20 years of Czechia in the EU

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©European Union 20 years of Czechia in the EU

©European Union

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Petr Kaniok, you are professor of political science at the Masaryk University of Brno, beautiful city in the South-East of the Czech Republic. And you recall the moment when your country became a member of the European Union, twenty years ago, on the 1st of May 2004.

May 2004 – that is a long time ago! Twenty years is a small step for mankind, but it is a remarkable period for one person. Anyway, I still remember what I did and what the atmosphere was in the society. Why? Because this time was very special, vibrant and unique.

 

What were you doing at that time?

I was about to complete my first year of doctoral studies in the political science programme at Masaryk University. The exact location is important – the faculty was new, established in the late 1990s – there were no real “social sciences” in Czechia before the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Everything had to be built up from scratch – political science and subsequently European studies. So, I remember that even that being admitted to the political science branch, already during the first year I moved – surprise, surprise! – to the newly founded Department of International Relations and European Studies. And started my first research and PhD project there.

 

Had you always been interested in the European Union?

Yes, my move was not an accident. Even though I graduated from political science, I was interested in the EU politics already there. My master thesis had been about the EU Council presidency – a detail no one cared about at that time – apart from me!

To be honest – there was no great knowledge on the EU prior to accession. Both the people and the politicians perceived membership as a goal, a potential gate to heaven. Once I read the biblical metaphor of the “EU as the land of milk and honey” – and this is, I think, a very accurate description of the atmosphere in Czech society at the time. The EU was first and foremost perceived as a way to modernize the country. Particularly in economic terms – the EU was seen as a river of quick and easy money that would change everything and would make people richer. There was a dream of having the same salaries as people in Germany, the same living standards. But no one talked about or even mentioned the duties, possible problems or challenges that such a membership inevitably is associated with. Because no one knew, or no one believed this was important.

 

So how was the awakening?

The years after the accession was a kind of adapting to normality. Seeking for membership in a club is a different thing than being a member. This transformation happened both to Czech society and me personally.

People, as well as the politicians, had to absorb the first shocks. In particular, responsibility and activity – for example, the famous 2009 Czech EU Council Presidency, which the Czech government framed as “giving lectures and lessons to the EU”, but ended with the domestic collapse of the government and the change of prime minister in the middle of the presidency.

Or the famous EU funds which, as they were used in Czechia, quite quickly transformed into “toxic money” associated with corruption, scandals, and frauds. Both the people and the politicians started to realize – very slowly, sometimes without success – that the EU will not etake care of us”. We have to take care of the EU, as we are, more or less, the EU.

For me personally, the process was less dramatic but sometimes painful as well. Being a student and subsequently a young researcher operating mostly in a domestic context is something different than facing the EU context, EU-wide cooperation and EU-wide competition.

 

What conclusion do you draw at the end of these twenty years?

In a nutshell: “no pain, no gain!” I think that despite the bumpy road during the 20 years of the Czech EU membership, we are on today on a good track and the country – and I personally – benefit from the membership. It is not just about the new highways or hospitals built across the country. What I see is more cooperation, more communication, more openness and more willingness to take our own responsibilities.

 

Thank you very much, Petr Kaniok, for sharing both your personal testimony and your analysis as professor of political science at Masaryk University, in the beautiful city of Brno.