In Prague, the last hours of 2008 were crisp and clear, and in that sharp winter chill the flood-lit landmarks of the city blended seamlessly with the starlit sky over Central Europe. From the fabled Charles Bridge, huddled among the ancient statuary that lines each side, New Year's revelers were treated to a panoramic view of the brilliant and spectacularly adorned Prague Castle and the colossal Metronome draped in darkness.
At the stroke of midnight, the Metronome (which symbolically keeps the tempo of Czech progress) became bathed in the radiance of red, white, and blue lights. Perched upon a pedestal draped in the blue and gold European Union (EU) flag, the undulating pendulum reminded observers that the Czech Republic had now assumed the six-month rotating EU presidency.
This fantastic visual display had been triggered by remote control from a television studio where Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra triumphantly hailed the new role of the Czech Republic across the airwaves.
Yet, in the midst of the celebration of this momentous occasion for both the Czech Republic and the EU, conflicting voices could also be heard among Czech officials about their place in a larger Europe.
Most conspicuously, Czech President (and Euro-skeptic) Václav Klaus ordered that the EU flag not be flown above Prague Castle. Even on a day so saturated with importance for Europe, he refused on grounds that the Czech Republic "is not an EU province."
On that very same clear and crisp New Year's Eve, 181 miles to the southeast, a significantly different scene was unfolding in the Slovak capital of Bratislava. High above the northern bank of the Danube River, at the stroke of midnight, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico withdrew five crisp new 20 euro bills from an ATM near the Bratislava Castle.
Beneath a canopy of fireworks, yellow balloons, and a clever 2€€9 banner, hundreds of Slovak citizens in the historic town square also queued up at ATMs to withdraw fresh new currency marking Slovakia's latest move toward an integrated European identity.
Thus, at the very same moment that their cousins to the west became (if ambivalently for some) the second former communist-bloc state to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union, Slovaks became the second former communist-bloc state to adopt the common European currency, bringing to 16 the total number of countries in the euro zone.
Membership in the EU means many things for the myriad states of Europe. For some it represents a greater sense of unity and a progression away from European warfare. For others, it offers the free movement of goods and labor and the promise of greater economic integration and prosperity.
For the states of the former Soviet bloc in particular, the EU symbolizes full rehabilitation and acceptance back into the European family of states. It also stands for a sense of security and for some, such as the Czech Republic, a sense of recognition as a vital partner in the future of Europe.
The Czech ascendancy to the EU presidency and the Slovak adoption of the euro are part of an ongoing process of enlarging the very definition of "Europe." At the same time, these events remind us that joining the EU has also meant a struggle to define and evaluate what it means to be Czech or Slovak.
In this sense, the events of New Year's Eve 2008 in Prague and Bratislava are the latest examples of the strains and tensions these people have felt creating their own sense of nationhood while simultaneously negotiating a relationship with the rest of Europe.
Inventing Czechoslovakia: Small Nations and Great Powers
Czechoslovakia came into existence in 1918 in concert with the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the end of World War I. This new and relatively small state was situated in the geographic center of Europe, bounded by five states (Germany, Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Austria). These neighbors looked at the newcomer with varying degrees of animosity because of the territory that each had been forced to give up to the new and independent Czech and Slovak state.
From its very beginning, the union of Czechs and Slovaks was a marriage of convenience intended to preserve a slim Slavic majority over significant German and Hungarian minorities located within their new postwar borders.
Proponents of an independent Czech and Slovak state initially conceived it as a marriage of equal partnership. However, Slovak desires for a large measure of autonomy within a federated state soon fell victim to a stronger Czech economic and political heritage.
Czechs were able to exercise more control over both domestic and foreign policy in large part because they enjoyed a greater degree of political sophistication, industrial development, and economic prosperity.
This set the stage very early for a tense relationship between Czechs and Slovaks that has long simmered just beneath the surface of their shared history. Despite the amicable 1993 dissolution of Czechoslovakia—the infamous Velvet Divorce—remnants of these tensions remain.
