Playing with fire? European integration and political parties in the Czech Republic

Vlastimil Havlík

Vlastimil Havlík is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University in Brno. E-mail: This text was written as part of a specific research project by the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University „The Development of Political and Social Pluralism in Modern Europe“ (MUNI/A/0888/2010)“.


1. Introduction

With the deepening process of European integration and its clear tendency towards supernationalism and federalism (grounded in the Single European Act and the subsequent Treaty on European Union), the importance of the European Community (EC) and later the European Union (EU) for domestic politics grew as well. The reaction of academia was a growing number of studies over Europeanization; i.e. the impact of the European Union on domestic politics (see e. g.  Bulmer, Radaelli 2004, Buller, Gamble 2002, Bulmer 2007, Cowles et al. 2001, eds., Featherstone 2003,  Graziano, Vink 2007, eds., Radaelli 2004, Schimmelfennig, Sedelmeier 2005, eds.).  

                Among the topics taken up in the context of the mutual interrelationship between European integration and domestic politics have been the political changes in the party system, in work such as that of Peter Mair, Marco Steenberge, Gary Marks, Simon Hix, and Leonard Ray. In the Czech and Slovak environment the problem of European integration and the party system has been studied by Lubomír Kopeček, Vít Hloušek, and Marek Rybář. Another separate field of work on the European integration project concerns the attitudes of political parties towards the development of the EC/EU, especially the various strains of Euroskepticism, which have been studied by Paul Taggart, Aleks Szczerbiak, Nicolò Conti, Petr Kopecký, Cas Mudde, and in the Czech environment especially by Petr Kaniok.

The situation in the Czech Republic has been very inspirational for studying the political party system in relation to European integration. The dynamics of party interaction, the form of coalition governments, and developments within the political parties was co-determined in some aspects by the topic of European integration, even though in the long run the clearly dominant cleavage in Czech politics has been the socio-economically defined conflict between the right and the left. The purpose of this article is to clarify events in the development of Czech party politics, and the related developments in coalition governing that have been significantly influenced by the issue of Europe. We will first examine the formation of the governing coalition after the parliamentary elections in 2002. Then we will focus on the changing attitudes of the Civic Democratic Party towards European integration, and finally we will look at the fall of the government that occurred in the spring of 2009, during the Czech Republic’s presidency of the European Union. The narrative to follow should illustrate the kind of role the issue of Europe can play in domestic politics.


2. European integration as a (temporary) keystone – the government of Vladimír Špidla

                Elections to the Chamber of Deputies in 2002 ended in victory for the Social Democratic Party (their second win in a row), but also in a major success for the unreformed Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), which took more than a fifth (!) of the seats in parliament. The strong position of the KSČM – a political party with zero coalition potential – was a major influence on negotiations over the formation of a new cabinet. An important role was also played by the tendency of the Christian and Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party towards cooperation with the Social Democrats, and its reluctance to work with the Civic Democrats led by Václav Klaus. From our perspective it is especially interesting that one of the arguments of the wing of the Christian Democrats that supported joining a government coalition with the Social Democrats was the Euroskepticism of the Civic Democrats. Even before the elections, KDU-ČSL chairman Cyril Svoboda said that his party preferred a government that would be “a majority government, but with a shared program. (...) And it is terribly important for it to be the government that leads the Czech Republic into the EU” (author’s emphasis). Svoboda ruled out a coalition with the ODS led by Klaus, which he said would have “no wish to join the EU”; instead he regarded as much more realistic an agreement with the ČSSD, which “wants to join the EU” (Hospodářské noviny, 3. 5. 2002). The preference for working with the Social Democrats must be interpreted in light of the KDU-ČSL‘s internal politics and the predominance of Svoboda’s more left-center wing. In negotiations over the shape of the new government the People’s Party also presented it as an effort to prevent the communists from participating in the government, even if it meant supporting a minority Social Democratic cabinet (ČTK 15. 6. 2002).[1]

