Vol 1, No 17
18 October 1999
On 14 October, Ambassador of the European Commission to the Czech Republic Ramiro Cibrian had the unenviable task of presenting the Commission's predominantly negative assessment to the Czech government and also to Czech journalists.
At the press conference, after Cibrian took his usual admirable approach and read the assessment in Czech (although not fluent in the language he has taught himself how to pronounce its slippery sounds and makes a point of giving most of his public statements in this manner), something of a contest ensued among journalists to see who would be the first to get the Ambassador to say the Czech Republic would be kicked out of the first round of EU enlargement.
The reaction was telling not only because throughout the entire conference, as Cibrian imploringly spoke of haste and picking up the pace of Euro-reform, a larger-than-large man snored behind me, but because as the journalists desperately tried to devise new ways of getting the Ambassador to crushingly compare the Czech Republic with its fellow candidate countries, many of the key points of his speech - and the EC Report itself - seemed to be missed.
At one point, Cibrian did oblige with a type of ranking or breakdown, with respect to economics. In his words, and those of the Report, Cyprus and Malta are considered full market economies, Hungary and Poland have made significant progress, as have Slovenia and Estonia, followed by the Czech Republic, where there is "a situation which gives rise to concern." More importantly, Cibrian pointed out, the type of problems which existed in the Czech Republic were not of the same magnitude as those that exist in the other candidate countries, stressing that the economic reforms carried out in the country in 1990 were insufficient and that some fundamental structures of a market economy were still missing ten years later.
To this, a young Czech journalist smugly replied: "Is that not overly harsh for a country with one of the highest GDPs in the region?"
Cibrian, in turn, retorted by pointing out that GDP per capita is not one of the criteria for the EC's assessment.
Again, the point missed was telling: our GDP is high so our economy must be working - even without the fundamental elements which the report and Cibrian pointed out. Equally telling were the large charts which appeared in the dailies the next day, comparing GDP of the candidate countries rather than, say, some of the regulatory structures and legislation which exist in these countries. It was precisely these structures - or the alarming lack of them - which Cibrian emphasised, stressing that while the EU was willing to show flexibility on issues where large investment was involved, such as energy and environmental reform, no flexibility would be shown in internal market issues where it is only a question of good regulatory schemes.
Moreover, mere commitments to EU membership are no longer to be accepted, and the Commission will only "measure commitment with actual progress on the ground."
Rather than driving this point home, asking why there has been so little progress "on the ground" and highlighting Cibrian's point that the market reform which was assumed to have taken place in the early 90s, in fact, has not yet taken place, the Czech media largely stuck to simplified comparisons of GDP per capita.
But it is precisely this kind of discussion which might go some way in dispelling the widely held notion that the currently miserable condition of the economy is the result of a fully functioning market. Equally, such a public debate could help to eradicate the similarly misguided notion held by others who feel they owe their present wealth and relative comfort to a successful transition to a market economy.
The predominant mood in the country is that things aren't working, and the release of the EC Report seems to have unleashed a kind of masochistic relief or smug contentment that someone else has said that things aren't working. In short, it confirmed what everyone knew all along.
In fact, in the weeks leading up to the Report, there seemed to be an attempt to outrun the EC's assessment. This was highlighted by a report which the Coalition of Four parties presented to the government and sent to Brussels a week prior to the release of the official EC Report and which tried to anticipate the criticism that was sure to come the Czech Republic's way.
Now, after the Report's release, there is much finger-pointing and I-told-you-so-ing. But although many are posing the question of "Whose fault is it?", few seem to be asking why things aren't working. Rather than serving as fodder for another smattering of doomsday "We are the Worst" headlines, the Report should provide the media with the impetus to begin undertaking investigative reports into the justice system, factual examinations of the economic reform undertaken in the past ten years and non-superficial examinations of functioning economic models existing in other countries.
The EC Report's concrete, itemised criticism provides an opportunity to show the public that EU membership is not merely an abstract goal that people have been told is good for them but that it is connected to reforms which are necessary for the functioning of the country as a whole, and that the shortcomings noted in the Report are shortcomings of the country's existing system and affect the daily lives of its citizens.
The connection needs to be made with the concrete, day-to-day contexts experienced by the majority of the country's population. The man on the street needs to be made aware that his hour-long battle at the local government office, his years-long court struggle with the housing authority and the threat to the country's aspirations at EU membership are all part of the same problem.
Too often, EU accession has been allowed to remain in an abstract realm of some "greater good" or the rather petty realm of a political playing card. Simplistic exchanges by politicians and the media about whether it is something the country should do or shouldn't do, whether it needs to hurry or doesn't need to hurry in doing it, have all drawn attention away from the real questions.
What should be being asked is: Are these reforms something the country should do? Is foot dragging on their implementation productive or detrimental to me, the citizen?
Instead, EU membership has been either taken as a given or dismissed as an unnecessary bureaucratic burden. What has been lacking is debate on the issues at hand, most of which are clearly identified in the recent Report.
A case in point is the recent furore over the wall being erected between Romani and non-Romani communities in the North Bohemian town of Usti nad Labem. Throughout the months that this issue has been in the press and especially as the date of this year's EC Report neared, it was repeatedly pointed out that the building of the wall would bring shame to the country and tarnish the country's image in Brussels. Whether the building of a concrete wall was an adequate way of dealing with the problem that exists in Usti - and even clear identification of that problem - was something that hardly ever made it into the daily papers.
Rather than worrying about "what Brussels will think" or singing the familiar Czech song of "the West is no better," it would be more worthwhile for the media to look at similar ghettoisation efforts undertaken by municipalities in the West and the effects these efforts have had on their communities and to pose questions such as: did they lead to the peace and quite and better relations that some claim the wall in Usti will bring? Discussion of some of these questions would perhaps serve to quell the bitterness many Czechs feel at the West crying racism, while not looking in its own backyard.
It will be interesting to watch whether, in the coming months, this EC Report is used as a launching pad to discuss some of the country's most pressing problems or whether the Czech media return to puffing up petty inconsequential hankerings until the Helsinki summit or until the next EC report, at which point they will cry "We knew it!" all over again.
Kazi Stastna, 17 October 1999
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