Bye-bye Mr Klaus! Bye-bye euroscepticism?
25.01.13 @ 19:47
BRUSSELS - For eight years Vaclav Klaus as President of the Czech Republic has been its best known eurosceptic face.
He not only gave EU bureaucrats a hard time by extending almost indefinitely the signature of the Lisbon Treaty, but also succeeded in creating a local anti-European ideology which resonates well in the time of crisis.
His now famous 2009 speech to the European Parliament is still treated as a eurosceptic manifesto by many.
But the Klaus era is over.
In March, he will step down from office. His successor - elected for the first time in Czech history by direct elections - will certainly not fill Klaus' shoes in terms of European policy.
Jana Bobosikova, the only candidate comparable to Klaus in terms of the radicalism of her rhetoric, received the worst score in the first round.
The only issue that might send shivers down the necks of EU officials is that Klaus is reportedly planning to stand for the European Parliament in 2014.
Does this mean the era of euroscepticism in Czech politics is over, too?
The two candidates in this weekend's second round run-off - Karel Schwarzenberg and Milos Zeman - share a similar position on EU integration. The 75-year-old Schwarzenberg, a well-respected diplomat with aristocratic, pan-European roots, is one of the very few EU politicians who could actually be called a euro-optimist.
His rival, Socialist Milos Zeman, just seven years younger than Schwarzenberg is cut from the same cloth.
He openly supports EU federalism and further enlargement to the extent he would also like to see Russia, one day, join the EU.
It seems that no matter who wins, champagne corks will pop in Brussels.
But the paradox is that despite the departure of Klaus, Czech euroscepticism might be here to stay.
For one thing, it is the government in the Czech republic which handles foreign policy and the government of Petr Necas, which rejected joining the EU fiscal compact, will not go away after the presidential vote.
Necas is spectacularly unpopular and could well be replaced by the more EU-pragmatic Socialists in 2014.
But even a left-wing, pro-EU government cannot ignore the popular mood.
Czech society is becoming more and more disenchanted with the EU.
According to a 2012 survey, the level of trust in the Czech Republic in European institutions is at its lowest ebb since 1994. In just two years the level dropped from 53 to 37 percent.
Klaus' anti-European rhetoric has borne fruit.
But this is not the main reason for the mistrust.
The root of euroscepticism in the country is the Czechs' deep self-image as a nation created in opposition to treacherous powers.
The main lesson learned from the Czech republic's turbulent past is that small-sized states must protect their sovereignty at all costs.
The euro crisis is also a factor.
Czechs rightly blame EU economic instability for the increasingly sharp downturn in the country.
They fear that the crisis will ruin their car industry, the main pillar of the national economy.
This is also why joining the eurozone is unimaginable.
Czechs have become used to the stable koruna - a constant feature since the interwar period, through German occupation, Communism and the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. They simply cannot imagine the introduction of the euro at home.
In a 2011 survey, almost 80 percent of respondents said No to the common currency.
It is significant that among Czech entrepreneurs those who support the euro mostly work for subsidiaries of German companies. The owners of national firms are much less keen.
The end of the Klaus era does hold out the promise of a new dawn in Czech-EU relations.
But for that to happen his successor will have to undertake the great task of rebuilding confidence in Europe.
Will he succeed? Unlikely.
If the Socialists next year form a coalition government with the Communist party, on the model of current local politics, no amount of pro-EU rhetoric will help - the EU itself will hold the Czechs at arms length as too unpredictable and too uncooperative.
The champagne corks in Brussels should for some time stay in place.
The writer is a research fellow at The Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw