Interview with Dr. Seán Hanley: In the Czech Republic it is not quite clear what euroscepticism really means

Less than 2 months before the European elections we bring you an interview with Dr. Seán Hanley* who spoke to us about euroscepticism in the Czech Republic and the role of the EU for citizens.

 According to you, Mr. Hanley, what are the main differences in the Czech and British euroscepticism?

Czech right wing euroscepticism is quite similar to British conservative euroscepticism because the Civic Democrats modelled themselves on British Conservatives and were very influenced by them. In the Czech Republic you also have a tradition of left wing euroscepticism which is basically centred around the Communist party whose attitude to Europe is, nevertheless, quite complicated. So there is a bloc of eurosceptic voters is also on the left and you don’t find this to the same extent in Britain.

The other big difference is related to where the voters are -  Czech right wing voters on the whole are not eurosceptic whereas the British right-wing voters, i.e. voters mainly of the Conservative party, are eurosceptic - so there is a mismatch on the right in the Czech Republic which you don’t find in Britain. 

The other difference is withdrawal or the partial exit from the European Union is quite possible for British people, almost likely.  In the Czech Republic it is not quite so clear what euroscepticism really means, in the sense of what it can realistically achieve. There are parties who want to leave the European Union but for a medium sized Central European country like the Czech Republic it’s not a realistic prospect.

Do you think that Czech voters are basically indifferent about the EU while on the British side it is more of an issue?

Not really. I think the British are slightly more concerned than the Czechs, but voters in Europe in general are not concerned about the EU. It is not an issue of high salience. For most voters the EU is usually a symbol – it’s the establishment, its bureaucracy... A symbol of something pointless, distant. It’s probably true to say that there is a core of British voters for whom Europe is very important. But basically all European are very largely indifferent to the EU.

Does the issue of the EU have any potential for the Czech populist parties?

Not really. In one of his articles, Paul Taggart has called the EU “a touchstone of dissent“, convenient focus for a whole variety of resentments which have usually focused on other things, like for example political class, corruption, immigration... So I don’t think Europe itself is an issue which on its own really works for populists. It has to be tied to something else.

Do you think that the lack of interest for the matters related to the EU is caused by the political parties not devoting enough attention to them, or the other way around – are the political parties just reacting to the general public disinterest for the EU?

I don’t think it is the fault of political parties. Some of them, even in the Czech Republic, have tried very hard to talk about European issues. I think there’s a kind of structural disinterest, given the fact that the Europe is organized into nation states and most people identify with the national state and the nation. There is no strong European identity. And there is also democratic deficit in the European Union: the directly elected European Parliament has a limited political power and does not produce a government. It is the national governments who still play the key role. So the low interest is a very logical response from the part of citizens. 

*Dr. Seán Hanley is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London. He specializes in the politics of Central and Eastern Europe and the comparative development of political parties and democracy in Europe with particular focus on the politics of the Czech Republic.