The political solution was as swift as it was consequential. In 1993, the Velvet Divorce occurred, granting Slovakia not just autonomy, but full independence.

With this separation, the Czech and Slovak Republics embarked upon increasingly divergent paths toward membership in the European community of nations. Initially, the Czech Republic became a frontrunner for EU membership while Slovakia appeared to be in a backward slide toward a corrupt, ineffective, and anti-Western government.

The Czech Path

Of the two new states, the Czech Republic had the fortune of greater name recognition. In addition to being seen as an ideal environment for foreign investment by Western companies, its leadership was better known and, generally, better received.

The highly respected and popular Václav Havel continued to guide the nascent state as its president—a largely ceremonial office, but a platform he used effectively. Known near and far for his dissidence during the final decades of the communist regime, he lent moral authority to Czech policies and, like Masaryk over half a century earlier, made other Europeans feel comfortable with the Czech Republic's migration inward from the European periphery.

Between 1993 and 1999, the Czech Republic made great strides towards its goal of greater political and economic integration with the rest of Europe.

President Havel and then-Prime Minister Václav Klaus enjoyed a healthy and spirited opposition to one another's policies, however. Havel was the leading advocate for EU membership and generally pro-Western policies. Klaus, on the other hand, took a more measured approach toward the EU. He was confident that it was the proper direction in which to move, but remained concerned over subjugating Czech interests to an EU dominated by large West European states.

Klaus and his right-wing Civic Democrat party (ODS), increasingly voiced a Euro-skeptic attitude that demonstrated mixed feelings for the EU within the Czech Republic (Klaus prefers the moniker Euro-realist and has called himself a European dissident).

Nevertheless, the Czech Republic made steady forward progress toward greater integration with European institutions and throughout the 1990s experienced a substantial amount of foreign investment. Furthermore, Czech policy-makers appeared willing to make the hard decisions necessary to bring its economy in line with those of the rest of Europe.

In 1999, the Czech Republic was admitted into NATO along with Poland and Hungary—a signal to many that it was well on its way to meeting the requirements for EU accession.

Slovakia: A Different Approach

In Slovakia, on the other hand, domestic political turmoil in the mid-1990s and the flamboyant Prime Minister Vladimír Meciar alienated most outside observers and seemed to confine Slovakia to Europe's periphery.

While Slovak policy-makers also aspired to EU membership, the immediate challenges following the 1993 separation from the Czech Republic was to get their political house in order. Most Slovak political parties had been focused on obtaining greater political autonomy within the Czechoslovak state. Now that independence had been achieved, political parties had to become more robust and recalibrate their agendas—to become national parties rather than regional parties.

Meciar became the most prominent and controversial actor on this stage and, in stark contrast to Havel and Klaus, was seen by most Europeans as a throwback to the totalitarian leaders of the communist era. While a supporter of EU membership initiatives, Meciar advocated a slow approach toward economic privatization. He accused those pushing for rapid privatization of state-owned enterprises of selling out to foreign interests and destroying any attempt for Slovakia to become economically self-sufficient.

As Prime Minister, he engaged in thuggish politics, often misusing police and security services to intimidate or discredit his political opposition and further his party's agenda. Meciar's political shenanigans fed a growing concern among EU policy-makers that Slovakia was experiencing a constitutional crisis and signaled a very weak commitment to Western-style democracy.

In many respects, Meciar symbolized the identity crisis confronting both the Czech and Slovak Republics in the decade following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. The dilemma of where they belonged was not unlike the very similar dilemma that had faced Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 1930s. Were they a central part of Europe or only on its margins?

In the early 1990s, Meciar envisioned an economically independent and vibrant Slovakia that could serve as a bridge between Russia and the West. This same utility had been proposed by Beneš for Czechoslovakia in the decades between the two world wars.

The problem with attempting to be a bridge was the lack of commitment it communicated to both sides. It did not work for Beneš and Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 1930s any more than it did for Meciar and Slovakia in the 1990s.

The recognition that Slovakia was losing out as its neighbors were basking in the warmth of a new-found European identity, precipitated a radical reorientation within Slovakia towards European integration. Slovaks realized the choice before them was between the EU or Meciar. In 1998, they opted for the EU.

With many of its neighbors already on the track for the EU's most significant expansion initiative, Slovakia had little time to lose. With Meciar gone, Slovakia rapidly transformed itself into a stable, investor-friendly economy. Between 1999 and 2004, the state implemented a flat income tax and provided generous tax incentives for foreign companies willing to invest in Slovakia's industrial base.

Foreign automotive companies flocked to Slovakia in the first years of the new century and almost overnight, Slovakia's image was transformed from that of petulant teenager to responsible young adult. The state demonstrated it was willing and capable of making the necessary and hard decisions to align its economic policies with the EU and to address the corruption that had blighted its politics.

Nothing speaks to Slovakia's success in this regard more than the recognition it received by Western institutions in 2004. In March 2004, Slovakia joined NATO and in May of that same year, together with the Czech Republic and eight other states, Slovakia joined the EU as part of the organization's most substantial enlargement initiative.

