European Union: one step forward, two steps back

Jan Hartl

Very few things provide a clearer picture than the ways in which our attitudes towards European integration and our membership in the EU have evolved over time. Let’s make a brief summary of developments to date. In doing so, we will draw on the wealth of data systematically gathered by STEM over the past twenty years.

Period before the referendum

In the short few years following November 1989 prior to the referendum, the regions of Bohemia and Moravia boasted strong pro-Western attitudes, a liberal perspective on the market economy and a positive outlook on the future. This is evident when we compare views and attitudes there to those of the citizens of Poland, Hungary and in particular Slovakia, whose population held substantially different opinions to the Czechs. At that time, the public liked to believe that of the central European regions, the Czech lands was in the most advantageous position and that it could continue to build on its democratic tradition, easily reignite the prosperity of the First Republic and once again become a developed western European society. In 1993 some 85% of Czech citizens said they were determined to join the European Community. Back then it was a distant goal, some kind of symbol of our Western affiliation – it was more an abstract idea, rather than a concrete notion. With the passing of time, the initial enthusiasm faded. Three years later, in 1996, some 63% of citizens still said they were resolved to endeavour, as far as possible, to become a member of the European Union. Indeed, 72% of the population expressed their wish to enter the EU as soon as possible. Moreover, 73% of citizens said they would vote “yes” in a referendum on accession to the EU.

A sizeable proportion of the population saw the European Union as a cash cow which, to a large extent, would ease the country’s path to economic prosperity. Nonetheless, the positive expectations were ambiguous. In April 1997 just under a mere 23% of Czech citizens said they were informed about what accession to the EU would mean for the country; only 43% said they had a rough idea of what would be demanded of us if we were to enter the union. At the same time, a minority of people were willing to contribute to prospective poorer members of the European Union.

In which areas of life did Czech citizens see accession to the European Union as providing hope for improvement? In the surveys conducted between 1999 and 2001, citizens most often cited greater opportunities for finding attractive employment and for young people to study abroad. A majority of people also expected improvements in other areas such as the environment, law and order reinforcement, upgrading the civil service and improving the activities of public offices, as well as providing greater financial aid to the regions and boosting exports. Roughly half the population expected an increase in standard of living following accession to the union. By contrast, in the social sphere, a majority of people did not expect to see an improvement in the development of culture and interpersonal relationships after entry to the EU.

However, there was no consensus on the economic benefits of EU membership. What may lie behind this is a fear of one-sided exploitation of the Czech economy, a deepening of social inequality and a weakening of social security. It is also worth noting that although Czech citizens believed that our standard of living would most likely increase after accession to the EU, they were of the opinion that this would not bring about greater happiness. By contrast, the positive expectations were, by and large, related to discipline, order and an improvement in the country’s political culture.

Nonetheless, the public believed that membership in the EU brought with it a certain risk, primarily a fear of immigrants from the east (73%), a rise in organised crime (66%), a decline in our traditional industry (66%), the crippling of agriculture (58%) and an increase in selfishness and rudeness in society (60%). On the basis of the data at hand, we could say that public expectations prior to our entry to the EU were contradictory and were by no means blinkered. The prevailing view was fairly critical, and this was directed not only at the Union but also at our own (in)competence. Overall, you could say that the general feeling was one of cautious optimism.

Therefore, in the period prior to the referendum, the citizens of the Czech Republic expected membership to have two types of impact on the country. The direct impact would be an improvement in the national economy and an increase in the standard of living, albeit at the expense of a weakening of our traditional industry and agriculture (the notion of a source of capital). The indirect impact involved the gradual introduction and adoption of societal norms prevalent in the developed Western countries. The STEM surveys found that the public believed it to be particularly necessary that, on one hand, the country make advancements in demanding and exercising rights and wiping out corruption and white-collar crime and, on the other hand, in improving the activities of the country’s political parties and strengthening democracy.

