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>Czech Republic: Green Card law opens left-right split on immigration

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One of the more interesting developments in recent Czech politics has been the recent passing of a law creating a new system of ‘Green cards’ for non-EU nationals, skilled or unskilled, to fill job vacancies that cannot be filled within 30 days by Czech or EU citizens. The measure will streamline bureaucratic processes as the cards are to serve as combined work and residence permits, but, seemingly, seem to represents a reversal of earlier Czech policies of creaming off educated migrants from outside the EU to boost the country’s human capital. Instead, it seems Czechs (and other EU-ers) will gain the qualifications and do the high-end stuff, while migrants, as old Western Europe may do the dirty and unpleasant work. This all fits with market principles – the current government is broadly centre-right – and World Bank recommendations to addressing the CR’s ageing population and already high levels of older people working.

Most interesting, however, is the political divisions that the debate opened up, which tended to reverse the left-right splits more commonly seen in Western Europe: the Czech left, in the form of the main opposition Czech Social Democrats, is opposed not on the usual grounds of maintaining wages and labour standards, but also on the somewhat populist (not to say racist) grounds that non-European migrants will bring crime, disease and social disorder. Controversial ex-Health Minister (and doctor) David Rath evoked a nightmare scenario of rising unemployment (among Czechs) and hospital wards full of AIDS and TB ridden immigrants. “Do we want to focus recruitment on regions where AIDS rates are around 50-60% of the active population?” he asked in a perhaps less than subtle headline-grabbing attempt to warn Czechs that migrants might be black Africans. Always a bête noire for the right, Rath was then lambasted by the centre-right deputies as Czech Jean- Marie Le Pen in the making or a reincarnation of the former Republican leader Dr Miroslav Sládek whose far-right party crashed out of the Czech parliament in 1998.

There is perhaps a rational argument somewhere below the surface here: there would be social and policy consequences of migration in a small rather mono-ethnic society, which would a strategy and some serious public policy thinking. But what is striking is the Social Democrats’ immediate instinctive – and politically acute – response tuning in to chauvinist and populist positions which will play well with much of their electorate. Will this, I wonder, in the longer term open the door to the far-right, whose main preoccupation is still fulminating about the Roma minority? A distinct possibility as the Communist party sinks for demographic reasons into slow decline – especially the Social Democrats eventually emerge as the stronger of the two main parties and hold office for 2-3 terms.

Rath, I should perhaps add, is probably best known for fisticuffs it with equally controversial dentist-turned-politician Miroslav Macek, who walked up to him thumped him at health conference for suggesting that Macek had married his second wife for her money – click on picture above for the incident – but this display of cojones (“You’re a coward Dr Macek – why didn’t you face up to me like a man?”) probably did him no harm in eyes of the voters. Rath for my money is a shrewd and effective politician, who came to prominence – in somewhat more centrist political persona – in the 1990s as leader of junior doctor’s trade union and later headed up the Czech Medical Association.

It will be interesting to see what stance President Klaus takes on the Green Cards issue. His previous statements about multi-culturalism would suggest that – as on some other issues – his view may overlap in key respects with those of the left.

>Slovakia: open for business, open for immigration?

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As Tim Haughton and Darina Malová point out in the latest issue of Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs, even under the lefty nationalist/populist government of Robert Fico, Slovakia is – thanks to pressures of key business groups and its low wage, high(ish) pattern model of integration into the European economy – very open for business. And, logically, but said unusually publicly, it is also open for migration, at least if you happen to be a Ukrainian with skills in the construction industry.
Consistent with Haughton and Malová’s stress on brute business interests as akey social determinant of government policy, a recent issue of Sme reports growing pressure from Slovak employers to open up the Slovak labour market to Ukrainian migrants on a longer term basis, revising the current system whereby most work permits for Ukrainians are issued non-renewably for only one year. Some business leaders even want the quotas restricting Ukrainian migration abolished altogether.

