Radek Špicar is vice-president of the Czech Confederation of Industry. But since last year – spurred into action by the UK’s Brexit vote – he has also been travelling the length and breadth of the country trying to convince ordinary Czechs of the merits of remaining in the European Union. When we spoke, Špicar shared the insights he has gleaned from dozens of such public debates. But first I asked him why he felt the pro-EU atmosphere in Czech society prior to accession in 2004 had evidently dissipated so much.
“The first one is the role of politicians. Unfortunately in the past we had politicians who blamed the EU for everything which didn’t work here in this country and didn’t give it any credit for all the things that we successfully completed.
“Secondly, those pro-European people who were happy that we joined the EU disappeared from the public space after we joined, and I can include myself in this group.
“This turned out to be a big mistake.
“Then people don’t know much about the EU. They are preoccupied with their own problems and they don’t follow what’s going on in Brussels.
“Therefore they don’t understand how the decisions there are being made.
“That’s why they think Brussels dictates something to us – that’s what they often tell me.
“They think that we cannot influence anything in Brussels.
“And last but not least, people see mistakes made by the European Union in the last couple of years.
“I have in mind violating its own rules when it comes to the Stability Pact, admitting Greece into the Eurozone even though it didn’t fulfill the criteria, etcetera.
“So these are the main reasons.”
Early last year you began trying to convince people in person, at public debates, that leaving the EU would be a bad idea. What led you to begin doing that?
“I said, publicly, that if anybody is willing to talk about the EU and sends me an invitation I will gladly accept it. I didn’t expect that more than 50 people would send me invitations.”
“That’s very simple. I was travelling around the Czech Republic before the referendum, because I thought that the Czech Republic’s membership of the EU would be beneficial for us.”
So you’re talking about back in 2003 or something?
“Absolutely. With a couple of friends we were travelling to large cities, small cities, villages, talking to people about the EU and what it’s going to bring to us if we join.
“Then we joined and we congratulated ourselves, celebrated and then disappeared from the public space.
“We thought everybody was as happy as we were with membership, because we could travel freely across Europe, we were able to study using EU scholarships, etcetera, etcetera.
“We thought that people saw it in the same way, which was not the case.
“And then Brexit came. We saw what can happen and we realised that we are in a very similar situation when it comes to the popularity of the EU, for example when it comes to Euroscepticism, which is extremely strong in this country.
“When it comes to the adoption of the Euro we are the most Eurosceptic nation in the whole EU, although our economy benefits probably the most from access to the internal market, for example.
“So I decided to do something about it, not just to talk about the pros of our membership on TV.
“I said, publicly, that if anybody is willing to talk about the EU and sends me an invitation I will gladly accept it and I will come.
“I didn’t mean it as a joke, but I didn’t expect that more than 50 people would send me invitations.
“So now I’m in the middle, I would say. I’ve visited 25 cities, talked to 100s of people and I’m continuing with this activity.”
What kinds of places are you meeting people?
“All kinds of places, actually.
“I don’t care about the number of people I meet, because it’s not about me, it’s about the topic. I really care about the topic.
“I accept invitations, for instance, from a group of six people in Josefov, in the local pub, who argue about the EU.
“They wanted to invite somebody with whom they will be able to discuss it.
“Then I also went to a church in Prague 8 – that was the first stop, where it all started.
“Then one of the last stops was in Olomouc, with more than 100 people at Olomouc University.
“So it’s very diverse.”
What kind of people go? Are they mainly pro-EU? Are you kind of preaching to the converted to some degree?
“Absolutely. I get asked this question mostly by journalists, very often.
“Their questions made me think about the audience.
“I found out that the most violent Eurosceptics never show up. They are brave on the internet – on Facebook and Twitter – but face to face they don’t dare to show up and start a discussion.”
“And I found out that the most violent Eurosceptics never show up. They are brave on the internet – on Facebook and Twitter – but face to face they don’t dare to show up and start a discussion.
“So I rather meet with people who have their doubts, or who tend to think that they lack enough proper information about the EU and they want to learn something.
“But most of the people are moderate pro-Europeans and they’re missing arguments in their talks with their relatives, friends, colleagues at work, etcetera.
“They basically invite me to get arguments that they will later on be able to use in their discussions with people around them.
“I was unhappy about it at the beginning, because my ambition was to talk to those who criticise the EU.
“But then later on I realised that it’s OK.
“To provide arguments to ambassadors of the case who will distribute them in their environments is of the same importance, actually.”