Period in the run up to the referendum

Although the situation before the referendum was complicated and full of contradictions, it was a period of relative calm, not characterised by any major shifts in mood. Surveys showed pro-European attitudes to be stronger and more focused than anti-European attitudes or the views of those who wished to remain outside the union. EU supporters were more active and looked forward to having the opportunity to express their opinion in a referendum, while opponents were unsure and passive and were therefore hesitant to participate in the referendum. All of the larger surveys conducted were, on the whole, accurate in predicting the election outcome – 77% in favour of accession. If the turnout at the June 2003 referendum had been higher (the actual turnout was 55%), the result would more than likely have been closer.

Following the success of the referendum, there was a sense of satisfaction, as if the issue of the European Union had been resolved. Key questions on the issue of a “social Europe” remained unanswered. Once again the dominant attitude was a narrow economic perception of the EU as a cash cow and a matter for bureaucrats somewhere in Brussels. Serious EU topics disappeared from the media and the EU was only mentioned occasionally, and often only in negative contexts. There was no scrutiny, commentary, analyses nor public education on the topic. Between 2003 and 2005 the proportion of people who listened with interest to programmes on the European Union on television or radio fell by ten percentage points. The proportion of citizens who held the opinion that there was adequate information in the media on the situation in the EU fell by 12 percentage points in this period. Only one-third of the public believed that they would find out about the important, substantive issues in the media if the topic was on EU matters. Similarly, only just under one-third of the population found the information on the European Union to be clear and intelligible. Moreover, since 2004 the topic of the EU had gradually been narrowed down to simply being about “drawing on European money”

Around the date of the Czech Republic’s official accession to the EU in May 2004, Czech citizens had already begun to view the future development of their standard of living with certain mistrust. Over two-thirds of citizens feared that the standard of living of their household would decrease after accession to the European Union (67 %). Fear of a decline in social security goes hand in hand with fear of a decrease in living standards, and people were afraid that after EU accession they would lose part of their existing social security (64%).

Reaching a consensus on the meaning of aspects of the European Constitution proved not so easy, and this was reflected in the fact that the questions the public were asking were different to the ones the politicians were answering. The inability to communicate European affairs in a manner which was intelligible, brief and to the point, coupled with the unsophisticated blaming of domestic difficulties on bureaucracy in Brussels became commonplace not only here, but in many other member states too. In our domestic context, this was accompanied by the embarrassment surrounding the adoption of the euro and significant Euroscepticism on the part of some of our politicians.

To summarise the findings, you could say that in the first few years after our accession to the EU, the prevalent attitude of the Czech population towards the EU was slightly critical while, at the same time, one of acceptance. Trust in the European Union institutions was at approximately 60 percentage points during this period. A closer look at the data indicates that ties to the EU were relatively weak among the population; there was more a sense of rational and pragmatic consideration, a wait-and-see approach, a fairly passive position. Support for the introduction of the euro was not high in the Czech Republic, but in January 2006 there was a narrow majority in favour (51%). Political representatives came in for criticism: according to the public, the Czech Republic behaved in a very guarded manner, showing little initiative. Attitudes to the government were becoming very critical with, in particular, corruption, embezzlement and the poor functioning of the judiciary and the civil service at the forefront.

From the financial crisis to the 2013 early elections

Public opinion suffered a significant setback when the winner of the 2006 elections, Mirek Topolánek’s Civic Democratic Party (ODS), was unable after several months to form a government. This was a signal for citizens that the well-established political parties were more focused on internal politics – dividing up and maintaining power – than directing their focus on dealing with the problems facing the population. The proportion of people who were satisfied with how democracy works in our country fell in the long term: in June 2007 it was at 40%, one year later at 34% and by the end of 2011 it stood at only 26%. At that time, the work of the government was consistently rated poorly – over 70% of citizens gave it a negative rating. The level of dissatisfaction among the public rose, the Civic Democratic Party lost support, with the effect that social democracy advanced. At the end of 2008 the government lost its parliamentary majority and there were serious discussions on the necessity of early elections.

