Forget Frexit, the EU's Next Threat Comes From the East

Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen, French National Front candidate for the French 2017 presidential election, attends a news conference in Paris on April 21. Le Pen wants a "Frexit," but the EU's real threats are further east. Benoit Tessier/Reuters

In about two years, the United Kingdom will officially leave the European Union, and commentators around the continent are speculating about which country will be next. In Western Europe eyes are on France and the Netherlands, as both have strong Euroskeptic movements, bolstered by anti-immigration parties. But to identify the larger but creeping threat to the EU, you need to look east.

One country facing a rising tide of Euroskepticism is the Czech Republic. Anti-immigration sentiment has surged in the Central European state ever since it joined the EU in 2004.

About two thirds of Czech people oppose taking in refugees, and a 2015 poll found that 94 percent favor closing the borders completely. Czech politicians have capitalized on these sentiments, with a growing number of politicians running under an "anti-immigration" banner.

This dislike for immigration has led to animosity toward EU members who favor an open immigration policy, notably Germany, and increased hostility toward the European Union itself. This new Euroskepticism is personified by the incumbent president Miloš Zeman.

Read more: Why Europe's populist revolt is spreading

Zeman has been the president of the Czech Republic since 2013. Prime minister under the very popular President Václav Havel, Zeman rose to power as part of a Western-oriented shift in Prague's politics. But as contempt in the general population toward the EU grew, Zeman altered his priorities.

Today, the 73-year-old represents a growing hatred for the elite among the Czech population. Zeman has popularized the term "Pražská kavárna," or the "Prague Café Society," to describe intellectuals who oppose his policies. In November 2016 he said :

"Everyone can express their opinion. I only despise those people who believe that their opinion is superior. And that's what I call a Prague cafe. Often, but not always, they are failed politicians…Why do they have to be the conscience of the nation?"

After the U.S. election he said he was "very happy" about Donald Trump's win, a sentiment with which not many in Europe agreed. In defying the standard, Zeman highlighted the growing belief in the Czech Republic that relations with Brussels aren't considered to be essential anymore.

While the grounds on which some Czech Euroskeptics, including Zeman himself, criticize the bloc might be controversial— notably that it allows the migration of Muslim refugees, whose integration Zeman describes as "impossible"—there are ways in which officials in Brussels and Strasbourg have brought this conflict upon themselves.

Ever since the 2004 enlargement of the European Union to include several former Eastern Bloc countries, European technocrats have believed that financing Central and Eastern European infrastructure and agriculture will make them nod along with the policies of the Brussels machine.

When the Czech foreign minister Lubomír Zaorálek demanded the resignation of EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker after the Brexit vote, no word came out of Brussels. A similar message out of France or Germany would not only have prompted a reaction, it might have led to a resignation.

In a comparable fashion, the ruling European Commission has shown itself to be equally tone deaf when it comes to the political history of its post-Communist member states. In December 2016, 14 Czech and Slovak Members of the European Parliament penned an open letter to Juncker, condemning a press release in which he had described the deceased Cuban dictator Fidel Castro as "a hero to many."

Castro supported the brutal Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, following the Prague Spring. When questioned by a Czech journalist about the collaboration of Fidel Castro with the inhumane regime that was the Soviet Union, Juncker's spokesperson said that considering the question that way took a "very narrow view of reality."

The East-West divide is apparent in more than just a growing contempt for the EU—it also manifests itself through relations outside the union. The Czech Republic's second-largest trading partner is China, after Germany. The history of this relationship dates back to 1949, when the former Czechoslovak Republic recognized the People's Republic of China, something the U.S. only did 30 years later. China continues to be an ally of the Czechs. It even condemned the repression directed toward the Czechoslovak revolution against the Warsaw Pact in 1968.

In 2014, Miloš Zeman traveled to Beijing to vouch for improved business and tourism relations, and proposed a direct flight connection between Prague and China's capital. The Chinese in turn seem receptive to the affection from this small Central European nation: On the way to the U.S. in March 2016, the Chinese delegation stopped in Prague for a symbolic visit. Zeman has blamed the United States and the European Union for straining the Czech's relationship with China by attempting to "lecture" Beijing on human rights.

The European Union forbids members signing independent trade deals not agreed upon by all 28 member states, which has led to the bizarre situation in which the 300,000-inhabitant state of Iceland has a free trade agreement with China, while the rest of Europe doesn't.

If the EU does not improve on its ability to expand the political inclusion of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the already crumbling trust between Brussels and these members will entirely collapse, and its newest members will end up quitting.

Countries like the Czech Republic are divided between the East and the West; a complete lack of interest in the ramifications of this divide and a no-compromise position on the issues of international trade will grow into the next big crisis of the European Union—maybe even its last.

Bill Wirtz is a Young Voices Advocate and a law student in France. Young Voices is a nonprofit writing project for politically independent millennials.