Czechoslovakia and Europe between the Wars
The 1920s were a pivotal decade for both Czechs and Slovaks in shaping their respective attitudes toward membership in regional and international organizations and in their expectations of what it meant to be European. In many respects, the seeds of the 2008 New Year's celebrations, and the significance of the events those celebrations heralded, were planted in the fertile and contested soil of that first interwar decade.
Czechs and Slovaks were sensitive to their status as subjugated peoples under the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Czechs had enjoyed a far greater degree of political autonomy under the Austrian half of the empire than had the Slovaks under the Hungarian half. Yet, both were determined to take advantage of the spirit of national self-determination that accompanied the Versailles Peace Settlement ending the First World War.
Both national movements realized they would be a very slim majority within their own states unless they joined forces, promoted a shared culture and history, and defended the legitimacy of a constructed state with debatable historical precedent. The greater economic viability of a combined Czecho-Slovak state also appealed to Western statesmen more concerned with mapmaking than understanding the realities on the ground in East Central Europe.
Foremost in the minds of leading Czech politicians in the 1920s and 1930s was how to deal with the precarious role of small states in European affairs.
Tapping into the political philosophy of nineteenth century nationalists, President Tomáš Masaryk and Foreign Minister Edvard Beneš were driven by a desire to anchor Czechoslovakia to the major West European states. Diplomatic and military alliances with France and closer economic ties with Great Britain dominated a large portion of their agendas and were intended to reinforce the importance of Czechoslovakia to European-wide peace and prosperity.
Beneš also made strategic use of the League of Nations, exploiting it as a platform to showcase Czechoslovak diplomacy and commitment to international institutions.
Czechoslovakia billed itself as a natural bridge between East and West and emphasized its substantial industrial base and historic connections to European institutions. It came increasingly to believe that it was indispensable to European security and prosperity.
However, it was the insecurity of a small state, long relegated to minor roles within larger multinational structures (i.e., the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires) that help explain the disruptive tendency of early Czechoslovak policy-makers to avoid subordinate positions within transnational organizations and agreements.
For example, in the 1920s and 1930s Czechoslovakia attempted to derail several initiatives by other European powers to create greater economic unity among the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of these proposals sought to capitalize on the historic interconnectedness of the region's economies by essentially re-creating a customs union among former imperial constituents.
However, these plans fell out of favor among the Czechs when Great Britain and France supported projects centered in either Vienna or Budapest—as opposed to Prague. Czechs saw any union based in one of the former imperial capitals as tantamount to resurrecting the Austro-Hungarian Empire and proof that their position in Europe was not only underappreciated but under threat.
Additionally, Czechs understood that they possessed one of the most developed and stable economies in the region. They felt this fact reserved them a leading role in any regional economic or political structure.
On the grounds they were defending their economic and national sovereignty, Czech policy-makers, championed by Beneš, worked diligently to ensure the economic union desired by other European powers never saw the light of day.
Many observers interpreted this as Czechoslovak obstructionism, but for Czechs, this episode represented an opportunity to assert their willingness to embrace a European identity only if they were accepted as equal, first-tier members.
Czechs believed they were as crucial to European stability as Great Britain and France, but had more to lose than the larger states if that recognition was not embraced by all. The result was frustration among many Western European leaders who could not understand Prague's seemingly mixed signals.
Reinventing Czechoslovakia in the Cold War
As the shadow of the Second World War crept across the European landscape, Czechoslovakia's greatest fears came to fruition. In the autumn of 1938, Europe betrayed the Czechs at Munich. Czechoslovakia was sacrificed on the altar of appeasement to keep Great Britain and France from having to accept the inevitability of war with Hitler's Germany.
The specter of the Munich betrayal has never really left Czech-European relations. On some level, it continues to reaffirm the Czech belief that only they can guarantee their own security, regardless of international agreements.
