From Babiš to Brexit (interview with


Photos in montage: David Sedlecký CC BY-SA 4.0 and The Millennium Report, 2016

You focus on right-wing parties in the Czech Republic – I mean ODS and TOP 09. According to surveys, they are not very popular and they are in opposition at present. Where did Czech right-wing parties make mistakes?  Do you think that they will be able to come back into government soon?

I don’t think right-wing parties will return to government other than as junior partners and TOP09 may not even return to parliament.

Where did Czech right wing parties go wrong? For ODS in not thinking early enough what the right-wing politics would represent in a Czech context once the basic tasks of transformation were over; sticking too long with Václav Klaus, whose idea of free market nationalistic, eurosceptic right-wing politics did not appeal broadly enough; in under-estimating the importance (and politically destructive effects) of corruption; in trying too late to reform its corrupt regional structures.  TOP09 suffered from being anti-ODS, too heavily dependent on the personal appeal of Karel Schwarzenberg.

Do Czech right-wing parties need a strong leader as Václav Klaus used to be?

Parties benefit from having attractive and charismatic leaders, and neither ODS nor TOP09 currently has one. Petr Fiala has done a good job “de-toxifying” ODS and rescuing it from extinction, but is dry and professorial. Miroslav’s Kalousek reputation is well known.   However, I don’t think a dynamic, charismatic leader alone would make the Czech right the political force it previously was.

As I mention above, Klaus’s strength and charisma was a mixed blessing: it gave ODS a clear ‘brand’ but stifled the development of the party longer term.

Unlike other Central European countries there are still many Czech people who vote for the Communist party. Why?

Czechia is unusual in Central Europe in having a genuine Communist tradition. The country was industrialised and had a communist movement during the First Republic; the Communist Party then won mass support in 1946; and, even after, 1968 still had roots in a part of Czech society, who identified with it at some level. The weakness of reformers in KSČM and the strong anti-communism of many other Czechs also probably reinforced the communist subculture after 1989.

It is also unsurprising that many older, poorer, less educated voters who have benefited less than other groups from post-1989 changes should vote for a party that is sceptical of or hostile to reforms. Voters with this demographic profile in other Central European countries vote for nationalist populist parties.

Why do people (not only in the Czech Republic) tend to trust anti-establishment parties? What do they expect from them and are parties like that able to live up their expectations in the long term?

Voters in Central and Eastern Europe do not generally identify with political parties in the way that some voters in Western Europe still do. Having seen the ‘standard’ parties of left and right fail to reform things well or fast or become embroiled in corruption, they are willing to try something new.   Research I have seen that voters for such parties (VV, ANO) are not ‘true believers’ – nor are they particularly poor, angry or frustrated – but see their chosen party as the ‘least bad’ choice and don’t want to give up on politics altogether.

It is rather difficult to classify Babiš´s ANO. Is it a right or left-wing movement?

It is indeed. It is certainly not of the left, might eventually develop into a party of the right and currently sits with the liberals in the European parliament.  It is currently deliberately keeping itself in state of ‘arrested development’ avoiding any meaningful ideological label and try to run against traditional parties as a movement of anti-politicians, who can deliver results.  In the long-term ANO or whatever is left of it if and when Babiš eventually exits politics (or is forced out), will probably end up as part of some future centre-right bloc.

Some people say that Babiš is an oligarch, some media compare him with former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi and some even think that he is „danger “for Czech democracy. Do you agree?

Babiš’s media empire is less extensive than Berlusconi’s and his economic resources, though huge, are not on the scale of post-Soviet oligarchs in Russia or Ukraine.  The rise of his movement reflects genuine concerns and corruption and good governance and some of legislation passed under this government about, for example, the supervision of parties or the civil service have been long overdue.

On the other hand, his concentration of economic, political and media power – like all concentrations of power – is potentially dangerous to democracy, as are his lack of clear political vision and impatient with compromise and negotiation, which are a normal (if unedifying) part of democratic politics. Although no one could object to more efficiency and pragmatism in government, his rhetoric about running the Czech Republic like a (family) firm has authoritarian undertones.  If ANO wins this year’s election handsomely as last month’s STEM poll suggested and dominates the next government, then it would too would worsen the quality of the Czech democracy, especially if Zeman was re-elected president.

