Czech anti-immigration sentiments got lifted up from the domain of quacks, wannabe Nazis and populists into actual policy when Andrej Babiš woke up one day and realized his party’s popularity dropped a couple percent; a situation very easily remedied by causing an international faux pas by telling Italy he will not accept a single immigrant (because look what they did to your country). His resolve has been tested for the last few weeks with a full-on media barrage regarding the proposed acceptance of fifty orphans from Syria – an issue on which he managed to change his firm opinion only about five or six times a week.
The story deserves telling because it manages to be a perfect showcase of the way Czech elected representatives handle issues and criticism. There were lies, backpedaling, smokescreens, more lies, attacks, international embarrassment, maneuvering to avoid the fallback of international embarrassment, even more lies and a happy ending that probably did not happen; in the meantime, absolutely no part of the issue was resolved in any way. Business as usual.
The Case of the Senile Chameleon
The first time the Czechs heard about any incoming orphans was in July when a member of the European Parliament Kateřina Šojdrová announced her initiative to offer asylum to kids orphaned by the war in Syria; a move that promised to take some steps towards mending our rather damaged reputation with the EU but which, for some odd reason, was not met with understanding back home; even her party leader originally refused to commit to acceptance or refusal – which is totally understandable, as one simply cannot expect Christian Democrats to love their neighbor or, God forbid, help the poor – and the news met with a lukewarm response to the note of nothing’s going to come out of it anyway.
Except something did. After the PM’s Italian performance and last week’s vote on sanctioning Hungary, it became clear that the European Union is rapidly losing patience with V4 countries turning into quaint little dictatorships with no regard for common causes or issues. France is threatening to cut off Schengen and funding for countries that do not help with immigration and while Macron’s comments were aimed at Hungary, it is not difficult to imagine the rest of V4 would be next in line unless a drastic change in foreign policy occurs.
And here is the thing: those fifty orphans could seriously help us there. The Czech Republic has mostly managed to avoid EU scrutiny due to Babiš playing chameleon and changing colors based on whether he was speaking to home or foreign audience. But it seems the chameleon is going senile and cannot shift its complexion as fast as it once could – and sometimes, like in Italy, the true colors shine through. Now, viewed from the outside, there is an opportunity to put his money where his mouth is and prove that he is dedicated to a common European cause. The only problem is that, back home, he has just announced zero tolerance for immigrants. What to do, what to say?
The obvious first step was to discredit the initiative. Those orphans are not kids, yell Babiš’s media in orchestrated outrage, they could even be 17 years old! Muslims! Indoctrinated! Terrorists carrying bombs in their nappies!
Putting aside the rather distressing implication that a human life loses value with age (something the masterpiece of applied necromancy posing as our current President should get through its brain, whichever canopic jar that might be stowed away in), this first attack was deflected rather easily by pointing out that we’d have our choice of orphans to accept; no one was talking a specific group of children. This did not stop plenty of other parties to join the fun; the xenophobic SPD calling the initiative “pseudohumanistic cries of the neo-marxists” (given the rhetorical capabilities of the average SPD member, one can only assume a dictionary was heavily involved in the creative process behind that phrase) and a party called Czech Sovereignty (nope, never heard of them either) outright accused the orphans of being ISIS fighters – amazing foresight since no specific children were chosen.
Step 2: diverting attention via good old-fashioned whataboutism. What about our orphans, exclaims Babiš in mock-compassion, what about orphans from Ukraine? Why should we give a…sylum to Syrians? The answer to that one is even simpler but it would seem that the Czech public still has not heard of the false dilemma fallacy so this actually worked for a while and muddied the waters sufficiently right before the issue went to the Parliament. And lo and behold, even those paragons of right-wing humanity who fought press tooth and TV nail for helping the kids… Actually mostly abstained. The Czech Republic’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted against solidarity, against humanity. Nicholas Winton is spinning in his grave.
Then the EU vote about Hungary happened and Babiš was forced to play another chameleon sketch, at the same time drawing as little attention to his similarities with Orbán on the outside and giving the EU MPs who voted against Hungary a proper chewing out on the home stage. But almost immediately afterward he turned around and announced his intention to meet with Šojdrová to discuss the whole orphan situation.
It must have been quite a meeting, going by the fact it apparently had two opposite results at the same time. There were two press conferences. Šojdrová announced that the Czech Republic is willing to accept the orphans, if it can choose them – whatever that means – and that she was tasked with finding the children to offer asylum to. However, immediately after she happily strolled away, Babiš appeared and calmly claimed his opinions have not shifted an inch. While he admitted he gave Šojdrová contacts for refugee camps in Greece, he firmly denied promising any governmental co-operation on the matter and topped it off by saying there are no orphans anyway since you see, in these countries, everyone has a vast extended family that can take care of them.
The question of just what the hell is going to happen next springs into mind. One can hope Šojdrová does not give up and can come up with a list of children that could be accepted; seemingly a trivial task given the number and state of the refugee camps. However, it can also be reasonably expected that the government will do its bureaucratical best to sabotage the effort, as Babiš already indicated with his talk of families, of kids without parents being too old (human life devaluation by age, again!) to integrate and generally take every step in order not to do the right thing – and all that for one very simple reason. Turns out that in the Czech Republic, showing solidarity with war orphans is political suicide.