged member, did not have to agree with everything that came from Brussels.
During the initial post-accession years, the EU continued to be perceived as “them”. The task for “us” (the Czechs) was to get as much as we could out of “them” and put up with as few of their “dictates” as possible. At the same time, the opinion began to strengthen among the general public – beaten into them as it was by ODS (partly as a result of ODS stances on the EU)– that the level of EU political integration achieved so far was sufficient.
These attitudes reached their greatest intensity when ODS returned to power after the 2006 elections. It took roughly a year for PM Mirek Topolánek and his team to begin to extricating themselves from the radical opinions they had held when in opposition. They gradually began to understand the institutional culture of the EU, which his based on compromises and negotiation. This shift toward pragmatism, of course, sparked growing tensions between Topolánek and Klaus, who had become president of the country in 2003. Over time, Klaus not only became an ever more vocal opponent of further EU integration, he began to question the EU per se in some of his speeches.
This dispute between the prime minister and the president also complicated the ODS approach to the Lisbon Treaty. Topolánek, who signed the Treaty on behalf of the Czech Republic, postponed its approval by parliament for more than a year out of concern that a row with Klaus could spark conflict inside the party. In the end, his government collapsed in March 2009, halfway through the Czech EU presidency, thanks to Klaus’s ODS allies. (partly owing to Klaus’s allies in ODS).
In retrospect, it is clear that the institutional backwardness and the poor level of political culture in the new Member States from the former Soviet bloc were much greater than many originally realized. Among other indicators, this was demonstrated by the high level of polarization of domestic politicians, whose inability to embrace productive compromises was subsequently transferred to EU-level.
It was only several years after accession to the EU that the political elites of the new Member States began to grasp the political culture of the EU, based as it is on negotiations and compromises. Gradually, the division between “us” and “them” began to recede.
Nevertheless, 20 years after the fall of the communist regimes, which is when the imagined “return to Europe” began, it is evident that the new Member States are to a certain extent still “democracies without democrats”. In other words, all of these countries have undergone, under the leadership of the EU, an unprecedented modernization of their political, legal and economic institutions, but changes to people’s thinking have occurred at a fundamentally slower pace.
Here the often-discussed clash between institutions and culture has made itself felt. While it was possible to change the institutions rather quickly with the help of Brussels and the old Member States, the anchoring of a truly democratic culture will take another generation at least. The hope of success is provided by precisely that strong external framework which in the form of the EU and other supranational organizations actively supports further democratization and guarantees the security of the new EU Member States.