Let’s Do It in British Style: Debate about Czexit

heophilos Papadopoulos via flickr // CC

While watching the difficulties following the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, one might ask if it is possible to find anyone who would like to follow a similar path. Surprisingly enough, there is at least one member state in the European Union where the possibility if leaving the Union is discussed quite intensively: the Czech Republic.

The aim of this article is to explain why Czech media and politicians even raised the possibility of leaving the EU (calling it Czexit), to focus on the debate surrounding this subject, and to try evaluating if or when such a debate might become an issue before the 2019 European Parliamentary elections.

First, it is important to mention that Czech society is one of the most Eurosceptic in the whole EU. One of the reasons for that is that Czech society is poorly informed about EU-related issues because they are not covered extensively in the Czech media.

Czech politicians tend to have rather ambiguous relations towards “Brussels”; even the use of this term to label the EU in Czech discourse shows that there are distinctions between “Us” (the Czechs) and the Other” (the EU). While Czech representatives do not (usually) object to EU regulations on high-level meetings, they find it perfectly acceptable to blame the Union in case things go wrong at home in front of the domestic audience.

The lack of heartfelt EU supporters creates a space where Eurosceptics might easily prosper. One of the prominent members of this opinion group —Václav Klaus — could even advocate such ideas from executive office when he was president between 2003 and 2013. Ironically, the Czech Republic joined the EU in 2004, under his mandate.

Nevertheless, he remains one of the most prominent proponents of Czexit. In the past, Czech Eurosceptics also succeeded during the European elections. The former adviser of Mr. Klaus, Petr Mach, already an advocate of leaving the EU, was elected to the European Parliament in 2014.

The debate about Czexit popped up again in February 2018, when the Lower Chamber of the Czech Parliament debated the law on a general referendum on the issue. The law was drafted and submitted by the right-wing populist party Freedom and Direct Democracy – Tomio Okamura (SPD).

Okamura has anti-migration and anti-EU topics at the very top of its agenda. Thus, it is not surprising that he immediately raised the possibility of holding a referendum on the membership of the Czech Republic in the EU.

The idea of Czexit was repeatedly supported by the members of the SPD party, and they were not alone. Some members of the Czech Communist Party, which is notoriously against NATO and issues various statements supporting the policies of the current Russian government, also backed the referendum bill.

Several members of the moderate right-wing Civic Democratic Party also supported Czexit under certain conditions. One of them was Václav Klaus Jr., the son of the former president.

While the possibility that the law on the referendum could pass and open the door for the debate about EU membership caused significant concerns in the mainstream media, this possibility was cherished by the so-called alternative platforms promoting (often EU-related) conspiracies, pro-Russian narratives, or disinformation.

As Prague Security Studies Institute researchers found, this topic was mentioned in February 2018 in 124 articles published on mainstream media, and 99 articles published on alternative media platforms. While warnings about holding such a referendum prevailed in the mainstream media (often pointing to Brexit as an example), the alternative media negated these claims, and argued that Czexit would not be as bad as is described and its positive effects would prevail.

According to the alternative platforms, leaving the EU can also save the Czechs from the Islamization of their country, so they depicted it as a question of national survival.

Among other reasons supporting the Czexit were: bureaucratic EU regulations, the dictatorship of France and Germany in EU, and the overall loss of sovereignty because the country was “degraded” to a colony of Brussels.

The political promoters of the referendum bill played an important role in the debate, led by the alternative platforms who actively contributed to it. This is especially the case for the members of the SPD party, who were often the authors of articles related to the issue on alternative media sites.

Therefore, the debate about Czexit once again proved the strong connection between the alternative media and political extremists from both ends of the political spectrum.

However, in the end, the law on the referendum was rejected, not only due to fears of Czexit, but also due to the poor wording and reasoning of the proposed bill from a legal perspective. After that, the debate about Czexit lost much of its vibrancy, and this topic slowly disappeared from the public space and has not received strong attention since.

Even in August 2018 when Prime Minister Andrej Babiš stated that leaving the EU would endanger the future of the country, the alternative media did not react. While 43 articles in the mainstream media mentioned this quote, only 4 on alternative media did.

It is not possible to completely rule out the possibility that the topic of Czexit will reemerge again before European elections; however, at the moment, nothing suggests that it would. This, unfortunately, cannot be said about other myths and disinformation about the EU, which are presently circulating in the Czech media space. Czech EU-bashers will surely find other topics for mobilizing their supporters.

Presented data were gathered in the course of the research analyzing the most popular myths about EU in Czech media space in 2018 conducted by Prague Security Studies Institute

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