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In the heart of Europe

What concerns the Czech Republic and Eastern Bavaria 20 years after the EU's eastern enlargement? The University of Passau and Europe Direct Bayerischer Wald - Böhmerwald - Unterer Inn convened researchers and practitioners from both countries.

Hiking trail on the Dreisessel. Symbol photo: Colourbox

Hikers on the Dreisessel in the Bavarian Forest today enjoy views of landscapes which the Austro-Bohemian poet Adalbert Stifter has once described in his poems. It is hardly surprising that hikers from Bavaria, Austria and the Czech Republic meet on the border.

What has been done in the 20 years since the Czech Republic joined the EU to make this a matter of course, and what remains to be done? With this question, Professor Christina Hansen, Vice President for International Affairs, opened a panel discussion as part of the European Week of the Science Hub for Europe (SHE) at the University of Passau. The Science Hub for Europe, together with Europe Direct Bayerischer Wald - Böhmerwald - Unterer Inn, had invited experts from both countries to the discussion in celebration of the anniversary of the Czech Republic's EU membership. The panel was moderated by SHE Managing Director Florence Ertel.

Prof. Dr. Christina Hansen, Vizepräsidentin für Internationales, bei der Begrüßung.

On 1 May 2024, the European Union underwent a historic enlargement: ten new countries, including the Czech Republic, joined the EU. The people in Eastern Bavaria celebrated this step, described Kaspar Sammer, Euregio Managing Director and Head of Europe Direct Bavarian Forest - Bohemian Forest - Lower Inn. “We in Eastern Bavaria also became almost full EU members through this and have benefited immensely.” The region moved from being on the eastern fringe to the center of Europe, said Freyung-Grafenau District Administrator and EUREGIO Chairman Sebastian Gruber. Until 1989, his district only had three directions: north, south, and west. To the east, there was the so-called Iron Curtain, a restricted area several kilometers wide, an almost insurmountable barrier of barbed wire, and partially mined.

Today, the hiking trails on the Dreisessel Mountain are open again. The Czech Republic, as a member state of the EU and the Schengen area, as well as NATO, is firmly anchored in the West and acts as a mediator in Brussels, for example during the Czech EU Council Presidency in 2022, just a few months after the start of the Russian war of aggression. "The Czech Republic is driving others in Europe forward, especially when it comes to solidarity with Ukraine," explained Dr Renke Deckarm, Deputy Head of the European Commission's Regional Representation in Munich. The great importance of the Czech Republic in the European Union was also underscored by the visit of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during the celebrations to mark 20 years of EU membership in Prague. Additionally, the Czech Republic plays an important role in the enlargement debate, which will be a central issue for the newly elected EU Commission after the European elections. "The Czech Republic is one of the countries that has integrated very well into this EU," affirmed Dr Deckarm.

This was confirmed by Professor Daniel Göler, holder of the Jean Monnet Chair for European Politics at the University of Passau. The Czech Republic will transition from a net recipient to a net contributor next year. However, he also emphasized that democracy in the European Union is increasingly under pressure, especially as there are growing tendencies in more and more countries that oppose a liberal democratic basic order. These tendencies are more pronounced in some Eastern European member states than elsewhere.  "What does this mean for the EU? Can democracy be maintained in the long term under these circumstances?"

Auf dem Podium (von links): Sebastian Gruber, Landrat des Landkreises Freyung-Grafenau, Dr. Zuzana Jürgens, Geschäftsführerin des Adalbert Stifter Vereins in München, Prof. Dr. Daniel Göler, Inhaber des Jean-Monnet-Lehrstuhls für Europäische Politik, Moderatorin Florence Ertel, RNDr. Mgr. Růžena Štemberková, Leiterin des Technologie-Transfer-Zentrum der Südböhmischen Universität Budweis und Dr. Renke Deckarm, stellvertretender Leiter der Regionalvertretung der Europäischen Kommission in München.

How do the Czechs themselves view the EU membership? Dr Zuzana Jürgens, Managing Director of the Adalbert Stifter Association in Munich, was cautious in her assessment. "After 20 years of membership, the sense of belonging to the EU is less than 50 per cent." In the Czech Republic, one must distinguish between belonging to the EU and belonging to Europe. The EU feels distant to many, whereas Europe is a space where Czechs feels comfortable.

Dr Jürgens pointed to her T-shirt, which featured a colourful image of Václav Havel, the former Czech president and great European. ‘What Havel thought about Europe is still highly topical today,’ she said, referring to Havel's phrase ‘Europe as a task’. However, the Czech Republic has had more than 15 years of Eurosceptic leadership, and if the polls for next year's Czech parliamentary elections are to be believed, it may face the same again: the party of former Prime Minister and populist Andrej Babiš is clearly ahead in the polls.

This also worries RNDr. Mgr. Růžena Štemberková, Head of the Technology Transfer Centre at the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice. However, she only had good things to say about the EU. The European Union has massively supported the expansion of scientific structures. Technology transfer from science would be unthinkable without cross-border cooperation in Europe. "Science knows no borders."

More funding for Czech on the German side

The fact that the two experts presented their assessment fluently in German impressed the audience. One person asked about the efforts on the German side to promote understanding of the Czech language and culture. District Administrator Gruber gave the example of the Bavarian-Czech Business Breakfast at the Dreisessel, which he had attended in the morning. In addition to numerous EU-funded INTERREG projects, there are also many school partnerships and guest school programmes such as the EUREGIO guest school year. However, the local politician acknowledged that the language barrier was one of the biggest problems. Much also depends on the commitment of individuals. Gruber advocated for Czech as an elective compulsory subject. He received support from Prof. Dr. Hansen, who researches elementary education at the University of Passau. "Even small offerings in schools and kindergartens make a big difference. When both German and Czech are spoken in kindergartens, it opens doors for children."

Many milestones have been achieved together, summarized moderator Ertel. However, the discussion also showed that the motto of the Czech Council Presidency in the second half of 2022 - "Europe as a task" - inspired by Václav Havel still applies: "In the same way, further integration at one of Europe's interfaces remains an ongoing common challenge, for which work is being done on many levels in science, politics, culture, education, and civil society in both countries."

Prof. Dr. Christina Hansen (ehemals Schenz)

Professor Christina Hansen

researches diversity and giftedness in an international context

How do layout and re-figuration processes work in (educational) spaces?

How do layout and re-figuration processes work in (educational) spaces?

Professor Christina Hansen holds the Chair of Education (Primary) with a focus on diversity at the University of Passau. Since August 2020, she has been the Vice-President for International Affairs, Europe and Diversity.

Professor Daniel Göler

Professor Daniel Göler

conducts research on European integration

Where is the European Union going?

Where is the European Union going?

Professor Daniel Göler holds the Jean Monnet Chair of European Politics at the University of Passau. His research focuses on all matters concerning European integration. Naturally, this involves academic networking across the globe. At the same time, the chair makes European political topics accessible to the general public by organising events and publishing the Jean Monnet Papers.

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