 In short, so far ANO and Babiš have been quite an ambiguous phenomenon with good and bad sides. I think the Czech electorate, even if they do make him prime minister, would do well not give him too big a

The Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka is said to be a weak politician who just obey „orders “from Brussels or Angela Merkel. How strong is Czech position within the EU? Do Western countries respect Central European states in the Visegrad Group?

Sobotka has an emollient and technocratic style, but is a shrewd politician who has managed the competing pressures from bigger EU states, European institutions, Czech public opinion, competing parties and rivals in ČSSD quite skilfully. The Czech government’s policy does not strike me as especially co-operative with either Brussels or Berlin, but is not overtly confrontational. While the Czech Republic needs to co-ordinate with Visegrad states because it lacks the size and weigh to influence the direction of EU otherwise, it needs to differentiate itself from Hungary and Poland, whose governments are seen as nationalistic, authoritarian and at odds with the EU’s democratic values. Miloš Zeman’s self-described role of being the ‘Czech Donald Trump’ does not help the country’s image.

I think Western politicians have always tended to regard the states of Central and Eastern Europe as a source of potential instability to be managed. This view has been reinforced by developments in Poland and Hungary and the West-East split over the refugee crisis. Poland was taken seriously before the change of government in 2015 because of its economic success, size, military importance and new relationship with Germany.

Miloš Zeman has been the Czech president for already four years. How would you assess him? Does he put the Czech Republic to shame or is he a respected politician abroad?

Czech politicians do not generally have a high profile outside the Czech Republic and what profile they do have is usually shaped by one or two incidents, which attract international media attention. Zeman’s image is poor. It is shaped by the incident in May 2013 appeared to be drunk and by his statements about Muslims and Islam, which are inflammatory by West European standards.  His endorsement of Donald Trump, who is not a popular figure in most European countries, has also registered.

My assessment is that Zeman is a more serious politician with more coherent and wide-ranging ideas than many his opponents think, but one who has missed the chance to play a statesman-like role and seems to relish being a populist enfant terrible.

Central Europeans countries are against refugees/Muslims although there are almost none there in comparison with for example the UK and they are often criticized for a lack of solidarity. Is this negative stand on immigrants understandable?

Public concern in Central Europe are understandable in the sense that Central Europe states are small and vulnerable to geopolitical changes and that the European Union, which was supposed to a source of stability and security appeared dysfunctional in the face of the European refugee crisis.

What is less understandable is why public, politicians and media are so focused on a ‘threat’ that has so little reality.  What is very striking is that virtually no migrants and refugees want to settle in Central Europe, only to transit the region to reach Germany or Northern Europe. And that some of the few refugees who were accepted for resettlement have quickly left. Central Europe is too poor, too obscure and too lacking in diversity to be attractive as a destination for migrants – other than from the immediate region (Ukrainians in the Czech Republic and so on).

Central Europe’s real problems are those of weak and corrupt institutions; living standards that are still low compared to Western Europe; education systems that need reform; and for some countries, the emigration of best educated and most talented people.  When Central European countries are prosperous and economically dynamic as Sweden or Germany, the issue of if and how to become a multicultural society open to migration (or not) will become more relevant.

On the other hand, while all EU member states should respect the Union’s decision-making rules, some of the English language commentary about Central and East European states’ opposition to compulsory quotas for refugees was quite condescending. The arguments made in some such commentaries that Central European states owed a kind historic or moral debt to West and therefore should fall into line were very unfortunate.

How do you see the future of the EU after Brexit? Do you think that there will be other exits?

I personally doubt there will be more exits. Although a large section of public opinion in few EU states (Italy, Holland, France) is hostile or sceptical to EU membership, it would require very radical political forces to come to power, succeed calling a referendum and then also win it.

Britain was always very different from the rest of the EU because a large portion of mainstream parties and voters, first on the centre-left, later the centre-right were deeply sceptical of the country’s membership.

