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Czech-Polish relations should move “beyond anti-refugee rhetoric”

Prague, Czech Republic – Countless papers and articles about Central European countries’ ties with their Western counterparts have already been published. But very few have focused on specific Czech-Polish bilateral relations within the Visegrad Group.

In a highly instructive policy paper, released in December, the Prague-based think-tank Association of International Affairs (AMO) explores the state of relations between Poland and the Czech Republic, the V4’s two biggest states. Here are the key takeaways.

Czech-Polish relations: Cordial and dominated by anti-refugee stance

Vit Dostal, AMO Research Center director and author of the study, points out that, although the relations between Poland and the Czech Republic are, by many accounts, very good and cordial, they’re mainly dominated by the countries’ joint narrative – along with the two other Visegrad Group members’, Hungary and Slovakia – on refugees. Their shared anti-immigration stance is mainly illustrated by their opposition to any sort of mandatory relocation of asylum-seekers throughout the bloc and their refusal to sign the U.N. migration pact last month.

“The resistance to any relocation scheme for asylum-seekers spills over into the thematization of an alleged broader cultural war between Central and Western Europe”, the author argues, adding that this attitude will “become more salient in the run-up to the European Parliament elections” and “may lead into isolation” of both countries on the EU stage. To tackle the migration crisis, both countries stress the importance of providing development aid and funds directly to countries of origins in Africa.

But behind their common stance, two very different approaches are at work. While “in the Law and Justice discourse (in Poland) is a deeply rooted conviction that Western European societies, polities and intellectual elites are obsessed with multiculturalism, glorification of minorities and secularism”, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ rejection “is not based on deeply rooted party ideology”, but on a pragmatic political orientation and well-mastered PR aimed at addressing – or taking advantage of – the fears of the Czech public. But Babis has also lately stepped up his rhetoric to draw a broader critic of Western Europe’s multiculturalism, arguing that the Czech Republic and other Visegrad countries are among the safest in Europe mostly because they stood firm and refused to accept waves of non-EU refugees and migrants.

A risk of growing isolation in the EU

As Vit Dostal argues, both countries may find themselves increasingly isolated if they fail to change course and remain entrenched in this attitude: “Poland and the Czech Republic could find themselves in a very difficult situation. They are not members of the Eurozone, benefit from EU money transfers through cohesion and agricultural policies and are dependent on the European Commission guardian role vis-à-vis the EU’s single market – one of the key benefits of both countries’ EU membership”.

The possibility of losing parts of the EU funds in the next multi-annual budget, either as a leverage to deter rule of law infringements or simply as a direct result of Brexit, may force them to strike a more conciliatory tone with their European partners. Although it’s more likely the Czech Republic, considered the more moderate member of the Visegrad Group with Slovakia, will be the one to tone down its discourse, the Law and Justice party in Poland, which just faced a series of setbacks after its win in last October’s local elections, “could also pull back from sharpening the East-West cultural conflict and smoothen its rhetoric in order to attract centrist voters before the general election in autumn 2019”.

Room for improvement in bilateral relations

Bilateral relations, both at the political level and in terms of economic and trade cooperation, are mutually strategic on both sides of the border. Their close relationship also stems from their collaboration within a number of regional formats, including the Visegrad Group, the Bucharest Nine and the Three Seas Initiative.

But AMO identifies several areas where a step forward might be needed to boost Czech-Polish relations in the near future, arguing that the “Czech-Polish alliance lacks tangible novel future-oriented projects” today: defense cooperation, where a deepening of high-level meetings between Defense and Foreign Ministers of both countries should be promoted; environmental issues, to tackle well-known problems like air pollution or address more recent developments, like the expansion of a lignite mine in Poland which has a direct impact on the Czech Liberec region; the “unsettled territorial debt”, through which the Czech Republic “owes Poland 368 hectares of territory after the straightening of the border which took place in the 1950’s”.

And finally, both countries should appropriately mark, this month, the 100th anniversary of their last military conflict: the so-called 1919 Seven-Day war over Cieszyn Silesia which accounted for most of the tense relations between then-Czechoslovakia and Poland in the interwar period. “Czechoslovak and Czech officials never expressed regrets for these events”, according to Vit Dostal, something to consider in order for the anniversary not to be hijacked “by groups glorifying the Czechoslovak military action in 1919.

AMO is a non-governmental, non-profit research organization and think-tank founded in Prague in 1997. Highly active in the field of foreign policy issues, it’s one of the leading research institutions on Czech foreign policy, bilateral relations and European affairs in the Czech Republic. You can find the policy paper here.

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