Czech stance on refugees could risk gains of last 25 years, says IIR’s Benjamin Tallis

Source: Radio Praha / By Ian Willoughby /

Englishman Benjamin Tallis heads the Centre for European Security at Prague’s Institute of International Relations. An expert on European affairs, including the EU’s border-free Schengen zone, he is also the editor-in-chief of the IIR’s recently rebooted academic journal New Perspectives. When we spoke at the think tank’s offices at the foot of Nerudova St., our conversation took in various aspects of Czech foreign policy. But I first asked Tallis how he had ended up in Prague.

“My mind always goes back to 1989 when my mum sat me down in front of the television and said, Sit down, watch this, it’s important, you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.

“And indeed the first time I could go travelling on my own I went on an Interrail trip and ended up spending a good proportion of that time here in Prague, having fell in love with it.

“I found that I could find out things here about those people who I’d seen on the television screen but hadn’t had any idea who they were. About this different architecture that I saw then and could walk through and experience.

“Then the fascination grew, with experience, and I moved back to Prague to do part of my first Master’s degree. From there I moved down to the Balkans to work for the OSCE and then the EU.

“But I was always drawn back to Central Europe, partly because of its connectedness, the overlapping, interlocking histories that you can still walk through. But also for the lifestyle. I’ve kept coming back, as I say, and now I’ve found a way to stay here permanently.”

What exactly do you do here at the Institute for International Relations?

“I’m the head of the Centre for European Security, which does a mixture of academic work, upon which all of our other work is founded, and policy advice to various parts of the Czech government, and also on the Visegrad Four country level.

“We also do public engagement work, through the media and public events. The Institute more widely looks at international relations, but with a similar mix of activities.

“In our Centre we look very particularly at security in and of Europe, at Europeans as security actors. But also we take European approaches to security, which is what makes us unique.”

The former head of the IIR, Petr Drulák, was for some time first deputy foreign minister. He’s seen as being one of the architects of a shift in the Czech Republic’s foreign policy towards pursuing closer ties with China. Where do you stand on that move, that shift in policy?

“I think the so-called shift in policy has been interpreted in many ways, often quite superficial.

“It’s been very easy to cast this as a move towards closer to China, or a move that sacrifices the legacy of human rights in favour of business. And it’s very easy to pin that on a government where one of the richest men in the country is a senior figure within it.

“However, looking at some of the complexities of the issues that former deputy minister Drulák and others were dealing with, we can see there was an attempt to nuance the linking of human rights to what has been described elsewhere as imperialist crusading, or humanitarian intervention, to give it another name.

“And it’s also a move away from purely political rights. To understand the way that people actually live, to focus on social and economic rights, gender rights and so on.

“So perhaps the way this was portrayed was not actually the way it was intended, or indeed in a way that reflected the nuances of the policy. Although I have to say that’s a very personal opinion – not one that would represent the institute.”

In general have we seen a shift in Czech foreign policy a little bit away from the West, away from NATO and the EU, which the Czech Republic is a member of? Or is that just my impression?

“I don’t think there’s been a shift away from the West. I think there’s perhaps been a shift in the West. I think we can see the growing uncertainty in the world, what Antonio Missiroli has called this emerging multiplex world, multiply complex, without multilateral governance, different spheres of influence, different powers rising to challenge the prior dominance of Western ideals, Western modes of governance and Western ways of doing business.

“And also Western ways of understanding human rights and how that is enforced around the world.

“So I think the position of the West and what has been referred to in some places as a relative decline of the West in comparison to others has made many countries consider what relations they have with countries outside what is known as the West – but also within their alliances and within their blocs.

“There’s no question that the Czech Republic is a fully committed member of the EU and NATO which lives up to its obligations regarding alliance structure and so on.

“But the big question for all countries, not only the Czech Republic, is what is it for? What is it we actually stand for?

“And the current migration crisis is really exposing some fault lines in that. Is it a West of values? Or is it a West based on its own interests?

“Where is the moral leadership, we might argue, in the West? Who’s making the case for it? If we have a clearer answer to that, we could have a clearer to your question.”

Has the Czech Republic’s foreign policy been under a kind of shadow of Václav Havel for a long time? Or is that shadow – if there is one – now fading?

“I think it hasn’t just been under one shadow, it’s been under multiple shadows of Václav Havel. There are many different aspects to Havel’s work, Havel’s character as president, Havel’s record in office, his record on moral leadership and so on.

“It’s very interesting to see that not only foreign policy but internal policy debates are still characterised by reference to this, with many different figures almost adopting their own personal Havel in each particular case – to try to invoke a moral legitimacy for their policy.

“We can see very clearly different interpretations of the Havelian legacy in that case.

