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'Czexit': What chance of a referendum on the Czech Republic quitting the EU?

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By David Hutt
Tomio Okamura leader of Czech far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy speaks during a rally organized by League leader Matteo Salvini
Tomio Okamura leader of Czech far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy speaks during a rally organized by League leader Matteo Salvini   -   Copyright  Credit: AP
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Czechs have no great affinity for the European Union - in fact, they are among the most sceptical of the bloc.

But since their country is a net beneficiary of funds from Brussels and there currently exists no means of holding a referendum, a “Czexit” has remained the pipe dream of far-right parties and Eurosceptic columnists.

However, there’s a slim chance of a referendum if the country’s leading eurosceptic party is able to gain access to the corridors of power amid the political turmoil expected after the country's October 8-9 general election.

But much comes down to electoral arithmetic. The ruling ANO party is tipped to win the ballot that takes place today and Saturday but its current partners are projected to lose seats.

Unable to command a majority, Prime Minister Andrej Babis might have to turn to the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) -- the loudest proponent of a plebiscite on leaving the EU -- for backing.

Referendum on Czechs leaving EU 'improbable'

Japan-born Tomio Okamura, the leader of the anti-immigration SPD, said in a recent press conference that passing a new law to allow national referendums, including on EU membership, was his condition for supporting Babis’ campaign for a second term in office.

The majority of commentators reckon it's improbable, however, even if the SPD ends up supporting Babis in the next government.

“An EU referendum is unlikely to the point of impossibility,” said Sean Hanley, an associate professor in Central and Eastern European politics at University College London.

An early 2020 study by the Behavio research agency found that Czech public approval of EU membership was the lowest in the 27 member states, with only 33% saying it was a good thing. Some 15% of respondents said it was bad, the third-highest of the 27 nationalities, and just 47% said they would vote to remain in the bloc.

Despite the public mood, none of the main political parties supports leaving the EU and most importantly its funds, of which the Czech Republic has been a net recipient since it joined in 2004. It is expected to receive more than €7 billion from Brussels between now and 2026 as part of the EU’s recovery fund, as well as other grants from the bloc.

The centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the country’s second-largest party, has Eurosceptic ideas but is committed to reforming the bloc from the inside, not leaving.

The ODS will challenge this weekend’s ballot as part of the SPOLU alliance, currently tipped to come in a close second behind ANO, according to the latest opinion polls.

The libertarian Pirate Party and Mayors and Independents party (STAN), whose alliance is expected to finish some way behind in third, are firm pro-EU advocates.

The Czech constitution currently does not have rules on holding national plebiscites. Only one has been held since the Czech Republic was formed in 1993 when 77% of voters voted in favour to join the EU in a 2003 referendum.

The SPD -- tipped to finish fourth with between 10-12% of the vote -- has long campaigned for constitutional reform. Their numerous proposals have all been rejected by parliament.

But the current governing coalition, with support from the Pirates, had tabled their own motion on a referendum law, although it would forbid any scrutiny of EU and NATO membership. Because the lower chamber has dissolved ahead of this weekend's election, the motion failed to get a proper reading.

The SPD has some support for holding a referendum on EU membership. The far-left Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), tipped to pick up between 5-6.5% of the vote this weekend, is in favour of putting the question to the public, as are the smaller far-right parties that are unlikely to win seats.

The KSCM has supported the outgoing government in parliament since 2018, a position the SPD could find itself in after this weekend’s general election.

In the past, ANO and the SPD said they couldn’t work together, and similar allegations that Babis would partner with Okamura after the last general election proved false.

“Babis would not be excited about the cooperation with the SPD, but if he does not have another possibility, it is possible,” Lubomir Kopecek, a professor of political science at Masaryk University, told Euronews last month.

Opinion polls on the eve of the election suggest the Social Democrats (CSSD), the junior partner in the outgoing ANO-led government, will either lose seats or could even fail to enter parliament. The KSCM is also tipped to drop seats.

Without this support, Babis will struggle to boast enough MPs to win a vote of confidence in parliament, which he will need if President Milos Zeman recommends him as the next prime minister.

What could the post-election landscape look like?

Pundits reckon it is possible that the far-right party wouldn’t formally join ANO in government but offer its support in parliament, as the KSCM has done since 2018. In return, the SPD could demand that Babis agrees to back its referendum plans.

This could also work in Zeman’s interest, recently wrote the journalist Tim Gosling. “Zeman is expected to push Babis to swiftly start working with the SPD and any other illiberal parties that make it to parliament,” he asserted, adding that the SPD and KSCM support Zeman’s pro-Russia and pro-China agenda.

Back in 2016, after the British referendum on leaving the EU, President Zeman also said he was in favour of Czechs holding a similar plebiscite. Although he vowed to campaign to remain in the bloc, he said he would do “everything for [Czechs] to have a referendum and be able to express themselves. And the same goes for a NATO exit too.”

After a meeting with Zeman late last month, the SPD leader Okamura said that in return for the SPD supporting ANO, “one of the fundamental conditions is for the government manifesto ... to include a referendum law including the possibility of a referendum on leaving the EU or potentially NATO.”

Radim Fiala, SPD's deputy leader, also said in a recent interview with the Dnes newspaper that his party might agree to support ANO if it backed the far-right party’s plans for a national referendum law.

“There is no way Babis wants to contemplate Czexit both because he has a realistic appreciation of the Czech republic’s economic interests and of his own, which are closely tied to Germany and Western Europe,” said Hanley, of University College London.

If Babis and Okamura were to work together it would unlikely be in the form of a coalition, which would damage both of their reputations, Hanley added. So with some arrangement less than a coalition, the SPD’s condition on a referendum would more easily be forgotten about. “Okamura has actually worded it in such a way that he can wriggle out of it,” Hanley said.

For Babis, this could be a “deft tactical move, relying on a negative outcome,” wrote Radko Kubicko, a prominent Czech opinion columnist, in an article this week for Czech Radio.

On the one hand, he could win the SPD’s much-needed backing in parliament by agreeing to such a law. On the other hand, because Babis wouldn’t want to govern in a country wrecked by the havoc of leaving the EU, he would have to wager a 'Czechxit' referendum would never actually happen or, if it did, the Czech electorate would vote against it.

Yet it could end up in a similar situation as in Britain when then-Prime Minister David Cameron launched the Brexit referendum believing that it would be easily defeated and quieten the eurosceptic-wing of his Conservative Party, a plan that backfired.

“Although it seems that the topic of a 'Czexit' is only a secondary issue in Czech politics, after the elections... it might not be the case,” Kubicko wrote.