The shortages seem to be for semi-skilled labour predictably, in the construction, manufacturing, garment and agricultural fields. Despite the nationalist colouration of much Slovak politics, the potential growth in Ukrainian migration seems to be received with equanimity by most of the political spectrum with the key obstacle seemingly how quickly Ukrainian and Slovak officials can re-negotiate the technicalities of the existing bilateral agreement dating from 1994 (not very, is the answer there). The most revealing and interesting remark, however, is the comment attributed to Alexander Duleba of the liberal-leaning Slovak Foreign Policy Association thinktank that ‘It is in our interests to have Ukrainians here rather than people from non-European countries, who will pose a problem of integration in terms of culture and customs’. The subtext seemingly being that Slovakia should hoover up the limited supplies of suitably qualified, culturally assimilable migrants before other competitor countries in the CEE region do. However, as Ukraine itself has an ageing population and labour shortages of its own emerging in fields like the construction industry, I doubt whether even the most liberal open door policy to post-Soviet neighbours will avert the need for migration from points further East (and South).

>Migration and multi-culturalism inevitable say Czech commentators

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Rare to find voices in the Czech media and blogosphere explicitly defending multi-culturalism and advocating (more) open migration policies, but today I found two in one day. František Kostlán tells readers of his blog for the excellent online newspaper http://www.aktualne.cz/ that short of a renewed totalitarian regime multiculturalism – which he takes to mean the reality of people with different cultures co-existing – is inevitable. Although his main targets are the predictable hordes of xenophobic Czech bloggers, he does, however, slightly spoil the effect by trying in the usual manner of ex-dissident journalists to present his view as centrist, non-ideological practical solution standing between ideologies of left and right. There is, he thinks, a supposed left-wing ideology of dissolving dominant domestic national culture as well as the right-wing nationalist one of pulling up the drawbridge and trying to maintain the purity of a hermetically sealed, pure national culture. This, however, rather ducks the slightly more substantive conservative critique of multi-cultural policies (picked by Václav Klaus) which centres on the status of group rights and the question of acceptable degrees of diversity and the impact of ethnic and cultural diversity of social cohesion. Robert Putnam’s recent findings about the inverse relationship (which he discusses in an interesting if slow moving Guardian podcast) highlight this, although as Putnam notes what this show is not the inherently defective nature of culturally diverse societies per se ultimately as how define and construct the social identities that matter – decades ago religion was the key, divisive social dividing line in the US, now it is ethnic origin.

The second piece I saw by Věra Roubalová Kostlánová – whose name, although I’ve only just noticed the fact, suggests she may be married to Kostlán – appeared in Lidové noviny and criticized the new Aliens Act in the Czech Republic – and the broader philosophy of restricting and discouraging (non-EU) migration that underlies it. Such restriction she argues are based on a grossly exaggerated view of the amount of crime committed by non-Czechs and tends to reinforce the very phenomenon it seeks to control, by criminalizing migrants and pushing towards reliance on mafias and criminal groups. Increasing the discretionary power of the Czech Immigration Service (cizinecká police) she suggests simply increases opportunities and openings for official corruption. A new two year restriction on access to social benefits for foreign (non-EU) spouses of Czech citizens and their children as a measure against bogus marriage, she argues, is pointless as it will target the group of foreign citizens most likely to integrate into Czech society.

>Klaus thinktank newsletter warns of ‘Islamicization’

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Czech President Václav Klaus’s Centre for Politics and Economics (CEP) thinktank has, like the man himself, staked out some interesting and provocative political territory since its foundation in 1998. Although it’s right-wing remedies are not universally to everyone’s taste (not universally to mine in fact), it has at least proved itself reasonably forward thinking in picking out important issues facing the CR such as taxation reform, the future of the EU, population policy, migration and assembling an interest range of academic and political expertise at its conferences. Recently, however, it’s begun to turn plain batty. Having belated signed up to climate change denial at most right-wing politicians have began to realise that it’s scientifically established rather than a left-wing conspiracy, CEP’s recent newsletter – in the person of Lukáš Petřík, editor of the right-wing Czech website EUportal.cz – tackles the question of migration and multi-culturalism in a manner reminiscent of the wilder shores of the oddball far-right.