The expansion signaled a return to Europe for most of the states that had been held captive behind the Iron Curtain for the duration of the Cold War. This was a necessary recognition of their European-ness, but it was not the final step.

Reluctant Czechs

Ironically, as the pro-EU voices in Slovakia grew louder in the build-up to 2004, it was the Euro-skeptic voices within the Czech Republic that became more strident. These divergent interpretations as to what EU membership represents have become more pronounced in the intervening five years.

The Czechs are not exceptional in their mixed feelings about the EU. For example, Ireland—another small state on the edge of Europe—has caused great consternation within the EU for its resistance to the Lisbon Treaty—an attitude that Czech President Klaus openly celebrates.

Great Britain, too, has long held reservations about the extent to which it should become economically integrated with EU structures. Like Great Britain and nine other EU members, the Czech Republic remains skeptical about the wisdom of adopting the euro.

What makes Czech Euro-skepticism so awkward is the prominence it received in connection with the Czech assumption of the rotating EU presidency—and the contrast highlighted by the simultaneous adoption of the euro in neighboring Slovakia.

Since its entrance into the European Union in 2004, the Czech Republic has been perceived as being conflicted in its relationship with the rest of Europe. Havel has retired, leaving Klaus as one of the senior statesmen holding court over a new generation of competitive and equally conflicted politicians.

The messages coming out of Prague on issues ranging from the war in Iraq and Russian energy policies to U.S. missile defense bases and the conflict in Georgia appear mixed and, at times, uncooperative.

Both Czech and EU policy-makers understood the broader significance of the Czech EU presidency. For the European Union, the opening six months of 2009 demonstrated the true promise of EU membership. For only the second time since the 2004 expansion, a new member was taking the helm.

To some observers, the Czech EU presidency reflected confidence in the strength and commitment of new member states. It also illustrated a commitment to the rhetoric of the European Union.

For the newest members of the EU, it reinforced the notion that with membership comes responsibility. And not empty responsibility, but real and meaningful opportunity for all members—regardless of tenure—to have a true voice in policy articulation and an ability to shape the direction of the EU in both real and symbolic ways.

Europe without Barriers?

The Czech EU presidency is symbolic in yet another important way, since 2009 also marks the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the reunion of Europe. In recognition of this watershed event, the Czech Republic chose Europe without Barriers as the motto of its EU presidency.

Europe without Barriers is an attempt to re-center Europe—to move the center of European gravity away from the largest and oldest members of the EU and eastward toward the smaller and newer members. The motto suggests Europe's future lies to the east and the receding periphery.

Europe without Barriers also illustrates the friction in Czech-European relations. As in the 1920s and 1930s, Czech policy-makers seem to resist the idea that they should be junior partners in any political and/or economic union. The legacies of Austro-Hungarian and Soviet domination weigh too heavily upon the collective Czech memory and are too heavy to easily shrug off, even as they help chart the course of the EU.

Slovak policy-makers, on the other hand, have learned different lessons from their experiences within Austria-Hungary, the Soviet Bloc, and Czechoslovakia. The period from 1993 to 1998—as well as earlier episodes—taught Slovaks a lesson about pushing independence of action a bit too far.

Slovak policy-makers since 1998 have experienced the advantages of showing they are willing to play ball and assume the risks and responsibilities of membership. The Slovak adoption of the euro illuminates their willingness to invest in EU institutions for the long-term.

Both states are undoubtedly committed to EU membership, but each sees membership differently. While Slovakia seems more comfortable embracing more aspects of its European Union membership, the Czech Republic still seems hesitant about the long-term implications of membership in transnational organizations.

In 1993, the Czech and Slovak Republics came to similar junctions and they each proceeded down slightly different paths toward a desired European identity. It is perhaps still too early to tell if they will arrive at a common destination, stronger for the challenges of their distinct journeys of self-discovery. But 2009 seems to offer the glimmer of hope so often on display in this region of Europe.

Epilogue

On 1 July 2009, the Czech Republic handed over the EU presidency to Sweden.

During its six-month tenure, the Czech Republic presided over a European Union that wrestled with a global financial crisis, helped settle a natural gas dispute involving Russia, Ukraine, and Europe, and experienced a change of government resulting from an internal vote of no-confidence in the ruling coalition government.

Assessments are still being formulated, but one has to admit it was not a bad performance for a state conflicted over its relationship with the EU.


Important Terms

Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918), sometimes referred to as the Dual Monarchy, was officially created with the 1867 Ausgleich (Compromise) that established a shared power structure between Austria and Hungary. The Ausgleich gave Hungary full autonomy within the Habsburg Empire. While still adhering to a common foreign and economic policy emanating from the Habsburg capital of Vienna, Hungary was granted its own legislative body and territorial army. The Austro-Hungarian Empire covered much of East Central and Southeastern Europe. The present-day Czech Republic was located within the Austrian half of the empire, while present-day Slovakia resided in the Hungarian half and experienced a far more oppressive regime.

