Referendum on the European Union in Czechia, 13th-14th june 2003


Corinne Deloy,  

Fondation Robert Schuman,  

Helen Levy


14 June 2003

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Deloy Corinne

Corinne Deloy

Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).

Robert Schuman Fondation

Fondation Robert Schuman

Levy Helen

Helen Levy

On 13th and 14th June the Czech's are invited to answer the following question: "Do you agree with Czechia joining the European Union according to the membership treaty, thereby becoming a member country of the European Union?". This referendum will be the first in the young Republic's history. There is no minimum obligatory participation level for the election to be valid, the "yes" vote simply has to achieve at least 50% of the vote for the country's European integration to become effective. However, if the referendum fails membership cannot be ratified by Parliament as it can be in Poland. In addition to this it would not be possible to organise an election on the subject for another two years. A few weeks ago the government had planned to organise the election on Sunday 15th and Monday 16th June in order to ensure as great a participation rate as possible. This choice was rejected by Parliament since they did not want to break with the country's electoral tradition whereby elections take place over two days and always on a Friday and a Saturday.

Czechia's candidature

Politically, economically and legally Czechia appears to be one of the best prepared countries to enter the European Union. The country has institutions that guarantee democracy and the State of Law as well as a stable political regime within which elections take place regularly and in a democratic manner. Recently the government committed itself to a reform of the public administration in order to enable the recruitment of new civil servants; they also started decentralisation based on the creation of eight regions and 205 councils who will have increased powers. Finally the reform of the legal profession is continuing with the establishment of a new code of criminal procedure and the creation of an Academy for Justice responsible for training magistrates.

Economically Czechia has numerous assets. The country has stable infrastructures, strong social cohesion and a highly qualified workforce. The country, whose growth lies at 3.1% has one of the highest GDP's per inhabitant amongst the candidate countries, representing 70% of the community average. Only unemployment, that effects 9.4% of the working population, is still a serious problem. Likewise the failure of the privatisation projects, especially that of the telephone operator Cesky Telecom at the end of last year, have had negative effects on the country's economy. Czech exporters, who are taking advantage of the country's economic results, have invited the government to define a long term strategy before the referendum to facilitate the introduction of the euro into the country but Prime Minister Vladimr Spilda (Social Democrat Party, CSSD) believes that Czechia would not be ready to adopt the European currency before 2010.

On 9th April the European Parliament voted in, by a large majority, the membership treaty for the enlargement of the European Union by 10 new members in May 2004. Amongst these Czechia is the country that achieved the smallest number of votes in favour of its integration (489); thirty nine MP's voted against its membership and thirty seven abstained. The number of votes against lay in the opposition of several German MP's who were protesting against the Czech government's attitude towards the Benes Decrees. These Decrees bear the name of the former president of Czechoslovakia, elected in 1935, who led the exiled Czechoslovak government from 1938 to 1945, and who resigned in 1948 following the Communist coup d'état. There are four documents dating back to 1945, involving the German Sudets and the Hungarians and that stipulate "the national administration of German, Hungarian and Traitors' property" (19th May), "the punishment of Nazi criminals and collaborators" (19th June), "the forfeiture of Czech citizenship for both Germans and Hungarians" (2nd August) and "the confiscation of enemy property" (25th October). Concretely, due to these decrees, around three million Germans and 100,000 Hungarians living in the Sudets were evicted and deprived of all of their property at the end of the Second World War. For many years both German and Austrian associations representing the evicted or their descendants have demanded compensation from the government of Czechoslovakia and then of Czechia. Although the Benes Decrees no longer have any legal strength, they continue however to be part of Czech legislation. The president of the European Popular Party (PPE), Hans-Gert Pöttering, recently lamented that the Czech government had not expressed its "sadness" in the ilk of President Vaclav Klaus last March about the effects that the Benes Decrees had had.

Public Opinion and European Integration

In Czechia membership of the European Union is wanted by most of the population. According to opinion polls undertaken over the last six years, support for integration has always been in the majority. In 1999 it was at its lowest ebb - 35% of those in favour of European integration against 16% against and in February 2002 it achieved its highest level, 48% of the Czechs saying they were in favour of membership versus 18% who did not want it. In January 2003, a survey by STEM, showed that 61% of the Czechs were in favour of the country's entry into the European Union versus 22% who say they were against and 17% who were undecided. The last available opinion poll undertaken by TNS Factum in May 2003 revealed that 51% of the population were about to say "yes" to the referendum on membership of the EU, 18% were going to vote "no" and 31% had no opinion. According to these surveys 80% of the electorate were going to vote on 13th and 14th June. Political analysts were forecasting a 65% participation rate of those registered. The recently qualified and those with the highest revenues are amongst the most fervent supporters of the country's integration into Europe.

