EU Elections: Fear And Loathing In Czechia – Analysis


By Jules Eisenchteter

Like trouble-making rivals finding common ground against a shared enemy, Czechia’s two largest populist parties are again indulging in all-too familiar migrant bashing ahead of June’s EU elections, which could lead to broader electoral cooperation.

“The government of [Prime Minister Petr] Fiala has betrayed our republic,” the chairman of the far-right Freedom and Democracy (SPD) party, Tomio Okamura, cried out after Czechia’s five-party ruling said it had abstained in the February vote of EU member states’ representatives (Coreper) on the bloc’s proposed new Migration and Asylum Pact.

“We don’t want African and Arab immigrants or the spread of Islam and mosques!” Okamura, Czechia’s chief-nativist and himself of mixed Czech, Japanese and Korean heritage, wrote on X.

Leader of a party with 20 MPs in the 200-member lower house of the Czech parliament that currently hovers around 10 per cent in the latest opinion polls, Okamura’s statements on immigration – ranging from warnings against the “biological threat” that refugees pose to calls to fight against the “Islamisation” of Europe – may be more radical than most, but are not an oddity in the Czech public discourse.

Hostile tone, receptive audience, shift right

While never completely disappeared since the migrant crisis of 2015-2016, anti-immigration rhetoric is back ahead of the elections for the European Parliament on June 6-9.

This has mostly been at the initiative of the SPD as well as another populist but more centrist party, former prime minister Andrej Babis’s ANO, which is polling at more than 30 per cent and on a mission to siphon off votes from the far right, first and foremost SPD supporters.

“We can expect this issue to increase in salience as the European Parliament elections approach,” predicts Otto Eibl, head of the political department at Masaryk University in Brno, “and there won’t be any surprise about who will start talking about it.”

Although refugees, especially from Muslim-majority countries in Africa or the Middle East, are frequently portrayed as a threat to Czech national culture and security, migration itself is often “just used as a rhetorical figure”, according to Eibl, with attacks not necessarily aimed at migrants themselves, “but at political parties and candidates who are labelled as ‘pro-migrant’ or even ‘progressive’,” the political scientist notes.

Yet Vera Honuskova, head of the Centre for Migration and Refugee Law at Charles University in Prague, notes how the tone of the debate in Czechia has progressively “shifted towards increased hostility, especially in verbal attacks against migrants and those who express support for them”.

Both Babis’s ANO, which won the 2017 parliamentary elections on a vocal anti-immigration platform, and Okamura’s SPD – along with a cohort of fringe non-parliamentarian nationalist parties such as SPD ally Trikolora – are out to show voters that the authorities are weak on immigration and care little for the welfare of their own citizens.

And after years of economic turmoil and financial hardship for many, people seem to be listening, with a February survey identifying immigration as one of Czech citizens’ key priorities for the upcoming European elections.

The deputy head of Charles University’s Centre for Migration and Refugee Law, Eliska Flidrova, notes that migration was not a primary issue for the five parties forming the current coalition during the 2020 general election when it won power from Babis’s ANO. “They did not use it primarily to win votes,” she says.

However, suffering from a vertiginous drop in support, the coalition government has been forced on the defensive and today pledges never to accept mandatory migrant relocation quotas from the EU – “one of the few things on which we agree with the current opposition”, according to Interior Minister Vit Rakusan.

Pledging bolder steps to curb illegal migration at the end of last year, Prime Minister Fiala said that: “As we see it, the key to success is better protection of the EU’s external border, a better migrant-return policy, prevention of illegal migration through cooperation with countries of origin, and more effective steps against people smugglers.”

Government officials also insist that border checks introduced over the autumn and winter months with several neighbouring countries in Central Europe, including Slovakia, have helped crack down on smugglers and illegal migrants.

It’s unknown exactly how many migrants illegally enter Czech territory, a mere transit country for most, but official data, based on those numbers arrested, showed that less than 14,000 people were detained last year, down more than half from 2022.

‘They’re here’

When the Council of the EU reached a breakthrough agreement on the bloc’s new asylum and migration rules in June 2023, Czech government officials hailed the accord as an important victory for securing borders.

Among the main changes, the pact would introduce a pre-entry screening procedure, which NGOs warn could lead to mass detention with little to no oversight, after which asylum-seekers with little chance of success would be channelled through a fast-track procedure. The new “mandatory solidarity” concept would additionally give member states the option to choose between accepting relocated migrants on their territory or making a financial contribution – criticised by Czech opposition figures as an unacceptable “penalty fee”.

