Republished from ‘A Week in Brexitland’ weekly newsletter from Nick Tyrone, with the author’s permission. To subscribe to the newsletter, contact [email protected]
Something that is remarkable about Brexit that is almost never talked about in Britain is that the UK, more than any other member state, fought for expansion of the European Union into what had been the Warsaw Pact nations. Britain fought harder and longer for this than any other country. The French, the Germans and the Italians all went through periods of doubt on this subject, but it was the British who continued to argue it was the right thing to do. Then, having got what we wanted, we used it as an excuse to leave the EU altogether.
Obviously, it’s more complicated than that. The Labour government of the early 21st century vastly under-estimated the number of migrants who would come to Britain from the member states admitted in 2004. Although, it was kind of predictable in retrospect; existing EU member states were given until May 2011 to offer full freedom of movement rights to citizens of the new arrivals into the bloc, and yet Britain was one of only three countries to offer them up immediately to everyone. The other countries to do the same were Ireland and Sweden; the first, a small country with what I don’t think it’s an insult to say had a developing economy at the time that would welcome a large influx of skilled labour and the second, a country with a small population in which it is difficult to work if you don’t have high command of the language.
In other words, the size of the large-scale migration from central and Eastern Europe to Britain in the 2000s was the UK government’s fault, as things that are blamed on the EU often are.
What is the view from the Czechs on Brexit? I spoke first to Vaclav Barovsky, who used to work for Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit, a German NGO that is devoted to classical liberalism – free markets, free trade. I met him in 2015 when I was running CentreForum as we were doing work with other liberal think tanks and NGOs across Europe at the time. He’s out of politics now, and in fact has even moved out of Prague, living in a quiet town near the Czech-Polish border.
‘I find it difficult to detach my own personal feelings from those of people throughout the Czech Republic, but it was a huge shock,’ Vaclav said when I asked him about his response to June 2016 and Britain voting to leave the EU. ‘It was at the height of the migration crisis across central Europe, so the mood was quite stirred in the Czech Republic.’
Did that change between 2016 and 2019? ‘There was talk around the Irish Protocol and the complexities of that and we started to say in Czechia, “The Brits, they will not be able to figure this out”. So don’t even try and trick people here into believing that “Czechit” is a realistic option.’
This was something that happened in many EU member states after Brexit was so drawn out and the trade deal so obviously slanted against Great Britain, with the UK itself being carved up in customs terms. It acted as a warning to countries in which there had been Euroscepticism for a long time – and the Czech Republic had been one of the more Eurosceptic of EU members pre-Brexit.
Anti-EU rhetoric came undone
Nowadays, any ideas of leaving the EU seem to have died out in Czechia, almost entirely because of Brexit. Before the 2017 general elections in the country, the SPD, a new hard right party that was mostly dedicated at the time to anti-migration and anti-EU rhetoric, came undone on the rocks of Brexit. In 2016, shortly after the Leave vote in the UK, the SPD ran a campaign that was essentially, “We will do Czechit the British way”. Apparently, this is an idiom in the Czech Republic, to do things the “British way” – to do things practically but elegantly at the same time – which the SPD were trying to play on.
However, they withdrew the campaign before the 2017 election because they were getting such negative feedback. ‘The whole thing blew up in their face,’ Vaclav told me. ‘The SPD were being made fun of by the media for the whole thing, so they withdrew it.’ Even by 2017, Brexit was looking less like a breaking free from the chains of the European Union and something akin to an historical misstep.
A positive view on UK rejoining?
How would the Czech Republic feel about the UK wanting to rejoin the EU? Would it be happy about that, reluctant to accept it, interested but with caveats?
‘I think it would be great if Britain could rejoin,’ Vaclav told me. ‘I think this might be the more general attitude in Czechia as well. Czechs felt we were natural allies to Great Britain. Particularly on political union as we are sceptical as a country about that as well. After Brexit, it felt like the political centre drifted more towards Paris, while Berlin doesn’t really know what it wants with the EU. We are still thinking here: what will the European Union be for us now?’
‘I don’t think anyone in Czech Republic would poke fun at the Brits for their mistake. Yes, it’s a mess but we understand that Brexit came about because a specific set of circumstances. 2016 was the time for it and the vote would probably have been different if held at another time. Now, the British are stuck with that for maybe many decades to come. I think the Czechs would definitely be okay with UK rejoining the EU.’
This sentiment was echoed by Kryštof Kruliš, a research fellow at the Prague based foreign policy NGO, AMO.
‘Most of the population, most of the political forces in the Czech Republic would be strongly in favour of Britain rejoining the European Union. I can imagine perhaps some marginal voice being against the idea, perhaps those who would see Britain as being too “accountist” – in every society, you have people like Jeremy Corbyn.’
What Kryštof is specifically referring to is the fact that in the Czech Republic, the only party that remains consistently anti-EU is the old communist party, although it has splintered many times and each splinter group claims to be the true heirs to the old Komunistická strana Československa, the bunch who ruled Czechoslovakia between 1946 and 1992.
The communist parties in Czechia are extremely politically marginal and none of them currently hold any seats in parliament. It is therefore difficult to see how they would ever cause any real obstruction to the UK rejoining the EU from the Czechs.
Some EU members want us back
One of the central ironies about central and Eastern European countries that I have picked up from my research thus far is that all of them seemingly would welcome Britain back into the EU because of the UK’s inherent Euroscepticism. In other words, let’s have the Brits back in the EU to block expansion of the EU into new policy areas and competences. It’s a great reminder that a lot of people across the EU27 won’t be looking for Britain to have changed in order to be let back into the club, but rather, what that they miss is the old Britain. They want us back, warts and all.