The Past Is Never Dead

Whoever won the Czech presidential election, the result was going to be a defeat for the nation-states of Europe. The outgoing president, Václav Klaus, was a rare figure in European politics: someone in a position of power prepared not only to recognize the threat that the EU represents to democracy, but to denounce it.

Here he is in 2009:

The present decision making system of the European Union is different from a classic parliamentary democracy, tested and proven by history. In a normal parliamentary system, part of the MPs support the government and part support the opposition. In the European parliament, this arrangement has been missing. Here, only one single alternative is being promoted and those who dare thinking about a different option are labelled as enemies of the European integration. Not so long ago, in our part of Europe we lived in a political system that permitted no alternatives and therefore also no parliamentary opposition. It was through this experience that we learned the bitter lesson that with no opposition, there is no freedom. That is why political alternatives must exist.

And not only that. The relationship between a citizen of one or another member state and a representative of the Union is not a standard relationship between a voter and a politician, representing him or her. There is also a great distance (not only in a geographical sense) between citizens and Union representatives, which is much greater than it is the case inside the member countries. This distance is often described as the democratic deficit, the loss of democratic accountability, the decision making of the unelected – but selected – ones, as bureaucratisation of decision making etc. The proposals to change the current state of affairs – included in the rejected European Constitution or in the not much different Lisbon Treaty – would make this defect even worse.

Since there is no European demos – and no European nation – this defect cannot be solved by strengthening the role of the European parliament either.

Indeed.

Sadly, the run-off to succeed Klaus was between two politicians who believe in deeper European integration, the leftist Milos Zeman and, the far better choice, the current foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg.

Judging by the news today, Zeman appears to have won fairly comfortably. But yesterdays count too. The size of Zeman’s victory may be a reminder of the fact that, whatever the eurocrats may tell us, history cannot be simply wished away.

Over at World Affairs, James Kirchick recently wrote on the way that the issue of the postwar expulsion of then-Czechoslovakia’s Sudeten German minority (FWIW I touched on that topic here) had become an issue in a 2013 election, and in a manner, I should add, that reflects very poorly on Klaus.

The whole piece is worth reading in full, but here’s an extract:

The question of the Benes Decrees [expelling the Germans] arose in a debate last week between presidential candidates Karel Schwarzenberg, the current foreign minister, and Milos Zeman, who served as a Social Democratic prime minister from 1998 until 2002. Schwarzenberg faulted the expulsion policy for its reliance upon “the principle of collective guilt,” and went onto say that Benes and other members of the postwar Czechoslovak government “would probably find themselves in The Hague today” for their implementation of the population transfers…

[D]eviating from a line of absolute Czech innocence on the expulsion of Germans is political heresy in the Czech Republic, and doing so may cost Schwarzenberg the election. His entirely reasonable statements have been met with a round of petty, ethnic chauvinism from his opponents, who are attempting to portray Schwarzenberg—a prince descended from a royal house of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—as an outsider. Zeman, who as prime minister claimed that the expulsions were a more “benign” way of dealing with the Sudeten Germans given that treason was punishable by the death penalty, replied that Schwarzenberg spoke Czech like a Sudeten German….

Vaclav Klaus, the outgoing president, essentially endorsed Zeman, even though Schwarzenberg sits in his government. In an interview after the debate, Klaus claimed that Schwarzenberg’s statements were “contemptuous towards the Czech people.” The next president, Klaus added, should also be someone who spent their entire life in their homeland. (After the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, Schwarzenberg’s family escaped to Austria. He devoted his time in exile to the anti-Communist cause and went onto serve as Vaclav Havel’s chief of staff). For good measure, Klaus’s wife indirectly attacked Schwarzenberg by saying that she could not support a man whose wife does not speak Czech (Schwarzenberg’s spouse is an Austrian national) and Klaus’s son mocked Schwarzenberg’s singing of the Czech national anthem.

The Czechs would do well to recognize that as much as they had a right to resent ethnic Germans after the war, the Benes Decrees set a horrible precedent that likely contributed to the Communist seizure of power just three years later and bred a deeper, long-lasting spiritual corruption. After all, a country that so wantonly disregards individual rights and enacts collective punishment on civilians is priming itself for the onset of a Communist dictatorship. Moreover, had the Czechs allowed the Germans to stay in the country, their votes in the 1948 parliamentary elections would have very likely diluted the power that the Communists—who achieved a plurality at the ballot box—achieved…

It’s an awkward thing, history.