Last Thursday, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and French Minister for European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau presided over the first Citizens’ Consultations organized in Prague, thus kicking-off months of civic debates scheduled in the rest of the country and all around Europe.
PR stunt or democratic debate?
A brainchild of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, these civic debates will be held in all 27 European states – U.K. excepted – until October. A grassroot initiative to take the pulse of European citizens and take note of their fears, hopes and expectations amid growing popular discontent. While some see it as a positive and long overdue project to reconnect citizens with Brussels lawmakers and institutions, others call it an “empty publicity stunt” unable to yield any tangible results.
Organized in Prague’s cultural center La Fabrika, last Thursday’s event seems to have set the tone for what will come next. Outside, protesters gathered to criticize what is seen mainly as a PR stunt by M. Babiš, still struggling to form a government seven months after the elections and currently under investigation for alleged misuse of EU funds. Inside, many participants also deplored the format of the event, in some ways more reminiscent of a traditional panel discussion than a truly open civic debate. Former presidential candidate Marek Hilšer, present in the audience, pointed out those shortcomings, before being accused by M. Babiš of politicizing the debate.
Andrej Babiš, a critical European
The Q&A session largely focused on domestic issues and grievances regarding what is perceived as Brussels’ uncalled-for infringements of national sovereignty in key issues, mainly pertaining to the EU’s immigration and asylum policy – vigorously criticized by the Czech Republic and other Visegrad members.
Faithful to his centrist and pragmatic stance regarding EU affairs, Andrej Babiš reasserted his oft-repeated belief in the “wonderful” European project and stressed how “positive” the EU membership has been for the Czech Republic, mainly from the standpoint of the common market, trade and attractiveness to foreign investments. Acknowledging that the Czech Republic consistently stands out as the most Eurosceptic country in all Eurobarometers and surveys, the Prime Minister however insisted that “Czexit would be a catastrophe” for the country.
He was, however, not shy to voice his discontent regarding specific – and rather consequential – aspects of the EU. As could be expected, the bloc’s immigration policy and the relocation mechanism were high on the agenda. The former Finance Minister also spoke out against the European Commission, calling for it to be “depoliticized” and advocating more powers to individual Member states in the EU law-making process. He also repeated his long-known stance against the Czech Republic joining the Eurozone.
French-Czech relations: a symptom of the East-West divide or a bridge towards unity and cooperation?
The differences of opinion with the French position were significant, with Nathalie Loiseau, a career diplomat and former head of France’s prestigious civil-servant school ENA, highlighting the many tangible advantages of the EU and the need for deeper integration to address current and future challenges. This gap sometimes seemed insurmountable: whether it is the Czech Republic’s unshakeable opposition to any quotas or France’s threatening calls for deeper EU integration, Prague and Paris might have trouble finding some common ground.
But the French-Czech relations are also a cause for hope. As stressed by the French Ambassador in Prague during the discussions, the Czech Republic remains a highly strategic and valuable partner for France in the region. On the other hand, and sometimes in a perfectly fluent French, M. Babiš expressed the Czech Republic’s desire to take a more active role in the EU. President Macron’s flagship idea of the “European sovereignty” – designed as an extension of national sovereignties, rather than their replacement – might also resonate well with M. Babiš’ worldview.
This catchphrase might sound like an abstract concept, if not yet-another example of M. Macron’s now famous “en même temps” oxymoron figure of speech (the fact of saying one thing and the opposite in the same sentence). Of course, it remains to be seen how it can survive to Europe’s realpolitik. M. Babiš, particularly in the run-up to last year’s elections, has been a vocal critic of the French President’s calls for deeper EU integration. However, progress has, since then, been made on hotly-debated topics, like the reform of the posted workers directive, while the EU has shown it was willing to compromise, as exemplified by the recent Tuzemak rum affair. This should make us hopeful in light of the many divisive topics EU Member states will have to address in the near future (EU budget talks, negotiations on the “Dublin IV” system, etc.), likely, once again, to drive a wedge between Western Europe and nations of the former communist bloc.
Personal relationships should never be belittled in such cases. Andrej Babiš, a 63 year-old Slovak billionaire with interests in the agricultural, chemical and media sectors, may not seem to have much in common with Emmanuel Macron, a 40 year-old French civil-servant and former investment banker. Both men, however, are often depicted – accurately or not – as political outsiders whose movements (ANO for M. Babiš and En Marche for M. Macron) and rise to victory rocked their respective political spheres and shattered the status quo of mainstream parties. M. Babiš himself suggested that he might have been an inspiration for M. Macron’s En Marche movement. Both men also share a centrist stance and pragmatic way of governing which might prove a useful bond.
Interestingly enough, Czech society as a whole seems to have a good opinion of M. Macron. A recent survey conducted by Bratislava-based think-tank Globsec showed that Czechs were, compared to their Visegrad neighbours, the most in favour of his policies (49%) and preferred him to other world leaders, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“We need politicians of the Charles de Gaulle or Churchill type”, said M. Babiš last Thursday, before suggesting Emmanuel Macron could, “maybe”, be that man.
A flattering and conventional praise of the French president in the presence of his minister?
Or a subtle nod to his growing European leadership and implicit indication of the hopes (and fears) his proactive EU agenda stirs up in the Czech Republic?