There are at least four reasons why one might expect Brexit to be a high-proﬁle, politicised issue in Czech politics. First of all, there is increasing evidence that the European Union (EU) crises, of which Brexit is currently probably the most acute, have led to increased politicisation of EU politics in many member states. Secondly, the Czech EU debate is generally politicised and characterised by a predominantly critical tone. Indeed, the country has long been one of the most Eurosceptic EU member states, with a strong tradition of party-based Euroscepticism and a low level of public trust in the EU (according to the latest Eurobarometer survey, it has the third lowest level of public trust in the EU after Greece and the United Kingdom). Thirdly, the Czech Republic has – very much like the UK – earned a reputation of a reluctant integrationist when it comes to closer political integration and is a member of the Visegrad Group, which has recently become synonymous with the word ‘rebellion’ in Brussels. Fourthly, the Czech Republic has long considered the UK an important partner within the European power game and has shown a certain degree of sympathy with the UK throughout the withdrawal process.
Thus, it might come as a surprise that the Czech Brexit policy has been characterised by two key features: 1) a low level of politicisation and 2) a high degree of compliance with the EU’s official Brexit position. Let us now look at each of these.
Low level of politicisation
In the Czech Republic, the whole ‘Brexit policy process’ has been driven by executive dominated dynamics, being essentially ‘a project by political elites’, with no role played by other political actors such as civil society groups and social movements. Ultimately, it is the Czech government, which assumes the central responsibility for formulating the Czech policy towards the withdrawal negotiations (and the preparations thereof). This institutional set-up has left both parliamentary chambers and their respective committees for EU affairs in a relatively weak position to inﬂuence the debate on Brexit.
Moreover, no Brexit-related political conﬂicts have been articulated and mobilised in public. Nor has Brexit become salient in national elections, nor has it had any signiﬁcant impact on agendas of Czech political actors. With virtually zero political conﬂict over the issue as such, Brexit has not become a mobilising issue in the Czech electoral arena. Instead, a broad cross-party consensus emerged between the ruling and opposition parties represented in the Czech parliament with regard to the policy and procedural preferences vis-à-vis Brexit, as epitomised by the Joint Statement adopted in February 2017. Such a broad consensus makes Brexit quite a unique issue in Czech EU policy, and even though the priorities identiﬁed tend to be rather general and broad-based, the consensus has been widely perceived as a good-practice example of unifying policy positions on key issues of Czech European policy.
Regarding party-political attention, no relevant Czech political party has exploited Brexit and strategically driven the politicisation on the issue. Currently, the only political party elected in the 2017 parliamentary elections to the Chamber of Deputies that would like to replicate the UK’s experience and actively promotes a referendum on the Czech Republic’s membership in the EU is the non-governing, far-right, and, hard-eurosceptic Freedom and Direct Democracy (Svoboda a přímá demokracie). Yet, even this party has not shaped parliamentary deliberations or public debate on Brexit in any meaningful way.
A high degree of compliance with the official EU position
Occasional deviations from the common EU position notwithstanding, the Czech Republic has been largely very loyal to the principal EU lines on Brexit, with its government taking care not to communicate deviating views on Brexit and speaking highly of the EU’s uniﬁed front on Brexit. Indeed, the Czech oﬃcial position on Brexit has largely converged with that of the EU27, both in terms of procedural and policy preferences, and the country’s views have echoed the sentiments of the European Commission and the European Council on a wide range of matters. The Czech Republic has also adhered to all the EU’s principles, including the no-negotiation-without-notiﬁcation principle, the phased approach to negotiations, sequencing of negotiations, the single channel of communication and rejection of parallelism, the sector-by-sector approach and rejection of bilateral negotiations with individual member states.
Exploring the reasons for low politicisation
Ultimately, there are two key, closely intertwined, aspects that help explain the low level of politicisation of Brexit in Czech politics: (1) the character of Czech-UK bilateral relations and (2) the degree of the country’s exposure to the implications of Brexit.
In terms of the former, the Czech bilateral relationship with the UK (be it in its diplomatic, economic or security dimension) does not exactly stand out in any way. Both countries have long maintained ‘a fundamentally sound and stable relationship that runs wide, rather than deep, across many areas of activity, and is broadly devoid of any greater politicisation or polarisation potential’, with the trend of mutual relations being one of ‘practical, pragmatic (rather than strategic), depoliticised, and decentralised bilateral cooperation in various areas of mutual interest and at multiple levels of governance’.
Regarding the degree of the country’s exposure to Brexit implications, losing the UK as an ally within the European power game is an issue that naturally creates certain concerns in the Czech Republic. At the same time, however, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has not disturbed the country’s core geopolitical and economic interests, with the its economic exposure to Brexit consequences being neither exceptionally high, nor low. Part of the explanation of this ‘unexceptional level’ of Brexit exposure refers to the country’s high degree of economic dependence on the EU’s single market (and especially Germany), geographic distance from the UK (as opposed to Ireland, for instance), lack of robust investment and ﬁnancial links with the UK (unlike the Netherlands, for instance), limited number of Czech businesses headquartered in the UK or with manufacturing, sales and research operations there (unlike the Netherlands, for instance), the absence of intensive people-to-people links (unlike Cyprus, for instance) and relatively small size of the Czech expat community in the UK (unlike Poland, for instance).
To conclude, with no or very little incentive to spend political capital on this largely uncontroversial (that is, at least for now) issue, the Czech political elite has not exploited Brexit, nor has it strategically driven the politicisation on the issue. As such, within Czech politics, Brexit has not become a focal point of any political controversies, nor has it been salient in national elections or had a signiﬁcant impact on the agendas of key political actors. Yet, it will be very interesting to observe whether this conclusion will apply also to talks on future UK-EU relations which are to be negotiated once the UK leaves the bloc and which are generally believed to be substantially harder than the already diﬃcult phase one.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. It draws on the author’s published work in European Politics and Society: Full of surprises, or surprisingly not? The peculiar case of Czech Brexit policy. The post first appeared at the Oxford Politics blog.
Monika Brusenbauch Meislová is an assistant professor at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic.