Czech-German Relations in the European Context

Or How Engaging Some Dilemmas Could Take Europe Forward

, by Robin R. Mudry

Czech-German Relations in the European Context
Heads of state Merkel, Sobotka and Fico during the joint discussion on “Central Europe’s contribution to Europe’s future” with students from the three countries. © Bundesregierung/Steins

On April the 3rd 2017, a historic trilateral meeting took place at the Bundeskanzleramt, the German Federal Chancellor’s workplace in Berlin.

Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU, Christian Democrats) met with her Czech and Slovak counterparts – the Prime Ministers Bohuslav Sobotka (ČSSD, Social Democrats) and Robert Fico (Smer-SD, Social Democrats) – to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the German-Czechoslovak Neighbourhood Treaty, which was signed on February the 27th in 1992.[1] Since this took place before the Velvet Separation of today’s Czech and Slovak Republics, the document was and is still called a German-Czechoslovak one. The two latter countries’ peaceful split does not change anything to the fact that the 1992 Neighbourhood Treaty is, up to the present day, the legal basis for Czech-German post-Cold War relations and responsible for the tripartite format (the meeting of German, Czech and Slovak leaders at once) displayed in Berlin.

In what follows, I am first going to retrace the development of Czech-German relations after the turning point of 1989/90 by pointing out some major agreements, contextualising these in the developments around European integration, and shortly referring to the strong economic ties. Second, I am going to develop three dilemmas – two major ones and a third more punctual one – which seem important to me in order to understand the difficulties that persist in Czech-German relations and in the Czech Republic’s stance towards Europe more generally. I will also try to combine the depiction of these dilemmas with some insights from the Berlin meeting, where, after a common lunch and press conference, the three heads of government spent one hour listening and answering to statements and questions uttered by students from the three countries – Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia.[2] I hope that these points, which are supposed to be thought-provoking impulses rather than absolute findings, contribute to the reader’s understanding of the current situation in Czech-German relations and may enable him to further engage in it.

When in 1992 Václav Havel and Helmut Kohl signed the German-Czechoslovak Neighbourhood Treaty at Prague Castle’s Spanish Hall, it was quite clear that not all problematic issues had been settled.[3] The treaty spoke about good neighbourhood and amicable cooperation and was aimed at forming the basis for future and ever greater exchanges on all levels: political, economic, cultural and scientific. Regular intergovernmental meetings were foreseen. Additionally, the existing borders were mutually recognised and the German minority in the Czech lands was, to a great extent, granted minority rights. Other difficult topics related to the complicated and burdensome common history – such as a joint view on the Munich Agreement of 1938, reparation demands and the restitution of lands and fortunes to Germans who were expulsed as a result of the so-called Beneš decrees – were not only not decided on, but deliberately excluded; as can be read in the Treaty’s appendix. The Treaty’s reception was consequently quite different on either side. Whereas Kohl praised the document to be of historic grandeur, Havel was much more modest and down-to-earth by simply signalling, that this was what both sides were at that moment able to agree on. Clearly, the situation had evolved from 1973, when a predecessor treaty was concluded between Western Germany and the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. When at that time German sensitivities to the neighbours’ difficult and tragic fate had seemingly been higher, in 1992 a reunited Germany was perceived to be on the winners’ side of history and fears of further, renewed Germanisation where big, especially when looking at the massive German investments and buying-ups that started right after the Velvet Revolution. Even though these anxieties were, retrospectively speaking, not justified, it became very clear that a future Czech-German relationship was going to be an asymmetric one.[4]

In 1997, a Czech-German Declaration was to supplement the Neighbourhood Treaty and laid down the foundations for the German-Czech Future Foundation (Česko-Německý Fond Budoucnosti)[5] and the German-Czech Discussion Forum (Česko-Německé Diskusní Fórum)[6] which are up to the present day the major platforms for civil societies’ bilateral exchanges and which support and fund a considerable number of transnational Czech-German projects.[7] The Czech German Youth Forum (Česko-Německé Fórum Mládeže) being only one example of the successful interaction initiated on the basis of the Discussion Forum.[8] In 2015, Czech-German relations further intensified by the creation of a Strategical Dialogue between the Foreign Ministries.[9]