                During the previous electoral term (and evidently in the context of the election results, when it proved impossible to form a center-right government with a majority in the Chamber of Deputies) there was also an important shift of opinion within the Union of Freedom – Democratic Union, with its party leadership also in favor of joining a government coalition with the Social Democrats (see Čaloud et al. 2006: 21–22). Prior to the elections the Unionists declared that from a policy standpoint (!) they could better imagine a coalition with the Social Democrats rather than the ODS, partly because of their stance on European integration and on completing the decentralization of the state. Before the elections Union chairman Hana Marvanová declared that „any government we join must be a government that leads the Czech Republic into the European Union, begins to fight against corruption, and stops putting the country in debt“. As for possible cooperation with the ODS, Marvanová observed that “we have a big conflict with the ODS over joining the European Union (author’s emphasis). The Civic Democratic Party has made no secret that it might recommend to its voters to vote against joining the EU if we do not obtain certain guarantees from the Union. To me this seems completely crazy” (Hospodářské noviny, 24. 5. 2002). Nevertheless she did not rule out a coalition with the Civic Democrats (ČTK, 4. 6. 2002, 10. 6. 2002).


                The subsequent formation of a coalition government of the ČSSD, KDU-ČSL, and US-DEU was made easier by a change in the Social Democrats‘ attitude towards continuing its cooperation with the ODS, which had enabled the socialists to have a minority government supported by the so-called Opposition Agreement. Even before the elections ČSSD chairman Vladimír Špidla expressed his preference for a coalition with the KDU-ČSL and US-DEU (ČTK, 10. 6. 2002). The new government was named in mid-July 2002, and won its vote of confidence less than a month later. The new government’s program most matched the intentions of the Social Democrats; but since it was clear from the implications of the program that the Czech Republic’s debt would increase significantly, US-DEU chairman Marvanová resigned even before the government was sworn in. Nevertheless she called the government the only pro-European alternative, and declared her support for the government as a way of keeping the KSČM out of any coalition (ČTK, 4. 7. 2002).

                The coalition parties’ similar stances on Europe (in this case pro-Europe) were not the only reason this otherwise oddly-assorted government was cobbled together by Vladimír Špidla. The negotiating positions and strategies of the individual parties must also be taken into account: the pivotal position of the Social Democrats, the high percentage of the vote taken by the Communists, the poor relationship between the Union of Freedom and the Civic Democrats, and the effort to prevent the KSČM from having even an indirect influence on the government. Even so, in 2002 – on the eve of the Czech Republic’s entry into the EU – the topic of Europe took on a more important role than ever in the process of forming the new government. Similar visions of the European integration process made it easier to assemble a coalition of otherwise ideologically-divergent parties. Meanwhiile, the ODS’s Euro-skeptic stance drove the other parties away from it. If there was ever an effort by Czech political parties to bridge the European cleavage “from above”, then the period after the 2002 elections was it. The coalition of the Social Democrats, People’s Party, and Unionists nevertheless proved to be extraordinarily fragile due to its thin majority in parliament, and during its term in office its deputies in parliament were highly prone to indiscipline. The government twice had to replace its prime minister[2], once as a result of disputes among the Social Democrats, with Stanislav Gross becoming the new premier. Gross had to step down after less than a year when financial inconsistencies came to light involving his purchase of an apartment.


3. Balancing on the edge – the ODS’s attitude toward European integration during its period in government, and the fall of the second Topolánek cabinet 

The Civic Democrats are a political party with a long-term and stable position towards European integration precisely constructed on the level of program documents]. The ODS’s policy towards Europe – long personified by the party’s former chairman Václav Klaus – is often described as “soft” Euroskepticism. This is because of its repeated criticism of the supra-national tendencies of European integration, and the party’s preference for an inter-governmental concept instead. The ODS has been critical of the EU’s growing federalization, while looking positively – in accordance with its liberal view of economics – upon the project of the internal market. Perhaps the party’s most comprehensive treatment of European integration is contained in its Manifests of Czech Eurorealism (Manifest českého eurorealismu), the author of which is current president of the European Conservative and Reformist Group in the European Parliament, Jan Zahradil.[3] Some aspects of the ODS’s critical stance toward European integration make it more difficult to become part of the European Parliament’s party structures. The Civic Democrats joined the European People`s Party – European Democrats faction during the period 2004 – 2009 mainly for lack of a better alternative. Only during the electoral term beginning in 2009 has there emerged an independent faction consisting of somewhat right-wing Euro-skeptic parties (British Conservative Party, Polish Law and Justice, or the Hungarian Democratic Forum). On the European level the ODS maintained its critical attitude towards European integration’s federalizing tendencies. In domestic politics changes were taking place that influenced the officially-presented position of the officials of the Czech Republic’s largest Euro-skeptic political party.

