Czechs display a different kind of Euroscepticism

THEY are hay-making in Telc, a small town in southern Bohemia where 18th-century facades line the main square. Yet local people have enough worries about joining the European Union to turn out on a Saturday evening to grill the foreign minister in a school hall.

With the Czech referendum on EU entry due to be held on 13 and 14 June, the audience had urgent questions. Would their pensions suffer? Would they be able to work or study in Austria or Spain? What kind of influence could their small region have in a union of 450 million people?

Among EU member states, the debate on enlargement has become a debate about us. In the rows over how Europe should be run, the ten candidate countries are barely mentioned. They are presumed to be queuing eagerly to join a club whose existing members cannot stop quarrelling long enough to pay them any attention.

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So it is a shock to find that the Czechs have doubts about whether the club is worth joining. "The major capital we bring with us to the EU is our scepticism," says Ivan Gabal, a sociologist.

Polls show support for entry running at about 50 per cent, with as many as 30 per cent undecided and a hard core of 20 per cent against. As in Poland, however, where the referendum takes place this weekend, the concern in the Czech Republic is not whether people will vote "Yes" but whether they will vote at all.

"We are tired," says Gabal, a Civic Forum activist at the time of the Velvet Revolution, stressing the huge changes since 1989. "Czech society is hesitating," agrees Jiri Skalicky, who chairs the Senate’s European integration committee.

Jana Adamcova, the 26-year-old director of the coalition government’s "Yes" campaign, laments the "lack of emotion" among supporters of EU entry. Her logo is a knotted scarf, reminding people to tie a knot in their handkerchiefs for the referendum weekend.

Adamcova is targeting young people, who are relaxed about joining but tend not to vote; women with children; and the elderly, who are anxious about change. Her helpline has been receiving 15,000 calls a month, mainly about jobs, prices and pensions. The strategy is to highlight higher standards of living in other EU countries, because, she says, "Czech people don’t trust promises, only facts".

But the 5 million campaign, including roadshows fronted by celebrities, has come in for criticism. Vaclav Klaus, the Thatcherite former prime minister who succeeded Vaclav Havel as president, calls the advertisements simplistic. Others object to the lack of state funding for a "No" campaign, complaining that counter-arguments are not aired.

"The government has created over-optimistic expectations about entry," says Dr Miroslav Sevcik of the Liberal Institute, a free-market think-tank lined with volumes by Hayek and Adam Smith. He disputes the conventional wisdom that the EU will bring higher growth and foreign investment. "It’s not going to send baked pigeons flying into people’s mouths."

Sevcik contends that the Czech Republic is already part of Europe. (Observing Prague’s architecture and cafe culture, it is hard to disagree.) So why adopt EU bureaucracy, which he sees as a return to a planned economy?

Sevcik is unabashed to find himself in company with the Communists, now the third largest party in parliament, who also oppose EU entry. While his views are sometimes contradictory - he denounces the EU march to federalism, yet hopes the Czechs can negotiate a better entry deal - he highlights the muddle at the heart of the government’s message.

Officials admit that the ordinary Czech may not find life improving as a result of EU membership. The benefits, they say, will mainly be noticed by the young and by people living in Prague.

Yet the social and economic costs of qualifying for membership have been heavy, from privatising energy to paying for water quality to be brought up to EU standards. "We are at the end of a very painful and difficult road to accession," says Jiri Skalicky.

There is more pain to come. Outside Prague, in regions with high unemployment, people are fearful of change and competition from other countries. On the border with Germany, 3,000 customs officers stand to lose their jobs. That pensioner in Telc was right to be concerned: welfare reform is inevitable if the Czechs are to meet the Maastricht criteria to join the euro.

True, former industrial areas such as Moravia and Silesia will get EU regional and structural funding, a subject on which the Scottish Executive has been giving advice. But the Czech Republic is relatively rich, with the second highest GDP per head among the candidate countries, so the amount of subsidy will be limited.

Moreover, the EU offers no protection against the global wind which the Scots know too well. Just as firms such as Hewlett-Packard and Compaq switched to the Czech Republic, companies are already fleeing rising Czech wages for cheaper countries like the Ukraine.

So why join, when the public is uncertain and the benefits are open to debate? Some older Czechs cite a "return" to Europe after the rough interruption of Communism. For Ivan Gabal, EU membership marks a natural end to the transitional period since 1989, which has seen deep recession, breakneck privatisation and a collapse of faith in politics. A whole generation of public servants has gone missing, lost to the private sector or forfeit to their Communist past.

Czechs are dismissive of the present government, which has a one-vote majority and is likely to fall. The process of preparing for EU entry is seen as a way of "fixing the state", cleaning up corruption and tightening up everything from banking regulation to judicial independence. Gabal, far from fearing any loss of sovereignty, welcomes the prospect of "limited room for our politicians to run the country".

If the Czechs are ready to swap their hard-won independence for membership of the EU club, that does not mean that they are happy with the rule book. A seven-year delay on free movement of labour, imposed on accession countries at the insistence of Austria and Germany, is resented as a badge of second-class status.

But Donald Rumsfeld may have been wrong to imply that the new member states will establish a division between "old" and "new" Europe. The Czechs approve of British Euro-realism, yet they oppose the UK-backed plan for a permanent president of the council of ministers. They backed Britain and the US over Iraq, yet the war split the coalition’s largest party.

Theirs is a different kind of Euroscepticism, similarly mistrustful but less obsessed with sovereignty. "What is independence?" muses Cestmir Sajda, deputy minister for regional development. "Maybe it is the freedom to decide to move to Amsterdam if I want to.

"We are a small country and we will still be a small country, but it is better to be part of the EU. We have no sovereignty anyway. What can we do alone?"