EU's future in focus 100 years after birth of Czechoslovakia

Macron calls for EU solidarity as Merkel and Mattis also join festivities

Soldiers march during a military parade in Prague on Sunday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the creation of the independent Czechoslovak state. Photograph: Martin Divisek/EPA

Soldiers march during a military parade in Prague on Sunday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the creation of the independent Czechoslovak state. Photograph: Martin Divisek/EPA

 

Foreign dignitaries joined Czech and Slovakia leaders over the weekend to mark 100 years since the birth of Czechoslovakia, amid debate over the state of democracy in both countries and their visions for the future of the European Union.

Celebrations took place across the two EU and Nato member states, a century after a democratic Czechoslovakia was carved out of the Austro-Hungarian empire after the first World War.

The neighbours split in a peaceful “velvet divorce” in 1993, four years after the Velvet Revolution had ended communist rule in Czechoslovakia, but the centenary found their people deeply divided over their current rulers.

Czech president Milos Zeman is a strongly pro-Russian, anti-immigration Eurosceptic, while prime minister Andrej Babis is a billionaire oligarch who faces prosecution for alleged misuse of EU funds.

Slovakia, meanwhile, is still reeling from the murder in February of journalist Jan Kuciak, who was shot dead with his girlfriend while investigating links between organised crime and members of the populist Smer party that still runs the country.

‘EU values’

German chancellor Angela Merkel visited Prague on Friday and French president Emmanuel Macron spent time in the Czech capital and in Bratislava, where he addressed concerns that more central European governments could follow Budapest and Warsaw in attacking the rule of law and “EU values”.

“In Hungary and Poland, some of their leaders played with an unacceptable idea. When I listen to leaders comparing Brussels with Moscow at the ancient [Soviet] times, this is crazy and unacceptable . . . They are lying to their people,” Mr Macron said in English.

“When I see big billboards saying ‘No Brussels’ or ‘Stop Brussels’. What are they doing? What are these leaders doing with these crazy spirits and lying to their people, like those who promoted the Brexit and left the country right after they won?” he added.

In a newspaper interview, Mr Macron also called on the anti-immigration states of central Europe to share the burden of resettling refugees with EU members further west.

“Respecting [EU] values, we bear collective responsibility for solidarity. It is not possible to draw from the European budget without showing solidarity, for instance, in migration policy,” he said.

“One cannot attempt to lower one’s contribution to the EU budget without understanding the advantages of the single European market . . . Europe is not a one-way street, it is a mutual bond”.

Mr Macron went on to describe the murder of Mr Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova as “a great shock” for Slovakia and Europe.

“Threats and attacks on the media or murders of journalists are a direct blow to the very foundations of our democracies,” he added.

‘Clear vision’

Slovakia’s liberal president Andrej Kiska strongly backed Mr Macron, calling him “a leader with a clear vision for the European Union . . . who identifies problems and suggests solutions”.

While visiting the newly renovated Czech national museum with Mr Macron on Saturday, however, Mr Babis indicated that he still believed – like his Hungarian and Polish counterparts – that migrants and refugees were above all a threat to Europe.

“I have always said it’s like the Gaulish village of Asterix and Obelix,” he said, referring to the Franco-Belgian cartoon characters who battled Roman invaders.

“We have to defend Europe at its natural frontiers . . . We are ready to step up our efforts of solidarity. We are sending soldiers, police, money and we will increase our role.”

Mr Babis also said he agreed with Dr Merkel on the need to strike deals with African states to slow emigration to Europe.

Several other senior European officials visited the Czech Republic and Slovakia over the weekend, and US defence secretary James Mattis attended a major military parade in Prague on Sunday.