In a Czech and Central European context issues of (im)migration and migration are both essentially hypothetical questions about the extent to which post-communist democracies like the CR should follow a Western model. There are few culturally distinct ethnic minorities in the CR with the exception of the Roma who are historic minority rather than the product of international migration (unless you count migration within Czechoslovakia in 1950s) who form a thoroughly marginalized ethnically defined underclass. Those migrants are from culturally and geographically proximate states like Slovakia and Ukraine and – as the previous post suggests – rates of inward migration remain low. A smallish Vietnamese minority, pigeonholed reasonably prosperously in commerce and retail, seems the most culturally distinct group. Migration and multi-culturalism are, however, potentially on the long-term agenda of an open liberal European society that the CR had become.

Václav Klaus naturally spotted this early and from 2000 onwards weighed in arguments against Western style multi-culturalism and in favour of tough integration policies designed to make migrants fit in as (he imagined) East European immigrants to the US had done in the 19th and early 20th century. Cultural homogeneity was also good for business he reckoned and promoted civic trust – a sort of market version of the ‘progressive dilemma’ argument about national homogeneity enabling high levels of welfare, as it were. These went down to a mixed but largely lukewarm reception from the Czech political class – including many on the Czech right. Post 9/11 Klaus naturally chucked in an argument about migration and security, but basically (heterodox and mercurial as ever) downplayed the ‘clash of civilizations’ angle as (horror of horrors) a powerful civilizational or even Al-Qaeda threat could serve as a justification for greater EU integration in justice and home affairs. Beside, he thought, Al-Qaeda was just another form of collectivism the same as the Socialist International or Greenpeace.

Petřík’s piece in the July 2007 issue of the CEP Newsletter, however, offers striking different and much darker set of arguments which takes us in quite different territory. It begins by warning readers of that proposals to move towards common standards in EU asylum and immigration policy will lead states with more predictive policies to lose their ‘competitive advantage’ of those with a more generous regime. Moreover, he claims the EU will introduce a quota system directly sharing out asylum-seekers and refugees, forcing those states with low numbers to take more. This he claims is because ‘states like France, Germany and Great Britain after the inevitable failure of the policy of multi-culturalism, political correctness and mass migration…[are] flooded…’. And to cap it all, pressure for a standardized European social policy will have a similar effect.

We then move on to a darkly paranoid depiction of Western Europe so crude, not to say downright odd it is perhaps worth citing at some length. “Immigrant communities in some states”, he told “are taking over whole towns, beginning to apply their customs like Sharia law and through a demographic explosion in their populations, thus increasing the weight of the immigrant electorate and trying using electoral process to introduce elements incompatible with liberal democratic values”. This, he claims, is similar to the situation in Germany in the 1930s when the Nazis abused the electoral process to gain power and introduce a totalitarian regime. Then, changing tack slightly, we discover that a second burning of the Reichstag (Houses of Parliament, Elysée Palace etc) is not around the corner after all. Instead, we are told to watch out for insidious processes in which indigenous citizens in Western Europe, he claims, are gradually becoming ‘second class citizens’ because of political correctness and the insistent pressing of immigrant interests: ‘Britain is gradually becoming New Pakistan, Germany a New Turkey and France a New Arabia’.

For West Europeans this is all straight out of the lexicon of the British National Party, the Front National, Northern League or any other far-right populist party you care to think of. However, this being the Czech President’s thinktank, they don’t get a mention. Instead the British-Israeli writer Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia gets name checked, although the version presented seems to owe less to the odd and esoteric arguments of her book that the EU (and especially French) foreign are deliberately promoting Islamicization to create a ‘Eurabian’ French-led anti-US bloc in world politics than a dark bloggers’ fantasy about the demographic and cultural decline of the West.

