Credit: JS/BD

European Parliament Elections: Interview With Political Scientist Vít Hloušek

The European Parliament elections are now one month away, with voting open in the Czech Republic on Friday 7 and Saturday 8 June. Brno Daily spoke to Vít Hloušek, a political scientist from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Brno’s Masaryk University, to discuss the context, themes, and expectations of the vote, in the Czech Republic and beyond.

BD: The European Parliament (EP) elections are coming up a month from now. So far, how does this election compare to previous EP election campaigns?

Well it is similar, the intensity is similar, the timing is similar, which means we still cannot see any intensive campaign. There are some local meetings with the candidates, we can see some posters on the streets, but still, it’s not a big deal. Five years ago, ten years ago, the EP elections in the Czech Republic were definitely counted as so-called “second order” elections, which to simplify a bit, means that people do not care as much as they do about parliamentary or presidential elections.

BD: And would you say that this is still the case?

Well I think that it is the case in general, and it applies even more to countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Generally in the Central and Eastern European member states, the EP elections are less important, for the parties and for the voters, and this is manifested in the campaign, which means not only that the intensity is lower compared to parliamentary elections, but also that the campaign revolves more around national topics than around topics genuinely related to European integration.

BD: Some commentators and candidates have been suggesting that EP elections are becoming more salient for Czech voters. Is there any evidence for this?

Well, I don’t think so. We might have a turnout slightly above 30%, we had 28.7% at the last EP elections, but I don’t think the EP is gaining in importance in the eyes of the Czech voters. There is no evidence to support this.

BD: So is it just a referendum on the current government?

Well to some extent it is. Of course you can detect some more EU-based topics, but they have sort of penetrated into the domestic discourse. Take the European Green Deal as an example, this is very important for many politicians. Most typically they are criticising the Green Deal, some of them are in support of it, all of them are talking about the need to modify it. But it is framed not in a genuinely EU context, but rather in the context of domestic debate. So it means that even during the EP election campaign, the discussion is more about the new nuclear power plants in the Czech Republic, it’s about phasing out coal, it’s about renewables, it’s about immobility and things like this, but it is not treated in the EU wide dimension.

BD: In EP elections, do the preferences of Czech voters match the national elections? Are voters thinking differently about which parties they want to represent them in the EP? Do you see more of a role for Euroscepticism? 

Well basically they follow the nationwide patterns, both in terms of voters’ preferences, and what the parties are offering to the voters. Sometimes the smaller parties with sharper Eurosceptic orientation might gain from the fact that we are talking about the European Parliament and European issues. This year it looks like Kateřina Konečná will defend her seat as a Member of the European Parliament. She’s the chair of the Communist Party, but she very cleverly created a bigger coalition [Stacilo!] composed of both far-left and far-right parties, and she decided primarily to heavily criticise the Czech government. She’s very skilled when it comes to TV debates, and for some reason, and I don’t know what the reason is, she has been prominently hosted by TV Prima, so she really could win more than 5% of the vote, and this is one of the examples. We have had examples like this before, such as Vladimir Zelezny [MEP for the Independent Democrats, 2004-09], so small Eurosceptic parties might have a chance, which they wouldn’t have in the parliamentary elections.

BD: So do you see Stacilo! as trying to piggy-back on the anti-system protests?

Yes, something like this, a bit flavoured with EU topics, but basically Stacilo! is absolutely oriented against the current government as a radical voice of opposition, or anti-establishment, to put it more generally.

BD: You mentioned the European Green Deal and the energy mix. Are there any other major issues which have come out of this campaign?

Well, economic issues in general, but not framed in the EU dimension… economics as far as inflation is concerned, and some other related reforms like the pension reform, social system reforms in the Czech Republic, they will be among the most prominent topics of the elections. Then of course migration, but compared to the previous EP elections, migration is important but no longer so vital for the political parties. Of course, Tomio Okamura, and ANO, are trying to frame it as a criticism of the government for being too positive about the Ukrainians, and not taking care of what they call “our people”, but migration is less important than it used to be, simply because we are not facing that huge influx of migrants to Europe from Africa or the Middle East, it is not that widely covered in the Czech media, and frankly the Ukrainians are much better treated than other types of migrants.   

BD: Some coalition government figures have been placing quite a strong emphasis on the Czech Republic’s Western orientation, drawing contrasts with the governments in Slovakia or Hungary. Do you think that this is assured as the Czech Republic’s direction of travel? Or do you think that this is still as contested as it is in those countries?

It is not so contested, if we compare it to the political debate in Slovakia or Hungary, but it is contested in many ways. The biggest opposition party, Andrej Babis’s ANO, for example, they are definitely not openly disputing the Western orientation, but they launched their “peace rhetoric”, whatever that means. So therefore, the coalition might play that card: “Ok, we are the only safeguard of the pro-Western orientation of the Czech Republic”. I don’t think, even if we imagine that ANO would be the central partner in the new government after the 2025 parliamentary elections, that they would be willing or able to change the foreign policy orientation of the Czech Republic substantially. But of course this can always be an important element of political campaigning, because Andrej Babis has decided to be more attractive for far-right oriented voters, who love to hear this stuff about peace and about rapprochement with Russia, and terminating the war in Ukraine at any cost. So that is a pretext for the government to stress even more the pro-Western, loyal position within both the EU and NATO.

BD: From what you said about the Czech Republic, it sounds like you’re not expecting any big surprises, but at the European level there has been a lot of commentary about how there is going to be a far-right wave in the EP…

Well, not necessarily a far-right wave, but I would say that we might expect both Eurosceptic parties [Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)] to be slightly better represented. There is some speculation for example about the potential role of ECR, who might have a bigger group in the EP than the liberals, and this of course might slightly change the dynamics and the balance of power within the EP. Still, there is a long tradition of cooperation between the, let’s say, moderate groupings, like the European People’s Party and the Party of European Socialists, so we will see. But we can definitely expect a certain increase in Eurosceptic voices, or protest voices, to put it more generally, simply because many European countries are facing an economically critical period.

BD: Do you anticipate these changes having a negative effect on the functioning of the EU?

Well, it would very much depend on the exact balance, between let’s say pro-system and anti-system groups in the EP, but I can imagine that it might have an impact. From what we can see, there is a trend of the mainstream groups losing in favour of these various soft and hard Eurosceptics, and they are of course much more difficult to handle, they might have an impact on the compromises that are typical for the EP, they might impact a lot the personal composition of the leading EP institutions. I don’t think they would be so powerful as to turn upside down the entire dynamics, but of course I can imagine that the next EP will be more reserved about the green agenda, about some progressive agenda, this could happen. This is definitely not only about the technocratic balance of power, it’s of course also about agenda setting, and the will of the EP to push forward some of its agenda.

Brno Daily Subscribe
Sign up for morning news in your mail