Czech Republic Hungary Insight Poland Slovakia

Central Europe and the EU: a love-hate relationship?

Brussels, Belgium – Member of the European Union since 2004, the Czech Republic ranks among the most Eurosceptic countries of the continent. Central Europe as a whole is often depicted as the most vocal critic of EU policies and institutions.

A recent study, conducted by the Slovak think-tank Globsec Institute and focused on the opinions of young generations (18 to 34 years old) among the Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland) provides some valuable insights on the matter. What are the key takeaways?

Central Europe is home to some of the most pro and anti-EU populations

Despite their simultaneous accession to the EU and the unity displayed by their governments on several key European issues, young Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Poles have surprisingly diverging views on the matter.

The Czech Republic is, by far, the most Eurosceptic country of Central Europe: only 42% of young Czechs (students, young professionals) have a good image of the EU. This is the lowest rate in the region, corroborating numerous past surveys and studies on a now well-documented “Czech scepticism”. Such figures may seem particularly alarming, considering that young generations are, in this country, the most pro-EU segment of the population: at the national level, it’s estimated that only 25 to 30% of Czechs view the EU in a positive light, making it the second most Eurosceptic member state behind… Greece, the only country consistently faring worse in Eurobarometers.

On the contrary, young Poles and Hungarians stand out as the strongest advocates for EU integration: nearly 75% of Polish and 60% of Hungarians believe the EU is a good thing. This overwhelming support of younger generations for the EU should be reminded in light of the current political developments and the face-off between Warsaw, Budapest, and Brussels.

The third main takeaway of the study: the high level of uncertainty, particularly in former Czechoslovakia. Over one-third of young Czechs and Slovaks don’t have a specific opinion on the matter or don’t wish to answer the question. Such a high number of indecisive voters, whose political stances remain largely unknown and subject to last-minute changes, increase the uncertainty of election outcomes, as the recent Czech presidential race has demonstrated.

In light of these results, it seems rather fair to say that the EU can mean completely different things whether you’re in Warsaw or Bratislava, Prague or Budapest. But it doesn’t stop there: the inter-generational gap is also radically different in all four Visegrad countries. If, as mentioned before, young Czechs represent the most pro-European segment of their society – despite being the least pro-EU of the region – it isn’t the case elsewhere: in Slovakia (35 to 44), as well as in Hungary and Poland (over 55), older generations have a more favourable opinion of the EU than the younger ones.

Central Europe and the EU, a bridge between East and West?

How about their wider geopolitical views? Once more, the Globsec study reveals interesting differences between the four countries: young Hungarians appear undoubtedly more oriented towards the West than their neighbours, while Poles, despite expressing a strong pro-Western sentiment, are more prone to consider that their country should act as a truly Central European power and a bridge between the Western and Eastern fringes of the continent.

Once again, Slovaks and Czechs are the most indecisive (over one-fourth of young people) and skeptic regarding their sense of belonging to Western Europe: at the national level, only 21% of Slovaks and 33% of Czechs think that their country belongs in Western Europe.

Should we start worrying about a “Czexit” scenario?

What would happen if these countries decided to hold a referendum regarding their membership to the EU? 1 out of 4 Czechs, 5 Poles, 7 Slovaks, and 8 Hungarians would vote for their country to leave the EU, according to this same study. Furthermore, approximately one-fourth of Czechs and Slovaks wouldn’t vote or don’t have a definite answer. These figures may, at first, seem rather upsetting. However, we should look at the bigger picture: “Remainers” largely outnumber “Exiters” in all four countries and hold a clear majority in almost all of them: 80% in Hungary, 76% in Poland, 59% in Slovakia and … 44% in the Czech Republic.

Among the Visegrad Four, the Czech Republic is the only country with no clear pro-EU majority, even in the most favorable segment of its population. Furthermore, according to another Globsec Institute study, Czechs are more likely than almost any other CEE population (apart from Bulgarians) to distrust their politicians regarding key policy orientations and ask for a referendum to be held on matters of foremost political importance – which their EU membership seems to qualify for. Should we start worrying about a potential “Czexit” scenario?

Such a possibility has been the object of intense speculation in recent months, partly due to the busy electoral agenda. Last January, Czechs re-elected their famously out-spoken president Miloš Zeman for a second term; a few months before, Andrej Babiš, the second richest man of the country and leader of the ANO movement, came out as the clear winner of the parliamentary elections.

The election of both men has created some unease in Brussels and European capitals: despite reasserting their pro-European stance on several occasions, MM. Zeman and Babiš, albeit in a radically different style, have repeatedly voiced their disagreements regarding some key aspects of EU policies or institutions, sparking worries the Czech Republic might follow the path of Poland and Hungary in taking up arms against Brussels’ “diktats”.

Despite all this, a “Brexit-style” referendum seems rather unlikely. M. Babiš, known for his pragmatic approach to politics, recently came out against such an idea (called for by the leader of far-right party SPD, Tomio Okamura). A more likely option would be for M. Babiš to stick to his centrist agenda, vocally defending Czech positions on high profile topics (migrant quotas) while showing signs of goodwill and cooperation in other areas.

However, his ability to assert his authority has been hindered by recent judicial troubles and failed attempts to form a government. Needless to say, therefore, that a lot hangs in the balance of on-going negotiations between ANO and other political parties.