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


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.

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