This was the situation in the country in the run up to our European Union presidency. There was more written in the media about the European Union, articles of a positive nature. Moreover, politicians from all political spectrums spoke more favourably of the union. Politicians were united in their position that it was necessary to prove that they were capable of action and not to disgrace themselves internationally. The public’s attitude towards the EU significantly improved and confirmed indirectly the importance of the role played by mass communication in relation to EU affairs. From 2007 to 2009 the proportion of citizens who said they were satisfied with our membership in the EU rose from 52% to 63%.

During our presidency the government fell quite unexpectedly. New political groupings were also established, the conservative TOP 09 and populist Public Affairs (Věci veřejné), both of which were hugely successful in opposition against the well-established parties in the 2010 elections. The situation on the European scene also became complicated. Debt manoeuvring by the Greek government and the inability of the EU to react appropriately to the fraud also came to light. In 2009 the debt crisis expanded further, primarily among the southern EU member states. Uncertainty, helplessness, a lack of constructive leadership and of competent action, as well as fear regarding the future of the EU and the euro were also reflected in Czech public opinion. Since 2010, as a result of these events, as well as internal political events, the proportion of citizens who believed that the European Union was developing in the right direction fell from half the population to one quarter.

Logically, with developments in the Eurozone, the proportion of citizens in favour of the introduction of the euro in the Czech Republic also declined markedly. As part of its series of surveys over the years STEM found that just as recently as in January 2006 the proportion of those in favour of introducing the euro in the Czech Republic was 52%, in September 2010 this figure had already fallen to 30% and, two years later, in September 2012, support for the euro had already dropped to a mere 17%. According to the Eurobarometer (Flash Eurobarometer 349) study, this country is by far the most reserved of the new member states in terms of attitude towards the euro. In fact, of all the member states the Czechs rate the operation of the euro worst of all. Moreover, 26% of Czech citizens hold the opinion that the euro will never be introduced in the Czech Republic – this is many times the number of those recorded in other countries.

In the campaign in the run up to the elections to the European Parliament in 2009, the European Union was frequently portrayed as something distant and superfluous, something we could get by without. There was no media coverage of strong European issues, and therefore is it any wonder that the solution to the complicated decision on how to vote in the elections to the EP was, for the vast majority of people, simply to stay at home. Surveys conducted at the time clearly demonstrated that we are passive, like to stay at the perimeter of the action, and we are now a far cry from the tiger of central-European transformation we once stood for. Growing scepticism about being able to make our own choices further strengthened the attitude of resignation among the public.

“In your opinion, what is the Czech Republic’s international standing? Would you say that our country’s international status is strengthening or, on the contrary, is our status on the international stage weakening?”

Source: STEM, Trends1999-2011

Following the parliamentary elections in 2010, there was a significant deterioration in the public’s assessment of the majority of public opinion parameters monitored. This was the case not only in their assessment of the domestic situation, but also in terms of their relationship with the European Union. The year 2010 also saw the first scandal regarding the handling of grants from European funds. Nonetheless, the Czech public still believed that the European Union would help, perhaps even indirectly, to strengthen law and order in the country and improve its political culture. However, unlike in the past, they had abandoned the idea that the European Union would bring us prosperity and a higher standard of living. Despite objective economic indicators, subjective interpretation had the upper hand in this case. This interpretation reflected the public’s sense of anomie due to domestic events, the crippling of norms in society, the non-existence of the clear and binding rules of the ‘social game’, a sense of helplessness and the inability to influence public affairs. Corruption and the failure of the main political parties to govern the country properly became major social topics.

The public was sceptical that the European Union would be able to help us with our domestic difficulties, in particular those of an economic nature. This attitude was further strengthened by Eurosceptics who advocated an unequivocal anti-European viewpoint, using social networks, in particular. The fundamental argument put forward by Czech Eurosceptics was the supposed conflict between national interests and the interests of the EU. National interests, behind which were concealed short-term economic interests, were presented (their interpretation, their propaganda) as natural, enduring and superior to the nonsensical interests of “Brussels bureaucrats”. However, the data gathered on Czech public opinion does not support such an interpretation. Almost two-thirds of Czechs (65 % in 2009) disagreed with the opinion that the national interests of the Czech Republic were incompatible with the interests of the European Union. Combining public opinion on the conflict between national and EU interests with the public’s personal sense of belonging to Europe, we have developed a typology of citizens for 2009, as illustrated in the graph below.