There can be no doubt that the European integration process, to which the Czech Republic aspired from the beginning of its independence, was the main framework in which the development and enhancement of Czech-German relations took place. Germany was one of the most supportive countries of EU enlargement to Central Eastern Europe. This is certainly also due to the common experience of communist oppression – at least for Eastern Germany – an important point that should not be forgotten when considering both countries’ relations. The common European commitment was therefore also at the heart of a statement, which was jointly published by the German, Czech and Slovak Ministers for Foreign Affairs, who met before their heads of government to celebrate the Neighbourhood Treaty’s 25th anniversary.[10]

Another undeniable fact is that the strong economic ties between Germany and the Czech Republic were of utmost importance for the favourable development of relations so far. Germany being, on the one hand, the Czech Republic’s first destination for exports, and the Czech Republic on the other hand, together with Slovakia, a vital member in the supply chain for the German automobile industry, economic ties bound the two countries together and helped deepen the exchanges. However, and as we shall later see, trade is not a sufficient basis for reciprocal appreciation and a good overall relationship.

In Berlin, Sobotka and Fico were very eager to express their common commitment to a strong and united Europe alongside Germany. Both stressed their consensus with Germany, when it comes to Brexit negotiations, the deepening of trade relations, concertation in the economies, scientific and research exchanges and the need to jointly address the multiple challenges the EU is facing today. Even on the migration issue conciliatory words were uttered. Everybody agreed that there must be solidarity, except that this solidarity could take different forms and consequently does not necessarily have to include the acceptance of refugees to one’s country. All in all, it seemed that Czech-German relations are wonderful and apart from some minor disagreements regarding the new German motorway charges, all major issues could be agreed on. Prime Minister Sobotka stated that Czech-German relations were better than they had been ever before.[11] Having talked to many people in the Czech Republic – academics, students, pupils, workers and so on – I dare say that the relations, or at least their perception, are not that harmonious.

It is very difficult to approach the question of asymmetric interstate relations scientifically. Nonetheless, there exists a literature dealing with so-called “small states” and how they act and behave, notably in the context of European integration. The alluded difficulties often emanate from a lack of empirical data or simply the impossibility to generate this data, since several subjective and therefore only hardly measurable variables play a role. Speaking about “small countries”, the first challenge is that of a definition. For a country to be classified as a small one, many parameters can be taken into consideration. A simplistic analysis following criteria such as GDP, budget or the resources a country disposes of in general are insufficient and self-perception as well as the perception by others can be significant.[12] Self-perception in Czech Republic is very often that of a “small country” and even if increasing living standards, excellent economic performance and figures and a low unemployment rate as well as the immense cultural and intellectual heritage might lead to a quite distinct appreciation in the eyes of a foreigner (such as myself), some sort of inferiority complex and sometimes even political defeatism seem to be very deeply-rooted; as to persist all evident changes. This observation is of importance when considering the three earlier mentioned dilemmas. They are mostly to be seen in the more general context of European integration, but can be applied to Czech-German relations as well.

First dilemma: The Velvet Revolution having finally reconstituted national independence and sovereignty to the Czech Republic by breaking the hegemonic links with the Soviet Union, it is all too understandable that this newly acquired autonomy is highly appreciated and citizens want to enjoy it. The thought of seemingly reducing this autonomy by transferring sovereignty to a supranational entity – as one of the EU’s core principles, that of subsidiarity – may be opposed by a considerable part of the electorate. This is what can be observed in all Central Eastern European states at present. Certainly, the impression of a partial EU failure with regards to the financial, and more prominently, the migration crisis, contributes to this, and politicians have included this argument into their discourse. It is important to notice that we are talking about “seemingly reducing autonomy”, because it is also evident that in an ever more globalised world – with cross-border and even global problems as well as multinational companies, which often present a threat to state sovereignty – the preservation of sovereignty on a national level will eventually lead to its loss, whereas the pooling of sovereignty on a supranational level is the only way to remain sovereign and consequently it is the sole viable option to effectively preserve national sovereignty. Policymakers in Central Eastern European states are well aware of that fact. But, undeniably, it is difficult to sell such a concept in elections.

