Coming home

The EU will return the country to its natural political state Commentators seem to be treating the recent referendum on joining the European Union as a dividing line in Czech history almost of equal significance as the split between B.C. and A.D. However, if one looks at EU entry with a long-term view of Czech history, the event is not an anomaly. Rather, it represents a return to a status quo, both political and, more importantly, psychological. In its entire history to date, the Czech nation was truly independent for a mere 38 years (1918-39, 1946-48, and 1989-2004, the year of EU accession). Since the ninth century, we have lived with other nations as part of empires, beginning with the Greater Moravian Empire, then the Roman and Holy Roman Empires, through the Habsburgs of the 19th and early 20th centuries and on to the German occupation and Soviet domination. This historical record helps explain the contradictory traits found in Czechs today: cowardice and bravery, laziness and industriousness, dishonesty and honesty. The negative traits are the result of being under the boot for centuries on end; the good traits were always there.

Czechoslovakia’s famous interwar writer Ferdinand Peroutka wrote that Czechs are the descendants of Franz Josef and not just a nation of Jan Hus’ making. The basic recipe for today’s Czech society was created under the Habsburgs. That recipe includes a distant and somewhat tolerated ruler (on whom one heaps complaints over a beer) and a local political scene characterized by the pursuit of personal interests over principles. The constant political squabbling is presided over by a generally well-regarded referee at Prague Castle – whether T.G. Masaryk, Vaclav Havel or even Vaclav Klaus. These detached extremes left Czech citizens with a fair amount of wiggle room. They allowed the country to become an economic and cultural superpower at the beginning the 20th century. 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 governor. Their dealings were not just with Prague but with Vienna as well. When Czechs voted for EU entry, they resurrected the Vienna of the Habsburgs – and moved it to Brussels. However, there are important positive differences between the former Vienna and today’s Brussels. Politically, we can be proud of the fact that our representation will increase. In the Council of Europe, Czechs will have 12 representatives, whereas Germany, which is eight times larger, will have 29. Our Parliament will be directly involved with the EU, which 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 being trimmed away. Key issues, such as the communist past and the role of the Communist Party will, by 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 percent 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 grisly past. Constructive dialogue will be rewarded. Isolationism and power grabs will lead to failure, not success, as has been the case. In this regard, the conservative Civic Democratic leadership will have to recognize that 90 percent of their voters cast ballots for the EU and the party will thus have to abandon their populist charades. President Klaus’s daylong silence before commenting on the referendum’s success will emerge as his most fateful negative achievement.

All of this will improve the 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 revealed that as Czechs, we have learned to adapt within a framework of changing multinational states and rulers. That’s why we tend to view political facts with skepticism and, when confronted with change, instead place equal or greater importance on psychological aspects such as feeling and intuition. For us, EU entry means a return to the scheme in which we flourished. Furthermore, it also means that we will once again be part of a stream in which we have a defined role. History has not afforded us the opportunity of self-rule and the consequent formation of a firm national character. Globalization and European unification means that we will have the chance to form that character only as part of a greater framework. Our national destiny is therefore intertwined with legitimate representational European integration and our national identity – anchored in our rich and unique cultural heritage – will be determined by the concrete acts that we bring to that process. For the Czech nation, EU entry thus represents merging with a stream, both nationally and psychologically. We are returning home. 

– The writer is a physician and the publisher of The New Presence magazine.


The Prague Post26.6.2003

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