Source: STEM, Trends 02/2009.

A substantial proportion of those who have a positive attitude towards the European Union are in the younger and middle-aged age group (up to 44 years), those who are well-off, the better educated and those with right-wing views. Similar answers were given to the questions on whether our citizens feel patriotic and whether they feel like Europeans. Time and again we have seen that those who feel patriotic also feel comfortable as Europeans.

The survey conducted prior to the early elections in September 2013 provides a detailed overview of the public’s assessment of the EU.

Source: STEM, Trends 9/2013

What stands out in the overview of positives and negatives is the markedly reserved attitude of the population towards economic progress. Pointing to the statistics we could undoubtedly demonstrate the benefits of EU membership, but people are more inclined to see the shortcomings rather than the advantages. The areas in which we expected to see significant benefits from membership when we first entered the EU, such as the development of political culture, the proper functioning of the judiciary and greater law and order, are now considered by citizens as a failure.

In January 2013 Miloš Zeman was elected president of the republic in direct elections. Throughout the presidential election campaign attitudes towards the EU were largely pro-European; the style of communication regarding the EU had noticeably changed. After Prime Minister Petr Nečas was forced to resign in June 2013 and a temporary caretaker government assumed office, there was a strengthening of pro-European orientation in Czech politics. More information on European affairs was provided in the media and this was relayed in a more constructive manner than before. After a long time, the attitude in the country towards the EU started to improve again. Attitudes were also more frequently pro-European when Bohuslav Sobotka’s new government was in office. This also became apparent in our relationship with the EU, but only temporarily.

Source: STEM, Trends 1994-2016

The current crossroads

During our EU presidency in 2009 a majority of the population felt we could play an active role in the EU and have our opinion heard. At the time, we could have used this impetus to explain the problems of European integration and point out the economic benefits of our membership. We missed that opportunity and today 70 % of our citizens attribute this to our passiveness.

Source: STEM, Trends 2006-2016

Last year Europe was hit by the migrant crisis. Both the media and political representatives failed to recognise in time how very serious this issue was. They flippantly, even pompously, generated fear among the public of unspecified security risks and the spread of terrorism in our country, as well as a threat to our European and national culture. A lack of realistic reflection, real knowledge, and helplessness in terms of the practical measures that could be taken, transformed public opinion in this country over a six-month period. Roughly three-quarters of the population experienced fear of an unknown risk and, under the strain, they were happy to find a culprit in the “incompetent” European Union and and the “unwise politics” of Angela Merkel. The refugees, who are not in this country, became our country’s greatest problem and our greatest potential risk. Logically, many politicians capitalised on the fact that emotions were running high. Hand in hand with an increasing fear of refugees, there was a dramatic decline in trust in the EU (as we already saw on chart No 4). Therefore, today we stand at a crossroads: we can succumb to a feeling of unspecified threat and open the door to a curtailment of our freedom and anti-European scepticism or, by contrast, we can look for a solution in cooperation with the Western countries of the European Union. The current data reflects the difficulty of this choice. On one hand, we are not going to give up prematurely. The following graph shows that the current situation could even mobilise supporters of European integration and strengthen the feeling of belonging to Europe.

Source: STEM, STEGA, Communication on European Affairs, 10/2005, STEM, Trends 2009-2016

On the other hand, it is important that we fully appreciate that in terms of our relationship with the EU this transformation is significant. While in 2009 twice as many people among those who felt like Europeans believed that there was no conflict between the interests of the union and national interests and that both interests can be compatible (see graph No 2), the situation today has transformed dramatically. Nowadays an entire fifty percent of those who consider themselves “Europeans” believe the national interests to be incompatible with the interests of the union!