After elections to the Chamber of Deputies in 2006, several months of negotiations resulted in the formation of a coalition government consisting of the Civic Democrats, the KDU-ČSL, and the Green Party. For the first time in nearly ten years the ODS was once again in the position of being a governing party. Italian political scientist Nicolò Conti (2003) postulates that being in the opposition (or the government), along with the party’s position on the right-left axis, affects that party’s attitude towards European integration. Simply put: when a political party is in the opposition, its position on European integration tends to be more critical than when it is in power. A somewhat different view of the effect of whether or not a party is in the government, and whether its officials are part of the decision-making process on the European level, is given by Robert Ladrech (2001). Ladrech says that one of the signs of Europeanization may be a growing gap between party officials serving in a government, and the party’s membership base. Government officials in the environment of European Union institutions are forced to accept compromises that may often be quite different from the programs of their political parties, and may mitigate their stance on the European Union in the national political arena and their own party. This tension can be assumed to have a stronger effect on the Euro-skeptic political parties.

                The Civic Democratic Party represents an illustrative case of the “softening” of a political party’s stance on European integration, and of the internal party differences that may emerge. The softened Euro-skepticism of leading ODS officials can be seen in the party’s position on the European constitutional treaty and its posthumous child the Lisbon Treaty: both documents were expressions in treaty form of the continuing trend towards federalization. During the ODS’s time in opposition the party’s leading officials opposed the adoption of the constitutional treaty. The most hard-hitting language was used (typically for him) by then-chairman Mirek Topolánek: “If we’re talking about the European constitution, I must say – and I use this word entirely responsibly – it’s an enormous shit”. The party’s official program was in a similar vein, though not as vulgar. In its program for the 2004 elections to the European Parliament the ODS rejected the constitution as a document that was “in fundamental contradiction to the general principles of ODS politics” and which “worsened the position of the Czech Republic compared to the existing state of affairs”. Two years later, before elections to the Chamber of Deputies, the ODS declared, “Rejection of the so-called European Constitution is no catastrophe for European integration. On the contrary, it will allow us to better adapt to the current wave of EU expansion, and open up space for discussion on how to shape an EU that is better suited to the challenges of the 21st century”.

                After the 2006 elections the ODS formed a government with the KDU-ČSL and SZ; that is with two strongly pro-European parties. The necessity of compromise on issues concerning European integration resulted in vague, almost content-free formulations on European policy in the government’s program statements (from the program statement of Mirek Topolánek’s first government, which did not receive a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies, the passage proclaiming the need for “fundamental reforms in some of the EU’s common policies” was dropped). The fact that the government’s position on European integration would not correspond to the long-term official position of the ODS was indicated not only by the appointment of Green Party official Karel Schwartzenberg as foreign minister, but also by the nomination of Alexander Vondra as minister for European affairs. Vondra, in the past a close associate of Václav Havel and a supporter of European integration, was to a certain extent a symbol of the ODS’s transformation after the departure of its first chairman Václav Klaus.

                Probably the most controversial topic having to do with European integration during the first years of the Topolánek government was the European constitutional treaty, later the Lisbon Treaty. For the Lisbon Treaty to be adopted by the Czech Republic, it had to pass both houses of parliament (by a 3/5 majority of all members in the Chamber of Deputies, and a 3/5 majority of those present in the Senate). The ratification itself of international treaties is within the powers of the President.

                The ODS representatives in the government thus found themselves in a situation in which they were attending meetings on the European level, in the environment of the prevailing federalistic view of the EU. At the same time, the efforts of the European leadership were aimed at formulating and adopting a new EU constitutional document (later the Lisbon Treaty), which was meant to substitute for the unsuccessful project of an actual European constitution. Nor can we forget about the pro-European stance of the Civic Democrats‘ coalition partners.

                On one hand, Euro-skepticism continued to be evident among a significant portion of the membership base and party leadership (seen for example in the long-term consistent critical stance towards European integration by ODS Euro-parliamentarians Jan Zahradil, Miroslav Ouzký, and Hynek Fajmon, as well as a number of politicians on the national scene such as senators Jiří Oberfalzer or Jiří Pospíšil).  On the other hand there was the speech in support (albeit qualified) of ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by ODS chairman Topolánek (from the position of prime minister in resignation) before the Senate of the Czech Republic in early May 2009. A few weeks later, however, (after the swearing in of a new government under Jan Fischer), Topolánek at a congress of the Law and Justice Party in Poland declared the Lisbon Treaty a “dead letter”.