What arguments are they most impressed by? Which are they most able to use, do you think?
“There are two. And one was really surprising to me.
“I’m a student of international relations and I’ve studied history so for me the beginning of EU integration is no secret.
“I knew it was very pragmatic project, that the founding fathers tried to do something to keep peace in Europe after WWII and that economic integration is basically a means of how to achieve it.
“So I knew this and I found it stupid. I didn’t dare to explain it to anybody because I expected that everybody knew it.
“They are like, OK, so this is to keep peace – that’s why we’re not fighting with each other, because we are interconnected economically that it wouldn’t make sense.
“So this is an argument that people really buy and consider very important.
“Secondly, and that was also surprising to me, they kind of reflect what’s going on in international affairs, in global politics.
“And they feel that in order to be able to face the United States and Russia and China we have to be united.”
When you meet people who have concerns or worries about the EU, typically what are they?
“They think that we have very limited influence in Brussels – that it’s like Vienna centuries ago, Berlin during WWII and Moscow during the communist era.
“They think important, strategic decisions are being made elsewhere, out of our country, and we have no influence over them. That’s one thing.
“Secondly they are afraid about EU cohesion with respect to the migration crisis.
“They are afraid that the EU will be, even in the future, violating its own rules, which will question its own existence and principles and values, stuff like that.
“And, last but not least, they are a lot of EU myths.
“Because people don’t understand the EU works… for example, many people, I would say most people I talk to, have no idea that such a body as the EU Council exists.
“They have no idea that our prime minister actually attends summits of the EU Council, without whom you can hardly make any important strategic decisions.
“People think we have very limited influence in Brussels – that it’s like Vienna centuries ago, Berlin during WWII and Moscow during the communist era.”
“So people don’t know that we participate in this and have a very strong say on a number of issues.
“And because they don’t understand the daily functioning and how it all works – and I don’t blame them, because it’s damn complicated – they believe in stupid legends, like that the EU is prohibiting efficient vacuum cleaners, and stuff like that.”
On your trips around the county, have you had any strongly negative or depressing experiences?
“Yes, I had actually.
“Once there was a debate in Northern Moravia and it was a combination of a secondary school and a vocational school.
“I have to say that I was not frustrated and depressed about their reaction towards the EU. The discussion was OK.
“But I was frustrated and depressed because of the relationship between the two groups.
“It really seemed to me that the students of the vocational school disrespected the students from the gymnazium, from the secondary school.
“And vice versa. There was no contact between them, no communication, no respect.
“That was very depressing.”
Did it feel like the national situation in miniature, where you have the urban elites and the rest, the poorly off?
“I realised that it really begins at the school level, even at the secondary school level, which is sad.
“And we should do something about it as a country. Otherwise it will grow and only become bigger of a problem.”
What have you learned from the process of travelling around the country and speaking to members of the public like this?
“People tell, You sacrifice and energy, why do you do it? Etcetera.
“And I realised recently that I probably benefit more than I give to those people who meet with me.
“I learned a lot, actually. And I changed my mind over a number of topics.
“I realised that how Brussels is functioning is too complicated. It must be simplified, otherwise people won’t be able to follow it.
“We have to change the role of the Parliament. Otherwise people won’t show up during the elections.
“Because the Parliament is not worth its name – it cannot even propose its own laws, for example.
“I changed to a certain extent my opinion about Euro adoption in this country.
“Seventy percent of people are afraid of the Euro and we should take it seriously.
“There’s a need to talk to people about the pros and cons of Euro adoption.
“I don’t blame politicians for not setting a date for adoption. I blame them for not being active in this debate.”
Initially you started this whole process out of a fear that Czechs could somehow find themselves in a situation where there was a referendum on remaining in the EU and that could go, from your perspective, the wrong way. Today how likely is that scenario, do you think?
“I think it’s much less likely.
“We have a coalition government and fortunately the major political parties are not even considering anything like that.
“I changed to a certain extent my opinion about Euro adoption in this country. Seventy percent of people are afraid of the Euro and we should take it seriously.”
“So I don’t think this is the danger.
“But because of that I realised that we must do something.
“We must be active in the public space, saying openly what is not working in the EU and how we should change it or repair it.
“And at the same time saying what works very well and what we have to keep.”
I presume like many people who are against the Czech Republic leaving the EU that you don’t like the word that begins with “C” and rhymes with Brexit?
“Exactly [laughs]. That’s why I’m not using it.
“Because it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that’s what you don’t want.”
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