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18. 4. 2024

More about this event

April 10th, 2024, sees Brussels’ Prague House abuzz with lively discussion, courtesy of the Institute for Politics and Society. The evening centres around the Czech Republic’s recent 25th anniversary of NATO membership and 20th anniversary of EU membership.

Recent years have been a rollercoaster of pivotal political and societal events in the EU and its neighbouring regions, demanding monumental decisions amidst challenges such as the pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine, and the ensuing cost-of-living crisis. Such challenges, paired with the vicennial of Czechia’s EU membership, provide great cause to reflect on how EU integration has affected the Czech Republic. ‘THE CZECH REPUBLIC’S JOURNEY: TWO DECADES IN THE EU AND A QUARTER CENTURY IN NATO’, organised by the Institute for Politics and Society and moderated by Jan Macháček (Chairman of the Board, Institute for Politics and Society) guides this retrospection, as well as discussions surrounding the future of the Czech Republic in the EU, its position in NATO, and how such alliances will continue to shape the country.

The first panel, Twenty Years of the Czech Republic in the EU, features Martin Hlaváček (Member, European Parliament), Jacques Rupnik (Research professor, SciencesPo), and Ivan Hodač (Founder, Chairman of the Supervisory Board & Honorary Board Chairman, Aspen Institute Central Europe). The panel focuses on achievements, challenges, and the Czech Republic’s evolving European narrative.

Professor Jacques Rupnik highlights the EU’s role in the post-1989 democratic transformation and the framework for Czech-Slovak relations. When asked about the main achievements of the EU in terms of the Czech Republic, Rupnik states “..the most important thing [is that] entry into the European Union provided an anchor for the Post-89 transformation and for the new democracy, that is true for the Czech Republic but it is true for the whole central European region.”, praising the EU as a vital tool for the European integration of the Czech Republic as well as for consolidating democracy in the area. Rupnik goes on to say that the EU was indispensable in healing the trauma of the Czechoslovakian separation, and in building the framework for their current relationship. Rupnik points out that it was not an obvious thing for the two nations to join the European Union independently after the separation, but that within the union “they were able to abolish the border they had just created”. The Professor also highlights that the relationship between Czech and Slovak politics has been occasionally divergent, but very good, partly due to their joint membership in the European Union. Rupnik’s praise of the EU is somewhat contrasted by Martin Hlaváček who details how the commission has shifted from an impartial arbiter to a distinct political entity with greater involvement, he believes this creates more conflict and discordance amongst EU institutions and member states. Hlaváček comments on erosion of authenticity within the EU, which subsequently leads to euroscepticism amongst citizens of member states.

To illustrate the inevitability of uncertain attitudes towards the EU, Rupnik touches on post-89 European narratives detailing the views about the European Union held by prominent political figures. He mentions the eurosceptic narrative of some, as well as the pro-European narrative of others, reminding us of Vaclav Klaus’ statement “are we going to dissolve our sovereignty and identity in Europe like a lump of sugar in a cup of coffee?” to truly highlight the fear many Czechs have had surrounding EU membership. Rupnik goes on to say that such fear is no longer seen in prominent Czech politicians claiming that, on the whole, “Czech politics has evolved to a sort-of Europragmatism” which entails the understanding that “joining Europe [Union] is not just like joining a club that will give you subsidies to build this and that”, nothing comes for free; if a country benefits from EU democracy, it also has to fulfil certain obligations. This sentiment is shared by Ivan Hodač, who emphasises the values of liberal democratic society and the economic benefits of EU membership.

Hodač mentions the importance of the free movement of people and capital across borders, as well as the economic growth and benefits derived from EU membership. Mr Hodač expresses positivity towards the Erasmus program, citing it as an example of the wonderful opportunities that can be experienced under freedom of movement. This seems to inspire a remark from Hlaváček: “[for the younger generations] this is no longer of value to them, it is a normality]” implying that touting this as a benefit of the EU is inconsequential to the youth – the statement receives a nod of agreement from Hodač and, moderator, Jan Macháček. In terms of economic benefits, Hodač acknowledges the criticism of the EU’s regulatory framework but emphasises the positive side of economic growth and the benefits that the Czech Republic has derived from EU membership. Hodač echoes Hlaváček’s sentiment of difficulty in communicating EU benefits to the general public, and illustrates the consequences, saying we will never succeed if “the butcher in the Czech Republic making his sausages does not understand that he can sell them the next morning in Austria due to the existence of the EU”. Overall, Hodač’s emphasis on the values of liberal democratic society and the economic benefits of EU membership underscore the positive impact of EU integration on the Czech Republic.