The example of the ODS presents an interesting illustration of the pressures that Euro-skeptic parties are subjected to when they find themselves in the position of being a governing party. Governing parties are forced to more or less conform to the predominant pro-European course of the European elites. They must promote EU-adopted positions and commitments on the national level as well, which can produce opposition among that party’s membership or non-office-holding elites. Governing officials of the Euro-skeptic political parties – in the Czech case the most visible has been Mirek Topolánek – are often forced into a kind of balancing act. On one hand they are subject to pressure from the “Euro-optimist” environment; on the other hand they must respond to the dissatisfaction of Euro-skeptics in their own party. The above-described internal conflict among the Civic Democrats was more than just a rhetorical issue, but had practical consequences as well. 

Then-prime minister Mirek Topolánek signed the Lisbon Treaty on behalf of the Czech Republic in December 2007, and the document was sent to the Chamber of Deputies at the end of January 2008. The Chamber debated the document and approved it after the first reading on 1 April 2008. The Chamber voted down a proposal by the Communist MP Václav Exner that the treaty be examined by the Constitutional Court. Three weeks later, however, a similar proposal was approved by the Senate (of 70 Senators present 48 were for, 4 against, and 18 abstained). The Constitutional Court refused all the objections, and found the treaty to be consistent with the constitutional order. It also stated, however, that it had examined only the articles of the Treaty that were objected to, and not the Treaty as a whole. The Constitutional Court’s decision passed the matter back to the Parliament. Voting was postponed several times, but the Chamber of Deputies eventually voted to ratify the Lisbon Treaty on 18 February 2009. Of 197 MPs present, 125 were in favor. The ČSSD, KDU-ČSL, SZ, some independent MPs, and part of ODS were in favor of the Treaty; part of the ODS’ representatives and the Communist MPs were against it. In May 2009, after the government passed the so-called imperative mandate which made the transfer of competences to the European level subject to approval by Parliament, the Lisbon Treaty was also approved by the Senate (with 54 of the 81 Senators present in favor). A portion of the ODS senators also voted against. Voting in the two chambers of parliament demonstrated the long-standing differences of opinion within the ODS on the Lisbon Treaty. These were on display for all to see at the party’s pre-election congress in December  2008, when Topolánek’s (in the end unsuccessful) challenger Pavel Bém presented himself as an opponent of the treaty; however, the congress turned down a resolution that would have banned ODS lawmakers from voting to ratify (one quarter of the delegates voted for this stipulation). A resolution was adopted instead giving deputies and senators a “free hand”. The resolutions of the ODS congress provide interesting evidence of the gradual softening of the party’s official position on the reform treaty. While in 2005 it “observed with satisfaction the fact that French and Dutch citizens have refused to accept the proposed so-called European Constitution”, and in 2006 “forbade all ODS politicians from ceding any further competencies of the CR to the European Union and broadening the extent of the European agenda to be approved by the qualified majority”, just one year later it merely asked ODS senators and deputies to submit a complaint to the Constitutional Court.

After both of the Parliament’s chambers agreed with the ratification, a group of ODS Senators said in May 2009 that they intended to refer the matter to the Constitutional Court once again, this time asking it to examine the whole Treaty. The complaint was submitted at the beginning of September, and became to a symbol of anti-Lisbon opposition within the ODS. After the Constitutional Court declared the Lisbon Treaty to be in accordance with the constitutional order of the Czech Republic, the ratification process was completed with the signature of President Václav Klaus.