The government highlighted that Czechia, along with other countries which accepted high numbers of Ukrainian refugees, had been able to negotiate a temporary exemption from providing financial assistance to southern European states that find themselves on the front line of irregular migration flows.

But describing the accord as overly permissive, the opposition had other ideas. Babis took the opportunity to slam the new proposed asylum rules, saying the pact was “a disgraceful agreement” and “an invitation to millions of migrants to Europe”.

“When I was driving on the D1 [highway] and went to the toilet, while I was washing my hands there were a lot of Syrian migrants and they were washing their feet. They’re here, it’s not true that they won’t come here,” Babis, who has vowed to introduce “very strict” domestic asylum laws should he win back power in 2025, colourfully claimed.

Pressure from the opposition goes some way to explain why the Czech government made that announcement in February to abstain from voting on the EU’s new Migration and Asylum Pact which, as holder of the Presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2022, it had played such a large role in drafting.

To justify their about-face, government officials expressed disappointment at the latest version agreed by the Council of the EU in December, claiming it differed from the package they supported last year. “Czechia primarily needs a pact that would secure EU outer border protection and guarantee an effective return policy,” commented Transport Minister Martin Kupka from the ruling ODS party. “Under the present draft, this would be complicated.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior also insisted the latest version was “less ambitious” than what Prague had been expecting, criticising the added administrative burden member states would have to shoulder and limits imposed on the detention of migrants at the external borders of the EU.

Defeated by demagoguery

The cynical political instrumentalisation of the topic has now led to the bizarre and paradoxical situation of seeing both government and opposition rant against a pact which addresses many of their concerns and initial demands, analysts have noted.

“The negotiated [EU] compromise is good for the Czech Republic, but bad for refugees and for the observance of human rights in the European Union,” Martin Rozumek, head of the Prague-based Organisation for Aid to Refugees (OPU), said on Czech Television.

With the next Czech parliamentary elections scheduled for 2025, the topic is bound to remain at the forefront of public debate even after this year’s European Parliament elections in June, when Czechs go to the polls to elect their 21 MEPs.

“The immigration issue has become a potent political tool in the Czech Republic due to its emotional and symbolic resonance,” Honuskova of the Centre for Migration and Refugee Law tells BIRN. “In essence, the issue seems to be less about the actual numbers [of migrants] and more about the perceived threats and cultural concerns. This is often amplified by media coverage and public discourse, which can skew perceptions about the scale and impact of transit migration.”

The political analyst Eibl notes that while “the government attempts to counter emotional reactions with rational arguments”, it’s facing an uphill battle in debunking the half-truths and fake news spread not only by disingenuous actors but also in good faith by ordinary citizens, throughout both the mainstream and social media spheres in Czechia.

Government officials have, for example, gone to great lengths to argue the merits of the new “solidarity mechanism” for the Czech Republic, but are finding their explanations frequently drowned out by dubious claims that this is just “newspeak” for introducing actual migrant quotas and that Prague has bowed down to EU “dictates”.

“One cannot beat emotions with facts,” Eibl laments.

As anti-immigration discourse proliferates, the temptation arises for the parties to outdo each other in taking a harsh line over the issue. An increasingly radical ANO vying for the not-insignificant number of far-right voters, and the SPD attempting to overcome its ‘glass ceiling’ of 10-12 per cent support and increase its chances of weighing in on the next coalition talks are likely to take the debate into more toxic territory, say observers.

“The debate on illegal immigration is likely to intensify in the coming months,” the Centre for Migration and Refugee Law’s Flidrova agrees. “The intertwining of this issue with regional politics, national security concerns and internal political dynamics, combined with developments in Europe, particularly in light of ongoing challenges such as the situation with Ukrainian refugees, means it is likely to remain a critical but potentially divisive issue on the Czech political agenda.”

The coming EU election campaign will also be a test-run on how both parties – which have cultivated an ambiguous part-competitor-part-ally relationship – position themselves towards one another, especially as they each seek to lure dissatisfied voters into their fold.

Babis, who as prime minister from 2017-2021 could count on the unofficial support of SPD MPs to pass certain pieces of legislation, frequently dismissedthe possibility of building a coalition with Okamura’s far-right movement.

The tune heard over the past several months has changed, however, and one of the most recent polls put ANO and SPD on the verge of reaching a constitutional majority in the lower house of parliament should they combine forces.

And after being re-elected as ANO chairman last month, Babis didn’t rule outsuch a possibility. “500,000 people vote for the SPD, they are our fellow citizens… Why should we exclude them?” he asked.

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (formerly the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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