EU membership is first and foremost a gateway to liberty and freedom, not in the purely economic sense, but in terms of personal freedom, writes Tomáš Prouza.
Tomáš Prouza is State Secretaty for European Affairs in the Czech Government Office.
A year ago, the new Czech government announced a profound change of attitude towards Czech membership in the EU. Declaring the return to Europe on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, that put an end to decades of isolation, was highly symbolic. It has had considerable impact on how we want to see Europe, and be seen by it. The new EU policy was also a welcome opportunity to reflect on how immensely the Czech economy and society has progressed over the last 25 years, providing a good starting point for deep and wide-ranging discussion about our membership in the EU, its benefits and consequences.
The long neglected homework was done thoroughly, with eyes wide open, and with no illusions about the current state of affairs in the EU. After several months of drafting and consulting widely with the parliament, social partners and civil society, the new document summarizing the Czech strategy in the EU was approved by the government last week. The priorities such as SA) common security and defence policy, B) deepening of internal market, C) improved management of the European Structural and Investment Funds, D) a united stance in the fight against tax evasion and tax fraud, and E) preparation for the accession to the Eurozone, may not hit the headlines. Nevertheless, they illustrate the shift we intended to make. These priorities can be used as a testimony of our will to become a trustworthy member state that is not only ready to reap profits, but to assume its responsibility and make active contribution to the future of the EU integration project. The motivation is simple, as in retrospect it is obvious that membership in the EU unleashed economic activity, as well as supported freedom, and the development of Czech society.
As I have spent a lot of time discussing the Czech future in the EU, with various stakeholders ranging from students to MPs, I got a full picture of their vision. For most of them, EU membership remains first and foremost a gateway to liberty and freedom not in the purely economic sense, but primarily in the sense of their personal freedom, which was significantly expanded after our EU entry and after the accession to the Schengen Area. Travelling without border controls and the possibility to work and study abroad remain highly symbolic to the people that experienced life behind the Iron Curtain. However, this newly-acquired freedom is not taken for granted, and there is understanding that it must be used responsibly, as most of the Czechs want to see their government actively engaged in the European discussions on new challenges. Their main anxiety is caused by the potential discord with other participants in EU integration. All the discussions I had included a deeply voiced wish for a united and strong EU that accommodates the needs of all its members and moves forward. Despite its seeming naiveté, this image confirms their fear of losing the rights of European citizens and a degree of freedom unimaginable a few decades ago.
In recent months, while trying to prove our will to join the efforts of other member states in building a responsible EU, we established close relations with EU institutions and leaders of other member states and made tangible steps such as initiation of the ratification of the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance. We have also become aware of the fact that historic reputation damage will not be easily undone. After years of doubts and hesitation, it is difficult to restore confidence and trust quickly. Therefore, the approved EU strategy is supposed to serve not only as an anchor of our EU policy, omnipresent in our daily decision making, but also as a guide for our partners who shall feel more at ease when trying to predict our next move. Eventually, it represents not only our commitment to the strong and effective European Union, but also a crucial building block for the public debate on joining the Eurozone, that will seal the transformation of the former pessimistic outlier into one of active and responsible team players.