Following the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the Germans capitalized on nearly 20 years of Czech-Slovak tensions. Czechoslovakia was quickly dismembered. While Slovaks endured conditional independence as a quisling state within a Nazi alliance, Czechs suffered a brutal occupation.
The vastly different wartime experiences of the two territories would continue to strain relations between Czechs and Slovaks when Czechoslovakia was reconstituted in 1945. Following the 1948 Communist coup that absorbed Czechoslovakia into the Soviet sphere, the state once again saw its foreign and economic policies subjugated to the imperial diktats emanating from a foreign capital.
Effectively cut off from Western Europe by the Iron Curtain, Czechoslovakia became firmly rooted in a newly conceptualized Eastern Europe. Czechoslovakia was seen as a necessary buffer-zone by the Soviet Union. Western Europeans saw it as an alien and backward periphery.
Discarded by one club and unhappy in the other club that claimed it as a member, Czechoslovakia languished in ways that would continue to shape its approach to supranational institutions after 1989 and its insistence upon equality with the larger states of Europe.
Throughout the Cold War, Czechoslovakia's economy was subservient to Soviet agendas. Even though Czechoslovakia became a key component of the Soviet and Eastern bloc economic engine, the Czechs' once advanced industrial economy slowed under five-year plans and state centralized economic planning.
At the same time, the predominantly agrarian Slovak half of the state finally experienced the type of industrial development it had been denied during the 1920s and 1930s. The state became notorious for pumping out armaments and explosives that found their way into the hands of Cold War communist insurgencies the world over.
Reinvention a Third Time: Czechoslovakia and the EU in the Post-1989 World
For nearly 50 years Czechoslovakia clung to the memories of the brief interwar period when it confidently charted its own course among the other ships of state in Europe. But in 1989 with the collapse of the communist regime, Czechoslovakia was once again ready to renew its position as a key player in European affairs. [See this 1993 Origins article for more on the events of 1989 and the early history of post-communist Czechoslovakia]
Conscious of its diminished status as a former Eastern bloc state, it quickly identified membership in the European Union as the necessary step in reclaiming its European status. As with all the former Eastern bloc states, Czechoslovakia understood that in a post-Cold War world, being European meant joining the European club – the EU.
However, just because substituting membership in one supranational entity for membership in another made certain economic and political sense did not mean there was consensus within the state for such a move.
The foundations for the European Union were first laid down in 1951 when Belgium, West Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands came together to create a common market for coal and steel.
The basic rationale behind the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was both economic (the advantages of free trade in essential mineral wealth) and strategic (states that are economically linked are less likely to go to war with one another and repeat the horrors of World War II). The early success of the ECSC in regulating and enhancing its members' economic prosperity led to the 1957 Treaty of Rome that created the European Economic Community (EEC).
Since then, the EEC has evolved into the EU and grown in membership from 6 to 27 in four distinct expansion initiatives, the largest of which—and arguably the most significant—occurred in 2004 when ten new member states joined the EU, including many former Warsaw Bloc countries.
This willingness to continually expand its membership has signaled to many European nations, especially those on the periphery of Europe, an openness to an evolving sense of European identity. It has also communicated an ability to enter the union as an equal partner, irrespective of size or national history.
By 1989, the European Union was faced with the reality that its periphery was suddenly ready and eager to return to the center. In need of much economic and moral support, the former Eastern bloc countries began setting their sights on attaining EU membership and Czechoslovakia was no exception.
Even as its policy-makers began charting a course through the dangerous waters of simultaneous democratization and a transition to a market economy, Czechoslovak leaders had to contend with the renewed calls for greater Slovak autonomy within the Czechoslovak state.
For many Czech politicians, the issue of Slovak autonomy was a distraction better left to the future. For Slovak politicians, such Czech attitudes were reminiscent of the policies of the 1920s and 1930s. Promises to consider greater autonomy at a more stable point in the future rang false.