Politics

Who Likes Europe? Czechs Don’t—and That’s a Big Issue in October Elections

Billionaire Babis is poised to win by embracing euroskepticism.

Former Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis on May 31.

Photographer: CTK/AP Photo

Since joining the European Union 13 years ago, the Czech Republic has become the richest country in the formerly communist east, with a higher living standard than older members Portugal and Greece and the lowest unemployment in the 28-member bloc. Families travel freely, students study abroad, and businesses thrive by exporting to other EU countries. And yet Czechs are less excited than any other European nation about being part of the club: Only a third say that being an EU member is “a good thing”—lower than the crisis-stricken Greeks and the Brexiting Brits—and just a quarter or so want to adopt the euro, according to recent Eurobarometer surveys. “The EU doesn’t bring me anything,” says Pavel Ricka, a 38-year-old lawyer from Prague. “It’s headed by politicians with very socialist thinking. They want to regulate everything.”

That euroskepticism will shape general elections in October and threatens to nudge the Czech Republic toward the kind of isolationism sweeping neighbors Poland and Hungary. Opinion polls give a wide lead to Andrej Babis, a Slovak-born billionaire who crashed the Czech political scene in 2011 and has gained popularity by painting traditional parties as corrupt and incompetent. Like Donald Trump in the U.S., Babis has argued that his business acumen qualifies him to run the country, and he portrays himself as a doer: During his three years as finance minister, he rammed through a bill forcing businesses to link cash registers to the tax office via the internet, significantly improving tax compliance.

Babis remains popular despite the potential for conflicts of interest with a business empire that includes farms, chemical plants, two leading Czech newspapers, and a restaurant in the French city of Mougins that boasts two Michelin stars. A brewing corruption scandal—police say one of his farms illegally received EU subsidies, an allegation he denies—has done little to hurt his appeal to voters.

His party, ANO (Czech for “yes,” but also an acronym for Action of Dissatisfied Citizens), has attracted voters from both right and left, draining support from traditional parties. Babis, 63, doesn’t have quite the authoritarian streak of Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban or Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, but he mirrors their euroskepticism. He’s said the EU should set up Ellis Island-style immigrant detention centers in Tunisia and Turkey. He wants NATO to seal the bloc’s borders to keep out immigrants. And he’s voiced strong support for maintaining the koruna as the Czech currency. “We don’t want the euro here,” Babis says. The common currency “gives Brussels another area for meddling.”

Babis taps into a long-standing wariness of outsiders among Czechs, honed by traumatic histories with the Austro-Hungarian empire, Nazi aggression, and Soviet domination. “Czechs have always been suspicious of anything that seems to control them from the outside,” says Jiri Pehe, the director of New York University in Prague, who served as an adviser to President Vaclav Havel in the 1990s. “There’s a gaping historical wound in the Czech psyche.”

With the exception of Havel, the dissident playwright who became the country’s first post-communist president, Czech leaders have been at best lukewarm toward Brussels. Milos Zeman, the current president, has shown a greater affinity for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping than for fellow EU leaders. In July 2016, Zeman floated the idea of a referendum on membership, and he’s criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel as being soft on immigration. Havel’s immediate successor, Vaclav Klaus—arguably the most influential Czech politician of the past three decades—has over the years shifted from grudging acceptance of EU rules to comparing the bloc to the Soviet Union. “We’ve prospered not because of EU membership but in spite of it,” the 76-year-old former head of state says. “The EU has become a dominant centralized power with very little autonomy for its members.”

Even the ostensibly pro-European ruling Social Democrats have opposed EU policies on refugees and adoption of the euro as they seek to shore up support. Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek, who’s leading the party into the election, says the next government should focus on narrowing the gap with richer neighbors such as Germany before a shift to the euro. And he says the Czechs shouldn’t be required to accept refugees from border nations such as Italy and Greece. Still, he says, “the EU is our only chance. We won’t find anything better.”

The latest survey by polling agency Median shows the Social Democrats getting only 14.5 percent of the vote, trailing ANO’s 26.5 percent and just ahead of the pro-Russian Communist Party, with 13 percent. A decisive ANO victory could cement the Czechs’ anti-EU views at a time when bigger countries such as Germany and France are discussing a multispeed Europe, with core members pursuing greater integration. Its economic success notwithstanding, the Czech Republic risks finding itself on the bloc’s periphery, says Petr Just, a politics professor at Metropolitan University in Prague. “Lots of people think that since we’re doing so well already we don’t need the EU anymore,” he says. “They point to examples like Norway or Switzerland. But that’s an illusion.”

    BOTTOM LINE - Rising euroskepticism threatens to turn Czechs away from the ruling Social Democrats, benefiting billionaire businessman Andrej Babis in October’s ballot.
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