Source: STEM, Trends 03/2016

The following graph shows how clearly-defined, definite opinions on the conflict between national and EU interests in particular have increased in recent years. The survey found that people with a lower level of education are somewhat more likely to believe that the interests of the EU are incompatible with the national interest. Differences between the educational groups are only minimal, however. There is no significant difference in opinion depending on age group. What is interesting is the finding that supporters of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) consider national and EU interests to be the least incompatible.

Source: STEM, Trends 2009-2016

Let us now compare how we expected our membership in the European Union to benefit the country directly after the referendum with our current expectations for the near future.

Source: STEM, Trends 2005/12 and 2016/02

At first glance, we can see that current expectations of the European Union have declined in each of the areas monitored. In 2005 we most expected an increase in the quality of education for the younger generation and an improvement in the environment. Even today, these are the two issues on which our population is most fixated. There has been a radical decline in the expectation that we would see an improvement, be it as a direct or indirect influence of the European Union, in the functioning of the state: adherence to law and order, improvement of the work of state bodies and political stability. Indeed, it is on the very issue of the potential role of the European Union in the functioning of the state and political culture that supporters of the various right-wing parties fundamentally differ. For instance, 46% of TOP 09 supporters regard EU membership as a guarantee that law and order will be adhered to, whereas only 27% of ODS supporters believe so. The difference is even more pronounced in the case of an “improvement in the work of state bodies” (44% for TOP 09 and 20% for ODS supporters). It is also noteworthy that expectations among citizens in the social sphere were not high to start out, but they were disillusioned nevertheless.

The following graph clearly demonstrates the dramatic change in the mood of the population over the past ten years. In an effort to avoid an assessment of only partial aspects of our membership in the European Union, we formulated the question in such a way as to get a picture of general public attitudes to EU membership. Whereas ten years ago, an absolute majority of the population (72%) rated our membership in the EU positively, just under half of the population currently rate it favourably (48%). The proportion of citizens who consider membership in the EU as a definitely bad thing has tripled. The proportion of citizens who regard our membership in the EU to be a somewhat or definitely bad thing has risen to fifty percent.

Source: STEM, Trends 2006/05 and 2016/02

The current divide in public opinion on our membership in the European Union (48% to 52%), as shown in the above graph, clearly demonstrates the current relevance of our membership in the EU as a political issue. To provide a clearer picture, the following overview demonstrates the position taken by the different groups in our population on EU membership. It confirms that when it comes to serious political issues, men and women have very similar views. In terms of sociodemographic characteristics, there are clear differences between citizens depending on their level of education – the higher the level of education, the more positive the assessment of our membership in the EU. Younger people only have a marginally better attitude towards EU membership than older citizens. Village and city dwellers realise the advantages of our membership whereas, by contrast, residents of small towns are fairly cautious. As expected, at a regional level, Prague and the industrial north-western region bordering Germany come out on top, with the most favourable assessment, while the farthest away region of Moravia-Silesia is very sceptical towards the EU. If we take a look at political affiliation, the difference in attitudes between left-wing and right-wing citizens is notably smaller than we expected. And what is most likely to surprise readers is that the attitude of Civic Democratic Party (ODS) voters to our membership in the EU is positive, despite a series of partial objections.

Differences in opinion between groups
“Overall, do you consider the CR’s membership in the EU to be
a good thing or a bad thing?”

(proportion of “definitely good” and “somewhat good” answers in %)

Source: STEM, Trends 2016/02
* Secondary School Leaving Certificate, equiv.
A Levels in the UK, High School Diploma in the US
** Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics

Notice: ČSSD is the ruling Czech Socialist Democratic Party; ANO is centrist party and one of the junior coalition partners; KSČM (Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia); TOP 09 is a conservative opposition party; ODS is the liberal-conservative Civic Democratic Party, a right-wing opposition party; KDU-ČSL is the Christian Democrats and one of junior coalition partners.