Czech Elections: Will there be a Czechxit?

By Pierre Georges Van Wolleghem


10 Oct. 2017

“Don’t sell the skin till you have caught the bear”
Laurentius Astemius

After fears of EU disintegration cast their shades on Europe, the 2017 French and German elections have put Euro-skepticism to rest. For a little while only though. The win of Euro-enthusiast Macron in France combined with a fourth term for Merkel in Germany led to declarations in favour of enhanced cooperation and a relaunch of the European project. Accordingly, many would have thought the worst was behind, that Brexit hadn’t had the spillover effect many analysts feared. But the Czech elections to occur at the end of the month could well change the course of events. Little covered by international press, the elections carry a risk on European integration: what’s at stake is a Czechxit.

The Czechs and immigration
The Czech Republic has a rather short immigration history. For long a place of emigration, major influxes occurred after the fall of the Berlin Wall (Čaněk and Čižinský, 2011). Its rather successful economic transition to market economy made it an attractive pole in Eastern Europe. That said, the Czech Republic remains a country rather ethnically homogeneous. The data provided by Eurostat (see ISMU’s 23rd national report, forthcoming, for more this) show that, as of 2014, as much as 91.7% of the population in the country was of Czech descent, a rather high figure in the EU.
In a similar fashion, the issue has never been very salient in public opinion, save for the past few years, in which it drastically increased (figure 1). From 2007 to 2014, the salience of the issue in the Czech Republic was, on average, 7 percentage points below EU28’s mean. It significantly rose thereafter and peaked at 47% in fall 2015, 11 percentage points higher than the average EU28 salience.

Figure 1 – Salience of immigration in public opinion in the Czech Republic and EU28 (%)

Source: own elaboration on Eurobarometer data. Question: what are the two most important issues facing (your country)?

Czech politics, immigration, and the future of the EU
Such salience of the issue may well have boosted an already strong anti-establishment party, the ANO, led by millionaire Andrej Babiš. According to the Express, ANO could well take the lead on 20 and 21 October this year. Credited with 26.5% of the votes, he is far ahead the Social Democrats (ČSSD; 14.5%) and the Communist party (KSČM; 13%). A victory of Euro-sceptic and anti-immigration Babiš could very well precipitate the country towards a Czechxit. This is not the first time the country faces such a risk. Is spite of being a relatively new EU member state (it joined in 2004), Czech Republic’s President Milos Zeman already called for a referendum on EU membership in the wake of the Britain’s vote to leave (the Government however dismissed his claim). At the time, Euro-scepticism was widespread in the country: 61.6% of the Czechs declared they tended not to trust the EU (Eurobarometer 85, 2016). As of May 2017, as much as 63% of the Czechs declared so, making it the second most Euro-sceptic people of Europe (after the Greeks, 76%; Eurobarometer 87, 2017). Interestingly, when Zeman called for a referendum, Andrej Babiš were not so keen on the idea. He seems to have changed his mind on the issue for these elections.
Despite the little attention they attract in international and European newspapers, these elections are of major interest. On the one hand, another country may set out to leave the Union; on the other, the Czech Republic seems to be symptomatic of a current trend in Central and Eastern Europe. Central and Eastern European Countries are characterized by increasing salience of immigration in public opinion and ever less support to a common migration policy. Maps 1 and 2 are, in this respect, quite talkative. Both maps cover the period from fall 2014, when immigration started to increase in saliency throughout Europe (see figure 1), to spring 2016 when it started to decrease again. This period is of the utmost interest as it covers the unprecedented increase of influxes of 2015. Map 1 summarizes the increasing salience of immigration in public opinion. Note that salience has increased in every single EU country; the smallest increase being of 11.2 percentage point in Portugal and the highest of 48.7 points in Hungary (see table 1 below). Map 2 shows the change in the percentage of people declaring themselves against an EU migration policy. The change is the greatest for the Baltic countries, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria (see table 1 for more detailed information).

Map 1 – Increase in the salience of immigration in public opinion between Fall 2014 and Spring 2016

Source: own elaboration on Eurobarometer data.

Map 2 – Increase of the percentage of Europeans against a Common Migration Policy between Fall 2014 and Spring 2016

Source: own elaboration on Eurobarometer data.

Not surprisingly, the Czech Republic was amongst the opponents to the mechanism of relocation of asylum seekers from Italy and Greece, along with Hungary, Slovakia and Romania; all four countries voted against the bill putting the mechanism in place. It is interesting now to take a look at the covariation between increasing salience, increasing opinion against a common policy and increasing distrust in the EU. Table 1 below reports the differences between fall 2014 and spring 2016 on these three items. The first column summarizes the difference in percentage points of EU citizens declaring immigration is one of the two most important issues facing the EU; the second column the change in people declaring themselves against a migration policy at EU level; and the third column reports the change in people declaring they trust the EU (a negative value therefore means they trust less the EU in 2016 than in 2014).
The Czech Republic is here an interesting example. The issue gained salience between 2014 and 2016 as the percentage of people declaring immigration as one of the most important issues increased of 40.7 points. Similarly, the percentage of people against a common policy increased of 20.4 points; one of the highest increase in the EU. Finally, the percentage of people declaring their trust in the EU decreased of 14.6 points; the highest decrease in the EU. In the case of Central and Eastern European Countries, there appears to be some sort of relationship between the three items mentioned above.

Table 1 – Change in Europeans’ opinion regarding importance of immigration, support to a common migration policy and trust in the EU between Fall 2014 and Spring 2016 (in percentage points)

Source: own elaboration on Eurobarometer data.

Have we sold the skin before we caught the bear?
Indeed, we probably did sell the skin too soon as the risk of EU disintegration is still looming. The elections of 2017 defeated the far-right almost everywhere: in Austria (end 2016), the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom and Germany. Recently, the arrival in office of Macron and Merkel as well as their joint declarations to relaunch the European construction seemed to dismiss fears of the Union’s dismantlement. On this basis, the European Commission put forward a plan in late September to provide asylum seekers a legal channel to get to the EU. However, the refusal of some member states to vote and, then, implement the emergency relocation mechanism despite its formal adoption (see figure 2) is symptomatic of increased tensions within the Union on immigration policies.

Figure 2 – Percentage of asylum seekers actually relocated from Italy and Greece compared to the totals established by EU Decisions; as of 4 September 2017

Source: own elaboration on European Commission data.

That said, if the increase of Euroscepticism in the Czech Republic is worrisome, does that mean that Czechxit is going to be proposed to the Czechs? True, the ANO is far ahead in opinion polls; but two elements cast doubts on such a scenario. Firstly, credited with 26.5%, the ANO is unlikely to govern on its own. A coalition with less EU-sceptic parties is going to be necessary, which would undoubtedly affect the ANO’s capacity to put a referendum on the table. Secondly, the ANO is already part of the coalition in office and does not seem to advance much on its agenda. Now that Babiš is being charged with fraud, the elections could well take a new turn.