Except for the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), all political parties have said they are in favour of joining the EU. Vladimir Spilda's (CSSD) government that assembles the Social Democrat Party and the Centrist Coalition (comprising the Christian Democrat Union-Czech People's Party, KDU-CSL, and the Union of Liberty-Democratic Union, US-DEU) has turned integration into one of its priorities. The main opposition party, the Civic Democrat Party (ODS) also supports the country's entry into the EU. President Vaclav Klaus for his part (elected as head of State on 28th February this year), and a member of the ODS, is raising a somewhat discordant tone. Indeed the President is not very enthusiastic about Prague joining the Fifteen. "Entering the EU is not the achievement of a dream to my mind," he declared at the end of April to the German daily newspaper Die Zeit, "but Czechia, that has always belonged to Europe, does not have any real choice. Today no country can survive without being a member of the EU but we have questions about its development and that of its institutions." Hence this a marriage of convenience and not of love in the eyes of President Vaclav Klaus, who has often been qualified as a Eurosceptic but who prefers to define himself as a Euro-Realist.

For his part the former president Vaclav Havel (1993-2003), who has retired from the national political arena for the time being, is a firm supporter of his country's European integration. On 15th May the foundation Forum 2000, of which he is one of the founder members (with the Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel and the Japanese philanthropist Yohei Sasakawa), organised a series of debates entitled Quo vadis Europa ? that brought together both politicians and intellectuals at the Prague Town Hall. The former President appeared in public for the first time since he left the Castle of Prague (where Czech presidents live) last March. "I see the EU as the first, gigantic, and respectable attempt to organise Europe via negotiations, peace, on the principles of democracy and respect", declared Vaclav Havel, adding, "today the idea of a national State is becoming, to a certain extent, an old fashioned or cult object. The era when a national State was a supreme value is over." This is an opinion that Vaclav Klaus does not share since he is opposed to any form of common foreign policy and wants, on the contrary, to see the national States' competencies strengthened within the European Union. "Europe must not interfere in world affairs just as it must not try to compete with the USA. Both entities must be complementary and not rivals," declared the present President in response to a journalist from Die Zeit. Although Vaclav Klaus can be extremely critical he likes to point out that he was the one to suggest officially Czechia's membership of the European Union, stressing that whatever he might think about the subject "as citizen Klaus", he knows very well "that it is his duty as President."

The only political movement against Czechia's membership of the EU, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), has said that it is in favour of a "temporary, tactical NO" to European integration. The movement's leadership is therefore not calling on the electorate to vote "yes" to the referendum (without however calling explicitly to vote "no") stressing "that it remains open to European integration" according to one of the party's vice presidents, Jiri Dolejs. The Communists believe that negotiations have not satisfied conditions sufficiently for membership not to harm Czechia.

The electoral campaign

The official campaign for which the government released 200 million Czech Crowns (6.4 million euros), a sum that is thought "too high" by President Vaclav Klaus, started on May 1st. A brochure including the main outline of the membership treaty was sent to all Czech households; advertisements in which actors play the role of citizens of the Fifteen boast the advantages that their different countries have drawn from being members of the European Union are being broadcast on national Czech TV as well as on the private channel Nova. The word "ANO" (yes in Czech), is written in yellow on a blue background where the "O" is in the shape of the stars on the European flag, is the official campaign logo. The political parties, except for the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) are also organising their own campaign in favour of the country's membership.

On 9th May the Czechs celebrated Europe Day. Prime Minister Vladimir Spilda inaugurated the day together with Ramiro Cibrian, Ambassador for the European Union in Prague and Elefterios Karaiannis, Ambassador for Greece (the present President of the Union). Many events, presenting the member countries as well as the candidates were organised for young people and older citizens without forgetting the children.

On 17th May, Cyril Svoboda, Czech Foreign Minister (Christian Democrat Union - Czech People's Party, KDU-CSL), was rejoicing ahead of time saying "that after over ten years separation Czechs and Slovaks would be together once more in a united Europe". The Czechs, who are mostly in favour of their country joining the EU, should indeed vote "yes" on 13th and 14th June. Just a few weeks before their Slovak compatriots, the Czechs, who like to remind us that Prague lies more to the West than Vienna, should find themselves back in a Europe that they never really ceased belonging to.

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