This being the Czech right, however, we also get a quick nod towards anti-totalitarianism. Indeed, the references to ‘abuse of the electoral processes’ and Nazis are perhaps the weirdest bit of the whole piece, both because they contradicts the usual arguments directed against Muslim communities in the West and show an almost total disconnection from the realities of Western Europe: the issue more usually highlighted by critics and commentators of all shades opinion in this part of the continent, after all, is the disengagement of Muslims from civic and political life in some cases a deliberate turning away inspired by radical political Islam, not the formation of Nazi-like parties with sufficient votes to subvert democracy. Indeed, where they have engaged in electoral politics, immigrant groups and home-born Muslims have generally not formed distinct parties to enter the electoral fray, still less totalitarian ones, but in time honoured fashion have accommodated themselves with and integrate with established political parties. This may in some cases make for a slightly Chicago style urban politics with various communities leaders trying to deliver an ethnic bloc vote, but really existing democracy can hack that.

Back on Petřík’s ideological ghost train ride, we move back to the theme of Czech membership of the EU and the countries forthcoming integration into the Schengen travel zone for the final shiver down the spine – the prospect that Petřík foresees that ‘the European Union might order the Czech Republic to accept immigrants raises the danger of terrorism or ethnic conflicts for the Czech Republic and with efforts by immigrants to introduce their own customs as has occurred in Western Europe our democratic political system could be threatened.’ (Apart from a rather creative view of the likely development of the EU acquis, this confuses (supposed) EU efforts to co-ordinate the management of asylum seekers and control illegal immigration with migration generally, but let that pass…). We then finish with a spot of Czech integral nationalism. “History” Petřík tells us

‘… has shown several times that where there are citizens on the territory of a state who are citizens of that state, but do not feel part of the political nation…and do not feel loyalty to that state, it can be a great security risk for that state and there is a possibility of disintegration or external interference. This was shown in the case of the Sudeten Germans… Similar problems could be caused today by mass immigration and multi-culturalism…’

We then shudder to a halt on rhetorical question:

‘Do we want the Czech Republic to be dominated by immigrants from a hostile civilization as will be the case in forty years or so in some West European states?’

Such ‘Islamicization’ arguments are, of course, the purest bunkum, basically a genre of political science fiction with a dash of conspiracy theory. There may be arguments to be had about the relationship of Islam and liberalism, or the demands and expectation of Muslims in Western societies, quick glance at the UK census, for example, tells us that, even if they were so minded and coherently politically organized, Muslims are in no position to take over anything as 2.8% minority of the population concentrated only in a few poor urban areas. Similar comments apply to the Muslim minority populations of other West European states, which are generally somewhat larger (8-9% in France, where fear of the Muslim minority among the general population is , interestingly, the lowest in the EU, 5.6% in Holland, 3% in Sweden and so on).

But in the Czech context – even leaving aside the final crude confusion of geographically concentrated historic national minorities like the Sudeten German with the more complex and diverse patterns of settlement that mass migration really brings – these arguments about imaginary migrants and imaginary Muslims are extraordinary.

What is the wider interest of such a piece? Perhaps the most striking and surprising things that an outfit with intellectual aspirations (and contacts with Western Europe) like Klaus’s CEP should have aired such a crude rant. It does, however, fit with a slower, generally more subtle drift on the Czech right towards conservative forms of national liberalism highlighted by the usual paradox of being in favour of global free movement of capital, but not of labour – backed by the sweeping assumption that migrants are economically inactive seekers after social benefits. For followers of the hubble bubble of Czech right ideology it is also interesting in linking stock anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic positions centring on a critique of multiculturalism with Czech right-wing forms euroscepticism and historic traditions of Czech integral nationalism.

A PhD student of mine recently in Prague mentioned to me that there was ‘a nascent Czech middle class of young right-wing (some far right) intellectuals’. Petřík’s poisonous but strangely laughable rant is, I suppose, is part of the same phenomenon. The more interesting question is perhaps just how much of interchange there will be between the neo-fascist fringe and the more conventional ‘liberal-conservative’ right. Petřík, who also heads up a Prague-based organization called the Young Right (Mladá pravice) which split a few years ago from the better established, ODS-aligned Young Conservatives (Mladí konzervativci), seem to be trying to bridge the gap, using the rather semi-detached status of the Czech President and CEP to retain contacts with the mainstream. The Mladá pravice website, naturally, proudly displays a photo of Klaus together with Petřík, who is standing just to the President’s right.