In more concrete terms, we can observe the implications of this dilemma in the discussion about a “multi-speed Europe”, which implies different stages of integration and consequently different quantities of sovereignty that are to be shared. Again, the Czech Republic, as well as its Slovak neighbours, is determined to play in the first league and not to be displaced onto the hindmost ranks. In Berlin, Prime Minister Fico made it clear, that for Slovakia there was no other option on the table than to be part of “nuclear Europe”. This is, of course, because both countries risk being left behind if they do not manage to be a part of the European forefront. And yet, everybody knows that to be part of “nuclear Europe”, one must be ready to integrate more, to transfer other sovereignty rights to the common institutions and also to be more active and engaged. It is also clear that membership in the Monetary Union, which means having the euro currency, is an integral part of “nuclear Europe”. However, the Czech government has been very reluctant to launch the process of monetary reform so far. This may be the reason why Prime Minister Sobotka was more cautious than his Slovak counterpart in opposing a Europe of different speeds. Nevertheless, it is also in the Czech Republic’s best economic interest to keep pace with the European forerunners.

The outlined complex of problems leads us to a second – minor, but nonetheless important – dilemma: the Czech Republic’s role in the Visegrád Group. While the group was initially constituted by Poland, Hungary and then still Czechoslovakia to support each other on their way into the European Community and NATO, it nowadays sometimes seems that the objectives have been, if not reversed, at least led to another direction. That this development may weigh on Czech-German relations is evident and has also been put forward by journalists at the Berlin press conference. Recent meetings of the V4-countries have shown that consensus between the Czech and Slovak Republics on one side and Poland and Hungary – with ever more authoritative tendencies – on the other side can only be reached on the migration issue. The Czech Republic finds itself in a position between East and West – many people have claimed that this could be in its interests as a bridge-builder – but must face the question whether to stick to its regional partners and thereby to distance itself from “nuclear Europe”, or to turn its head more towards Germany and deepen integration.

The third dilemma regards Czech-German relations directly and has more to do with feelings, mentalities and impressions than with facts and strategical questions. The relationship between the two countries is quite ambivalent in the sense that Germany is very often seen as an example to follow. Be it in economic matters or organisational ones, many Czechs crave to emulate the German structures and to reach their western neighbour’s standards. In some cases, (for instance in the region of the capital Prague), this pursuit has already been widely successful. These feelings suggest that a rapprochement towards very intense links and exchanges is inevitable and German advice very welcome. One can even hear the Czech Republic being described as the seventeenth German Bundesland from an economic point of view. But alas! This designation is not only meant in an affirmative way and Germany is often perceived to be too dominant – in Europe as well as towards the Czech Republic. The initially mentioned fears of Germanisation reappear. Angela Merkel, with whom the Prime Ministers met in Berlin and to whom they expressed appreciation and consent on almost all issues, is too often perceived as the real and only leader in the EU. A dangerous misinterpretation that needs to be addressed if Czech-German relations are to be further enhanced and if a positive stance towards Europe is to be achieved in a long-term perspective.

The fact that the German, Czech and Slovak heads of government discussed together with students from all three countries in Berlin was presented to be an example of exchange between civil societies. It is exactly this kind of exchange that is in my view the most important and the most fruitful one. Trade can contribute to both sides’ economies but does not necessarily help to tear down boundaries, to deconstruct stereotypes and prejudice and to promote real amicable cooperation and intense relationships; as aimed at in the Neighbourhood Treaty. The Young European Federalists –an organisation which lists international understanding and bringing people from all over Europe together among its core aims – can and should be one of the actors in this interaction of civil societies. Admittedly, it is also for the governments and official political leaders to take a different approach. On the one hand, Czechs could me more self-confident in introducing their own ideas and solutions into the European debate. And, Czech political leaders must come up with their visions for a Czech Republic as active and integral member of the European family. On the other hand, Germans should further cooperate with their eastern neighbours and thereby be more open and sensitive. It is crucial to forge alliances with “small states” if Germany wants to get rid of the misperception of dominating European power. The Czech Republic could be both: a good partner and the gate to Central Eastern Europe on a mission to bring it back at the heart of the EU.