“It’s certainly clear that the point of difference for Czech foreign policy in the past was perhaps characterised by more of a consensus around Havelian notions than it is now. And there has been a void that has not been filled.

“So it certainly casts a shadow over and it hasn’t been filled, but at the same time the way that Havelian used is extremely complex.

“The refugee crisis and the migration crisis points to a deficit of moral leadership in this country, which we potentially could see being filled by some Havelian ideas, although they do come with consequences, as others have noted.”

There have been a lot of articles in the international media recently about the Czech Republic’s attitude to migrants. They were voted down on quotas but have now accepted them. Has there been a cost to the country’s reputation because of that stance? 

“Yes, undoubtedly. I’ve written about this, with colleagues and individually as well. There is a cost. The Czech Republic has put a position out, alongside Slovakia and Hungary, and to some extent Poland and Romania, that is in contraction to the position of the European Commission, the position of Germany, the position of France and the position of many other European Union members, who see a responsibility incumbent upon them to not only uphold their international legal obligations but also to exercise some form of moral leadership based on a compassionate and willkommenskultur, or welcoming culture, of Europe.

“The Czech and wider Central European stance on that has been extremely counterproductive and ultimately risks some of the gains of last 25 years.

“The failure to bear the burdens as well as share the benefits of Schengen is irresponsible and is an untenable position to hold in the longer run.

“The fact that Schengen means so much to people in the Czech Republic and Poland – which is extremely understandable; it’s been an almost unambiguously positive aspect of integration to the European Union – only makes it more incomprehensible that these countries should not actually support the methods and measures that will continue to ensure the survival of Schengen.

“It’s based on a need for the integrity of the external border, for internal policing – but also burden-sharing on wider migration issues.

“That position is ultimately going to have to change, if the European Union is going to maintain a Schengen zone that includes the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.”

You mention Poland. Poland recently broke ranks with the rest of the Visegrad Four on the refugee quotas issue. It’s been so long since the Visegrad Four was created. Is it effectively dead now?

“No. Far from it. In fact, on many issues the V4 has been able to formulate common positions. One of those, going forward, is the revised European Security Strategy, or what will become known as the European Global Strategy.

“There are very clear not only common interests but also common contributions that the V4 can make.

“It’s unfortunate that one of the positions they have spoken on with the strongest common voice in recent times has been the migration issue. And also that this position has now splintered, although that was rather inevitable.

“The individual domestic considerations of the countries, the timing of elections – we can consider Poland and Slovakia in that case – also play a role in that.

“However, there are many other, far greater shared interests and shared values that will actually make the V4 a potential source of relevance in the future.

“The crucial aspect of that is how the V4 relates to its partners. To Germany, but also to the EU and NATO, more widely.”

How have Czech-German relations been affected by the issue of quotas and refugees? Hospodářské noviny has just had an article saying that relations were at their worst point in 20 years.

“It’s entirely possible. I think speculating on how bad any situation is is a good game for newspapers, but it doesn’t tell us much about the actual underlying politics of the situation.

“But Germany and the Czech Republic, under administrations of whatever stripe, recognise the mutual interest they have in cooperating.

“These mutual interests are institutionalised through the EU, but also through the economic ties – which obviously are under strain at the moment with the Volkswagen scandal, but nonetheless remain a fundament of cooperation between the two countries.

“Moreover, in terms of world view and in terms of not ostracising neighbours and partners to the east of the European Union while remaining in strong alliance with partners such as the United States and other NATO allies, there is a clear confluence of influence and approach.

“However, it doesn’t make it easier when there is a keynote issue such as the migration crisis upon which different attitudes are taken, even if the policy will end up being the same.

“Unfortunately it seems, in this case, the expense of political capital on the Czech side, to defend a position that is morally untenable and does not work with their European partners, will do unnecessary damage to a relationship from which they could actually extract much more, if there was a willingness, which has been in too short supply.”

The last thing I’d like to speak to you about is New Perspectives, which you have recently revived. Tell us about that.

“New Perspectives is the English language academic journal of the Institute of International Relations. It was formerly called Perspectives, so to enhance the nature of the change we changed the title.

“It’s now an inter-disciplinary journal of Central East European politics and international relations. What this means is that where in Perspectives it was largely Czech people and people from Central and Eastern Europe writing about the world, reaching a mid-level of academic prestige, what we now seek is a world class journal, with people from the world as well as people from the region writing about the region.

“Why have we done this? Well, in order to boost the academic community here, to boost its links to scholars elsewhere, to draw in scholars with innovative approaches to work on the region, even if they haven’t been before.

“But also we move with trends with academia, to go towards an interdisciplinary approach. So we look for geographical, historical, sociological and anthropological takes, in combination with our own perspectives from international relations.”

The Vaclav Havel Center