Welcome back to The Thermometer Interview, a series of conversations testing the temperature of Europe.
July saw Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit Europe, with mixed results. In France, President Emmanuel Macron directly acknowledged French responsibility for the 1942 Vel d’Hiv roundup, when French police arrested more than 11,000 Jews in one day. “It was indeed France that organized this,” Macron said. Netanyahu also received assurances from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that his government “will protect all its citizens.” These words rang hollow, however, in light of Orbán’s recent anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros and the raid on Budapest’s Aurora Jewish community center.
Europe is enjoying its summer vacation at the moment, and election season is on the horizon. Germany will vote first in September, with Merkel apparently heading for a fourth term in office, followed by the Czech Republic and Austria, where the far right are on the cusp of power as a junior partner in any future government. For more on the current situation in the region, this month’s Thermometer Interview turns to a figure once described as the grand old man of Central European politics, former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.
Head of the aristocratic House of Schwarzenberg, Karel Schwarzenberg is known as much for his deep, German-inflected accent and penchant for bow ties and pipe-smoking as the decades he has invested in advocating for democracy and human rights in central and eastern Europe. In 2013, when Schwarzenberg ran for the Czech presidency, losing in contentious circumstances (when he labeled the expulsion of Germans from Czech lands in 1945 a grave violation of human rights), his campaign played off his jovial, even wacky image—especially his tendency to fall asleep during parliamentary debates.
His center-right, pro-European TOP 09 party is running in October’s election, a race shaped thus far by anti-EU rhetoric related to the refugee crisis and the financial dealings of the leading candidate, billionaire businessman Andrej Basiš.
How would you assess the health of Europe today?
The European Union will survive. It has to change, just as every social being has to change. It has to reform—and as soon as possible. Basically, it is still in the same form as when it was constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. We need real reform now to get Europe into condition for the 21st century.
And what would that reform look like?
For those questions that, sensibly, we can only solve together—security, defense, foreign policy, energy—there should really be a common—or if you wish, federal—approach. But a lot of things that are solved in Brussels at the moment could be returned to the states and regions.
You’re in favor of the Czech Republic’s further integration into the European Union, including adoption of the euro currency, correct?
Up until only a short time ago, it was not sensible for the Czech Republic to accept the euro, as the economy was not as strong as it should have been. If you accept the euro when the economy isn’t strong, it can be a trap, as it was for Portugal. Now, however, we should accept the euro as soon as possible. It is clear to me that it won’t happen before the elections in October, but I can hope for future development.
Would you favor the European Union sanctioning either Poland or Hungary in some fashion, for example, by revoking their voting rights?
No, this is pure nonsense, the idea of sanctions by the European Union. The EU should not only be a union of Western Europe, and that if something contradicts the way things are done in Western Europe, immediately it should be the subject of sanctions. I don’t see the point. It would be counter-productive.
It would split Europe. Why should the Western European countries punish Central and Eastern Europe? I don’t see the point.
But if these countries are undermining European values of democracy and human rights—
What European value has been undermined by Poland? Not one person has been put in prison, and there continues to be a free press. Of course, the government of Poland is not so pleasant, but that is not a reason to punish somebody.
I don’t think human rights are any more in danger [in Poland and Hungary] than in other countries. What is important is to keep the discussion with these countries open, to show them their deficiencies, but we shouldn’t speak about the danger of dictatorship or undemocratic government. On certain points, things could be better in many European countries, not only in [Central and Eastern Europe].
Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern recently said that Europe is not an ATM.
He’s perfectly right, but he has the wrong address if he’s speaking to those countries. You have to remember two things: First, Central and Eastern Europe made an agreement several years ago to open their markets to the west. This has clearly been to the advantage of Western Europe. Second, you have to ask why Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia are so far behind Western Europe. It is historical fact that 80 years ago Germany occupied these countries, and that after the German invasion, we became part of the Soviet empire, which put us very much back in general.
On the subject of foreign policy, do you think Czech Republic President Miloš Zeman is undermining Europe in terms of his closeness with Russia, and in particular, his opposition to sanctions during the crisis in Ukraine?
And what about his endorsement of Donald Trump during last year’s American presidential election?
I don’t think his support of Trump plays any role in international politics, and this isn’t something I really care about. I’m not interested.
To turn to the upcoming election, popular opinion is moving towards Andrej Basiš’s populist, anti-establishment ANO 2011 movement. What are we to make of this shift?
I think the Czech people recognize that there is a danger, that they must defend democracy, and so they vote for democratic parties. This is a problem that only they can solve.
Your party, TOP 09, has recently announced a political alliance with the Liberal Ecological Party. Are you concerned about your own electoral chances?
No, I think we should get into parliament. Even in the worst polls, it is clear we have the strength. We are fighting, we have been quite successful in our public meetings and we will wait to see the result. I am not nervous at all.