Coming home

Commentators seem to be treating the recent Czech EU referendum as a sort of dividing line in Czech history, of almost equal significance to BC and AD. However, if one looks at EU entry from the point of view of Czech history as a whole, the event is not unique. Rather, for us Czechs it represents a return to a status quo, both political and more importantly, psychological. In its entire history, the Czech (Czechoslovak) nation was – and will be – truly independent for a mere 38 years (1918-1939, 1946-1948 and 1989 -2004, the year of EU accession). Since the 9th century, we have lived with other nations as part of empires, beginning with the Greater Moravian Empire, then the Roman and Holy Roman, moving through the Habsburg of the 19th and 20th centuries, and ending with the German and Soviet.

This explains the combinations of otherwise non-compatible traits found in today’s Czech Republic: alibism and bravery, lackadaisical behavior and industriousness, dishonesty and honesty. The former are the result of being “under the boot” for centuries on end, the latter were always there. Czechoslovakia’s famous interwar personality, Ferdinand Peroutka, wrote that more than just being the nation of Jan Hus, Czechs are the descendants of Franz Josef. The basic recipe for today’s Czech scene was actually created under the Habsburgs. This involves a distant and somewhat tolerated ruler (at whom one heaps complaints over a beer) and a local political scene characterized by the pursuit of personal interests over principles. Constant political squabbling is presided over by a generally well-regarded referee at Prague Castle, whether this be T.G. Masaryk, Václav Havel, or even Václav Klaus.

These two detached extremes actually left the Czech citizen with a fair amount of room and allowed us to become a virtual economic and cultural superpower at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Such productivity was – and again will be – guaranteed not by Prague, but by the consolidation of local and regional forces, represented by the triangular relationship of village factory owner, local mayor, and regional Hejtman. Their dealings were not just with Prague, but with Vienna as well. When Czechs voted for EU entry on June 13 and 14, they resurrected the Vienna of the Habsburg’s and moved it to Brussels.However, there are important positive differences between old Vienna and today’s Brussels. Politically, we can be proud of the fact that our representational quotient will increase. In the Council of Europe, Czechs will have 12 members, whereas Germany, which is eight times larger, will have 29. Our parliament will be directly involved with the EU, while the EU will monitor the drafting of Czech laws to ensure fewer loopholes, among other things. There will be give and take. In domestic politics, the fat will start to be trimmed away. Key issues, such as the communist past and the role of the Communist Party, will, by the very nature of the new order, have to be resolved.

The Communist Party will be able to survive only if it gives in to the 40% of its voters who voted for EU entry. It will also have to go the way of all other European communist parties and admit and apologize for its role in its grisly past. Constructive dialogue will be rewarded, while isolationism and power grabbing will lead to failure, not success, as has been the case. In this regard, the ODS (Conservative Party) leadership will have to recognize that 90% of their voters voted for EU accession, and thus be forced to abandon their populist charades. The silence of President Václav Klaus regarding the referendum’s success will emerge as his most fateful negative achievement. All of this will serve to improve our Czech political culture. One day, we may even stop pulling our hair out over the antics of those we pay to represent us. This will be a welcome and needed psychological change. Our history has led us to the fact that as Czechs, we have learned to adapt as a small group within a framework of changing multinational states and rulers. That’s why we tend to view political facts with skepticism, and instead place equal or greater import on psychological aspects such as feelings and intuitions, when confronted with change.

For us, EU entry means a return to the above-mentioned scheme, one in which we flourished. Furthermore, it means that we will once again be part of a stream, one in which we have a defined role. Czech history has not afforded us the opportunity of self-rule and hence, the formation of a firm national character. Globalization and European unification means that we will have this chance only as part of a greater framework. Our national destiny is therefore intertwined with legitimate representational European integration, and our national identity will be determined by those concrete acts that we will bring to this process. That identity is anchored in our rich and unique cultural heritage. For the Czech nation, EU entry thus represents merging with a stream, both nationally, as well as psychologically. We are returning home.This article appeared in the Czech press (Mladá fronta dnes) as well as in The Prague Post


The New Presenceautumn 2003

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