Martin Hlaváček discusses the need for effective communication and the changing dynamics of the Visegrad Group, a sentiment that is touched upon by previous speakers. All mention that the V4 group, which – according to both Hodač and Hlaváček – initially aimed to have more weight within the EU, has now evolved into more ad hoc coalitions on different subjects. Jacques Rupnik highlights the recent symbolic and political parting of ways within the V4 group, which all speakers reference as indicative of a shift in alliances and partnerships across the EU. Rupnik’s point prompts the others to later express concern about the disintegration of the V4 group and the need for the Czech Republic to adapt to new challenges and define its position within the EU.

Within in the discussion, Hlaváček relays a story about an emergency meeting he had with colleagues following the invasion of Ukraine in which his colleagues from the former ‘western union’ did not understand the anxiety of ‘eastern’ states, and thus called for education of the western states to learn more about the history and experience of the former-soviet states in a bid to improve dynamics.

The second panel, A Quarter of a Century of the Czech Republic in NATO, highlights the significance of NATO enlargement, the contributions of the Czech Republic to NATO, and the importance of NATO as an organising framework for defence. The panel discusses the impact of NATO membership, the importance of interoperability, and the challenges, including financial commitments and the geopolitical implications of Ukraine’s war. The panel is composed of Jakub Landovský (Permanent Representative of the Czech Republic to NATO), Jiří Šedivý (Chief Executive, European Defense Agency), and Petr Luňák (Deputy Head, NATO Public Diplomacy Division).

Jiří Šedivý discusses the concerns and fears surrounding NATO enlargement when the Czech Republic was attempting to join in the 1990s. He outlines five main arguments the west had against enlargement, including the fear of new members being “free riders,” cost estimates, military interoperability, security risks, and public support. He also emphasises the importance of public support for NATO membership, stating that at least 50% of the population should support it, which initially Czechia struggled with (he claims that now over 70% of Czechs support NATO). Šedivý then provides examples of how the Czech Republic has contributed to NATO, such as its involvement in Afghanistan which was “the biggest test” for Czechia and its military during which it “really proved [itself]”.

The Afghanistan conflict remains a popular example amongst the panellists throughout the conversation, both due to political-historical relevance, and parallels with the conflict in Ukraine. Šedivý mentions how, following the end of conscription in 2004, the role of Czechia in Afghanistan increased the professionalisation of the Czech Armed forces. He remarks upon how the Czech military offered medical capabilities, helicopter training and delivery, and more, during its time in Afghanistan which Jakub Landovský calls back to as an example of the Czech commitment to NATO, however he states that “we are unable to formulate ends to our security needs” as was the case with Afghanistan and now with Ukraine, claiming inability to say “what we want to achieve in what timeframe, and when to leave”.

Jakub Landovský discusses the challenges of collective defence potential in Europe, accenting the importance of military mobility and deployability. Landovský urges people to understand that NATO membership is a commitment and as soon as the Czech Republic joined it “immediately stopped to pay [its] dues”. Additionally, he addresses the sensitive topic of deploying NATO troops in Ukraine, emphasising the need for strategic signals to adversaries and the potential consequences of ambiguous signals, stating that the Czech Republic was never one of the many countries that believed the war would be over within a few weeks. Principally, Landovský remarks upon the complex and multifaceted nature of NATO’s role in military operations and strategic decision-making. He explains how Czechia acted quickly in response to Russian aggression, gathering with other eastern flank countries to provide help whilst avoiding escalation concerning the duties of alliance, in this case “NATO was shielding the activities that the allies were doing to support Ukraine”.

Petr Lunak provides historical context for the discussion, underscoring the significance of NATO enlargement in strengthening the organisation’s legitimacy and reinforcing the commitment to collective defence. This relates to current events as Lunak discusses the implications of Ukraine’s potential NATO membership, highlighting the need for strategic patience and the interplay between NATO and EU commitments.

Throughout the discussion, panellists highlight the importance of trust, institutions, and collective security in addressing contemporary challenges and the complexities of sending NATO troops to Ukraine.

The event at Brussels’ Prague House ultimately serves as a platform for insightful discussions on the Czech Republic’s 25th anniversary of NATO membership and 20th anniversary of EU membership. The panels highlight the positive impact of EU integration on the Czech Republic, the evolving dynamics of the Visegrad Group, and the significance of NATO enlargement in strengthening collective defence. Overall, the event underscores the importance of EU and NATO alliances in shaping the future of the Czech Republic and addressing contemporary challenges against the backdrop of a productive past.