                The Lisbon Treaty had played a major role in terms of the history of the ODS, as well as that of the governments of the Czech Republic, several months earlier. On 24 March a motion of no confidence in the government came up on the agenda of the Chamber of Deputies for the fifth time. According to preliminary reports, and in view of recent developments that produced conflicts within both the SZ and ODS, it was anticipated that the position of the Topolánek government was in jeopardy, and that the votes of two former ČSSD deputies who had defected and on whose votes the government depended might no longer be enough. Indeed, they were not, and for the first time in the history of the Czech Republic (and actually since the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918) a government fell to a vote of no confidence. Besides the opposition Communists and Social Democrats, two former deputies from the SZ and two ODS deputies,Vlastimil Tlustý and Jan Schwippel, also voted against the government (the latter two were soon expelled from their party). Important from our perspective is the nature of the argument given by the “rebellious” Civic Democrats in the context of developments within the party. Schwippel said specifically that the stance of the government towards the Lisbon Treaty was one of the reasons he voted against the government: “This government does not have my confidence. There are many reasons, but one of the key ones is the fact that its promises absolutely cannot be believed. This government lied to me when it promised a specific modification to the law on the income tax. It lied to me when it said the Lisbon Treaty and the radar treaty are joined together in one inseparable package. What could be worse? Its strongest party, the ODS, lied to its own voters. Just look at the contract with the voters that was signed by Mirek Topolánek in my name as well, and of which almost nothing was fulfilled” (Společná Česko – Slovenská digitální knihovna 2009). Futhermore, “The Premier said yesterday that he acted in the interests of ten million citizens. That is my concern as well. But then I do not understand why the ODS, here in the Chamber of Deputies, cast its votes for ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. A party that supported this treaty so disadvantageous to the Czech Republic does not have my confidence” (Společná Česko – Slovenská digitální knihovna 2009). It must be added that the fall of the government and the disputes within the ODS that came to the surface after the 2006 elections were not caused by the government’s Europe policy alone, but were part of a more general criticism of the party’s direction, especially its abandonment of conservative political principles[4] (Tlusty had previously helped found a Reform Parliamentary Platform – see Havlík 2010).

Tlustý and Schwippel, along with Vladimír Železný, at that time a lame duck European parliamentarian and former director of the private television station Nova, went on to co-found the Czech branch of the Euro-skeptic political party Libertas. The party was unsuccessful in elections, however, winning less than 1 % of the vote.


4. Conclusion

The Czech Republic represents a very interesting case of a country in which the dynamics of party and politics were repeatedly influenced by the increasingly controversial issue of European integration. The main reason for this was the gradual erosion since the mid-1990s of the initial pro-union consensus of the main political parties. The largest party critical of European integration was the Civic Democrats, who opposed the federalist vision of the European integration process, giving precedence to inter-governmental cooperation with a strong position for the national states. Euro-skepticism (or “Euro-realism” as the ODS would have it) became the target of criticism by the pro-European political parties, and the ODS’s Euro-skepticism was one of the arguments they used to legitimize their participation in coalition governments with the Social Democrats.

                The rise of the Civic Democrats to the position of a governing party and a softening of Euro-skepticism on the part of party officials in government exposed a growing clash of opinions within the party over European integration, especially in the context of the discussion over the adoption of the Reform Treaty. Opposition to the Lisbon Treaty and the government’s support for the treaty supplied the anti-Topolánek opposition with one of its arguments criticizing the party leadership (critics included President Klaus, who left the party in 2008). The party’s ambivalence toward the Lisbon Treaty was displayed in both houses of parliament during the voting over ratification, and also in the submission of a complaint to the Constitutional Court initiated by ODS senators. After the treaty was ratified, the intensity of the conflict died down. Nevertheless, provided that a) the Civic Democrats remain a governing party, and b) issues of like seriousness continue to emerge at the European level (for example the debt crisis, which extends even beyond the Euro-zone), the conflict within the party over European integration will erupt again. The dispute over the Lisbon Treaty was one of the major reasons for the fall of the second Topolánek government. Although competition between the parties is dominated in the long term by socio-economic themes, under certain circumstances the European integration issue can play a key role.

                With the uncertain future of the Euro zone and the European Union itself, it will be very interesting to observe how the issue of Europe will manifest itself in domestic politics, not only in the Czech Republic, but in the Union‘s other member (and candidate) countries.



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[1] Together the ČSSD and KSČM had held 111 seats out of 200 after the elections.

[2] The term “replace” is not quite exact. In both cases the prime minister submitted his resignation, which according to the letter of the Constitution of the Czech Republic meant the fall of the entire government. New governments were then named, but with the exact same party setup.

[3] It is noteworthy that Miloslav Bednář, another of the document’s authors, currently serves in the Euro-skeptic Party of Free Citizens.

[4] Abandonment of the principles and values that the ODS was founded upon, and the party’s alleged shift to the left, was the reason Václav Klaus gave when he left the party in 2008, saying “One thing I know for sure: these politics are not the same as those with which I founded the ODS and led it for so many years”.

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