Czech President Calls for Referendum on EU, NATO Membership

  • Zeman lacks power to call referendum, cabinet sees no ballot
  • Trust in EU among Czechs well below majority, poll shows

Czech President Milos Zeman called for a referendum on the country’s membership in the European Union and NATO, adding to concern that more European countries will copy Britain’s Brexit vote even as he said he supported remaining in both blocs.

The Czech Republic benefits as an EU member because it receives more funds than it contributes, while NATO provides security guarantees in fighting international terrorism, Zeman said on public Czech Radio on Friday. Still, he said he would do everything in his power to initiate a referendum “so people can express themselves.” The government rejected the president’s suggestion.

“I disagree with those who support leaving the EU,” Zeman said. “But I’ll do everything I can to make a referendum happen.”

Often at odds with official government policy, the president has angered EU leaders by openly criticizing the bloc’s economic sanctions against Russia. He has publicly supported Vladimir Putin, strengthened Czech ties with China and derided the bloc’s leadership as “totally incompetent.” He has also alienated many European allies with his hard-line stance against refugees, whom he has repeatedly and publicly linked to terrorism.

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Because Zeman’s role is largely ceremonial, and he has no power to call a referendum, he is commenting only to shape public opinion, according to Jan Outly, a political scientist at the Metropolitan University in Prague. The country doesn’t have a law allowing such a ballot, so any attempt to hold one would be a long process, he said.

“This is just one of many public announcements Mr. Zeman makes to make himself visible in the media,” Outly said by phone. “He has absolutely no authority to make it happen.”

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s administration considers membership in the EU and and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization guarantees of stability and security, according to a statement that it e-mailed after Zeman’s comments.

“The government isn’t considering taking any steps that could in any way question our memberships and the long-term direction of the Czech Republic’s foreign policy, and therefore it doesn’t expect any referendums,” the government said.

Zeman, who won the Czechs’ first-ever direct presidential election in 2013, has tried to use his direct mandate to expand the post’s influence over politics in the country of 10.5 million. His proposal may feed into growing disillusion with the EU among Czech citizens.

Only about one third of Czechs trusts the EU, according to an April poll from CVVM, the pollster of the Czech Academy of Sciences, a sharp decline from last year. The Czechs were among the first former eastern-bloc nations to rush to join NATO after communism fell in 1989, and about half of respondents in the CVVM survey said they trusted the military alliance.

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