Footnotes

[1] For an English description of the event see: The Federal Government: ʻGood relations with the Czech Republic and Slovakiaʼ, 03.04.2017. Available at: https://www.bundesregierung.de/Content/EN/Artikel/2017/04_en/2017-04-03-25jahre-deutsch-tschechisch-slowakische-freundschaft_en.html?nn=709674. For a detailedreportofthepressconferencesee: Die Bundesregierung: ʻPressekonferenz von Bundeskanzlerin Merkel, dem Ministerpräsidenten der Slowakischen Republik, Fico, und dem Ministerpräsidenten der Tschechischen Republik, Sobotkaʼ, 03.04.2017. Available at: https://www.bundesregierung.de/Content/DE/Mitschrift/Pressekonferenzen/2017/04/2017-04-03-pk-merkel-fico-sobotka.html.

[2] For a video of the discussion (in German) see: Die Bundesregierung – Mediathek: ʻDiskussion zum Thema „Mitteleuropas Beitrag zur Zukunft Europas“ʼ, 03.04.2017. Available at: https://www.bundesregierung.de/SiteGlobals/Forms/Webs/Breg/Suche/DE/Solr_Mediathek_formular.html?id=2147742&cat=videos&doctype=Video. Czech and Slovak dubbed versions can also be found in the Federal Government’s media centre.

[3] The Treaty’sfulltextcanbefound at: Deutsche Botschaft Prag: ʻVertrag über gute Nachbarschaftʼ. Available at: http://www.prag.diplo.de/Vertretung/prag/de/03/Deutsch__tscheschiche__Beziehungen/Nachbarschaftsverrag/seite__Text-Nachbarschaftsvertrag.html.

[4] For the historical information given in the present article and for an interesting analysis of the conclusion of contract (in German) from the year 1992 see: Hofmann, Gunter: ʻVomKanzlerkeinoffenesWortʼ, 06.03.1992, in Die Zeit. Available at: http://www.zeit.de/1992/11/vom-kanzler-kein-offenes-wort/komplettansicht.

[5] See for further information: http://www.fondbudoucnosti.cz/de/.

[6] See for further information: http://www.diskusniforum.org/de/.

[7] The Declaration’s full text can be found at: Deutsche Botschaft Prag: ʻDeutsch-Tschechische Erklärungʼ. Available at: http://www.prag.diplo.de/Vertretung/prag/de/03/Deutsch__tscheschiche__Beziehungen/deu-cze_20Erkl_C3_A4rung/seite__deutsch__tschechische__erklaerung.html.

[8] See for further information: http://www.dtjf.de/.

[9] The full text of the Declaration announcing this Strategical Dialogue can be found at: Deutsche BotschaftPrag: ʻDeutsch-tschechischeBeziehungenʼ. Available at: http://www.prag.diplo.de/contentblob/4561186/Daten/5617744/Downloaddatei_StratDialog_Erklrung_de.pdf.

[10] The statement’s full text can be found at: Auswärtiges Amt: ʻErklärung der Außenminister Deutschlands, Tschechiens und der Slowakei anlässlich 25 Jahre deutsch-tschechoslowakischer Nachbarschaftsvertragʼ, 27.02.2017. Available at: https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/DE/Infoservice/Presse/Meldungen/2017/170227_CZE_SVK.html.

[11] See for this also: Vláda České Republiky: ʻPremiér Sobotka: Česko-německévztahyjsoudnesnejlepší v historiiʼ, 03.04.2017. Available at: https://www.vlada.cz/cz/media-centrum/aktualne/premier-sobotka-cesko-nemecke-vztahy-jsou-dnes-nejlepsi-v-historii--154988/.

[12] For an overview of the literature and the methodology surrounding this topicsee: Thorhallsson, Baldur; Wivel, Anders: ʻSmall States in the European Union. What Do We Know and What Would We Like to Know?ʼ, in Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 19:4, December 2006, pp. 651-668. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09557570601003502.

As a member of the German students’ delegation, Robin R. Mudry took part in the Berlin discussion between heads of government and students on April 3, 2017. The contents of this article were first presented at a meeting of JEF Czech Republic in Prague on April 11 and have been slightly adapted for this publication.

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