Holy Roman Empire (962-1806) was a union of Central European states dominated by Germanic princes and the Catholic Church. It was headed by the Holy Roman Emperor who was chosen by seven Electors, one of whom was the King of Bohemia (Prague was the capital of Bohemia and, today, the Czech Republic is comprised of the historic lands of Bohemia and Moravia). From the mid-15th century until its dissolution in 1806, almost every elected emperor was a member of the Habsburg family.

Munich Agreement (1938) ceded territory along the Czechoslovak-German border, known as the Sudetenland, to Nazi Germany under the auspices that the territory was more ethnically German than Czech. The territorial transfer associated with this fateful agreement denied Czechoslovakia vital frontier defenses and left it vulnerable to the eventual Nazi invasion in March 1939. Despite French treaty commitments to protect the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia, the agreement was signed in Munich on 20 September 1938 by the French, British, German, and Italian heads of state. A pillar of the pre-WWII British and French policy of Appeasement of Nazi Germany, the Munich Agreement was viewed by Czechoslovaks as an act of betrayal by its Western allies.

Lisbon Treaty was signed in 2007, but must be ratified by all 27 members in order to go into effect. This treaty proposes a new constitutional structure for the EU and many opponents feel the treaty relinquishes too much national sovereignty to the EU governing bodies. At the time of publication of this article (July 2009), the Czech Republic, Ireland, Poland, and Germany are the only member states not to have ratified the treaty. In the Czech Republic, members of Klaus' ODS party, which opposes the treaty, insisted that the Czech Constitutional Court determine if the treaty was consistent with the Czech constitution. The Czechs' highest court ruled in favor of the treaty in November 2008, paving the way for parliamentary ratification. Germany recently employed the same tactic, with similar results. Its highest court ruled the treaty was constitutional, but delayed ratification until legislation is passed strengthening the role of Germany's parliament. Klaus has vowed not to acknowledge his own country's ratification until the Irish first approve the treaty – promising that he will be the last to sign the treaty. The Polish president has made a similar assertion. Ireland, which first rejected the treaty in 2008, is scheduled vote again on the treaty in October 2009.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937) was the first president of Czechoslovakia and served between 1919 and 1935. Often referred to as the "President-Liberator" because of his role in establishing an independent Czechoslovak state, he was a highly regarded politician and scholar, both at home and abroad. Prior to his involvement in the Czechoslovak independence movement, he was a popular professor of philosophy and sociology in Prague. He began his political career as an elected member of the Bohemian and Austrian parliaments within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As an indication of his progressive tendencies, upon his marriage to Charlotte Garrigue, an American, he incorporated her maiden name into his own. Her family's connections with New York high society, coupled with his own connections made with U.S. politicians and businessmen during his time as a visiting professor in Chicago, helped win U.S. support for an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918.

Edvard Beneš (1884-1948) served as Czechoslovakia's first foreign minister from 1919 to 1935 and was the only member of every government during the interwar period. He briefly held the post of prime minister in 1921 and 1922. An understudy of Masaryk, Beneš also campaigned abroad for an independent Czechoslovak state during the First World War and almost single-handedly shaped Czechoslovak foreign policy during the 1920s and 1930s. Upon Masaryk's retirement in 1935, Beneš became Czechoslovakia's second president, a post he held until shortly after the Munich Agreement in 1938. He once again held that post briefly between 1945 and 1948, resigning shortly after the communist coup.

Václav Havel (1936- ) is a Czech playwright and former Czechoslovak dissident and politician. He began his political dissidence in the 1960s and rose to prominence during the 1970s and 1980s when he was eventually imprisoned and tortured by the communist regime for his outspoken and much publicized criticisms of its oppressive and inhumane policies. He was a leading figure during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which overthrew the communist government in Czechoslovakia, and was elected Czechoslovakia's tenth and final president that same year. An opponent of the Czech and Slovak separation, he nonetheless agreed to serve as the Czech Republic's first president and was instrumental in guiding the state through its post-Communist transition and putting it on the path toward NATO and EU membership.

Václav Klaus (1941- ) is the current president of the Czech Republic. He was elected the state's second president in 2003 and was re-elected in 2008. Prior to holding his current position, he served as the Czech Republic's first prime minister (and Czechoslovakia's last). An economist by training, he was largely responsible for shaping the economic policies that guided the Czech Republic through its post-Communist transformation. He is considered by many to be the most outspoken Euro-skeptic head of state in Europe today – a distinction he appears to embrace with enthusiasm.

Vladimír Meciar (1942- ) is a Slovak politician and former prime minister. His ardent nationalist sentiments led to his role in negotiating the 1993 separation of the Czech and Slovak Republics. For much of the 1990s, he served as Slovakia's contentious and autocratic prime minister. Viewed as one of the reasons for Slovakia's economic decline in the 1990s and its difficulty engaging in membership talks with the EU, he was ousted from office in 1998. In 1999, he ran for the presidency and was defeated in a run-off election. He made another unsuccessful presidential bid in 2004. He is currently the chairman of the People's Party – Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS) which has been a junior member in the ruling coalition government since 2006.