The bigger danger is that eurosceptic outsider parties will gain some influence in government and will paralyse the EU from within.  The Front National, Alternative for Germany and the Five Star Movement, for example, would all like to withdraw from the Euro

The atmosphere in Britain after Brexit has allegedly changed. More hate crimes, higher level of nationalism and racism… Is it true?

There was a rise in hate crimes directed against immigrants and other minorities. The Brexit referendum probably encouraged some people to express their hostility to minorities and immigrants – including immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe – more openly and more aggressively.  But I think the atmosphere in the country is more one of disorientation, uncertainly and anxiety about the future, than rampant xenophobia.

The referendum has also left deep divisions between Brexiteers and Bremainers, which will probably express themselves in some bitter political conflicts in the years to come. The narrowness of the referendum vote and the lack of clarity about what Brexit was means that we at the start not the end of our sharpest conflict about our relationship with Europe.

Is there something like Islamisation of Europe? Are British people afraid of Muslims and terrorist attacks?

There are around three million Muslims in Britain (about 5% of the population) many of whom

are British. Opinion polls suggest that non-Muslim are divided in their attitudes towards Muslims in the UK: large numbers (in some polls a small majority) are sceptical that Islam is compatible with “British values”, but a large number have the opposite view see no conflict. A minority see Islam as a religion promoting violence, or creating ghettos and no-go areas.

Most people report that day-to-day contacts with Muslims are friendly and unremarkable. While there are issues around integration and “British values”, Muslims in UK are not a “phantom menace” they are for many countries Central Europe, but a familiar part of the social fabric of the country.

As for terrorism, large majority of people  think terrorist attacks are likely, but, realistically, doubt that it will affect them personally. The UK has had experience of terrorist attacks since 1970s (first IRA, now Islamist), which generates fear in the short-term, but resilience in the long-term.

I walk most days past the spot where a bus was exploded by a suicide bomber in July 2005, which is very near our School and I sometimes sit in the small park nearby where there is a memorial. But, if I am honest, day-to-day I worry more about the dangers of bad drivers and heavy traffic when I cycle in London.

The idea of the “Islamisation of Europe” is, my view, an extremist political fantasy completed disconnected from reality – or any likely future reality.   Although the Muslim population of some European countries (including the UK) is increasing (birth-rate, refugee crisis, some conversion), Muslims are and will remain a small minority.  European governments and now the EU, although initially struggled to be effectively are making considerable efforts to restrict migration into Europe,

Your PM Theresa May say that she wants so called “hard/clean” Brexit. Is that a good decision and do you think (generally) that after Brexit will be the UK stronger?

 Theresa May thinks that hard/clean Brexit will enable the UK to negotiate restrictions on free movement and that only this will satisfy ‘Leave’ supporters (many of whom are Conservative voters). She has also probably calculated that, rather like Vladimír Mečiar and Václav Klaus in 1992, that the only settlement that can be reached through quick separation.  From her point of view, it is a realistic political calculation,

But it is also a colossal gamble with the future of the country.  The effects of Brexit are simply unknown and will only be visible in the longer term. My own expectation is that it will leave the UK poorer and less influential – both directly because we will be outside the EU and because Scotland in the longer term is more likely to seek independence.

What will change between the UK and Czech Republic after Brexit?

The biggest change would probably it will be more difficult for Czechs and British people to live and work in each other country’s as freely as they can now. However, the wider impact will be limited. The numbers of Czechs living in the UK (and vice versa) are small and volume of trade between the two countries not that that great.

What is the role of Central Europe (especially Czech Republic) in Trump´s geopolitical games, if any?

Trump is unusual among US presidents in that one of ex-wives and his current wife are Central Europeans. However, like other US presidents, he seems fixated on US-Russia relationship with the interests of Central and East European countries overlooked.  It will be interesting to see whether Central European leaders who are fans of Trump (Orbán, Kaczyński Zeman) – and whose support seems to have registered –  can persuade him to take a more active interest in the region.  If Trump follows his “America First” business logic, however, most Central European states are in the category of countries taking advantage of the US by spending too little on their own defence. Czech defence spending is especially low.

This interview was first published in Czech on the Eurozpravy news site on 26 February 2017 here and  here.

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