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Tomáš Sedláček: Our time is coming or the myth about Czech smallness

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I lived in Finland for five years, and I studied in Denmark for another five years. The number of citizens in both countries is half the size of the Czech population. But I never heard anybody there complaining about being small or meaningless, which is something Czechs tend to say.

It is interesting that such complaints last even though the time will soon come when leading figures in Europe and the world will for six months hold meetings in Czech cities.

Davids and Goliaths

At one time Czech politicians, especially from Prague, rallied for Olympics in Prague. Their reasoning was that the Olympics would bring international attention to the Czech Republic. They were willing to organise an incredibly expensive, demanding and for Prague quite illogical event, only so that we would have our place in the sun.

And now that, thanks to the EU presidency, we have a chance to excel at something that is infinitely more important and more interesting, political interest has faded. What’s more, our presidency will last six months, not just a few weeks like the Olympics. That is too bad because other countries see this as a big opportunity, while we seem to regard it as an unwanted obligation that we’re not looking forward to and that we would like to get rid of.

But back to our feeling of smallness. The Czech Republic is the 12th most populous country in the EU. There are 11 countries in the union with a population of 5 million or less. We could also talk about the EU as a union where small countries dominate. So why do we feel small, unimportant and overlooked?

There are eight medium-sized countries (with a population of around 10 million) in the EU, the same as the number of countries with a population of 16 million. Big countries will never be able to dominate the medium-sized and small countries because there are more of them.

Even the United States, with all its economy, political and military might, cannot afford to do things without external help. That could be one of the most important morals of the last eight years under President Bush.

Even the United States must look for allies and form coalitions. Even the big states know that if they are willing to make some compromises the resulting power of the resulting coalition will be much greater than if they tried to do everything on their own. This should be even clearer to small countries.

Four historic opportunities

Fate has given us the important function of the presidency. It’s important to see it as an advantage and as an opportunity. And as Czechs we have plenty to offer. Even more than one might think.

First of all, as a medium-sized country, we can be a constructive, unbiased mediator in debates. After six months of France pushing its own agenda, this will be refreshing for everyone. The fact that we are not hit by the financial crisis will also help us remain neutral. Out of the 30 OECD countries, the Czech Republic along with Mexico and Slovakia are the only three whose governments haven’t had to help out the financial sector.

Second of all, we can benefit from the efforts of President elect Obama, who will without a doubt strive to fulfill all the hopes everyone is pinning on him. It is very probable that in the next six months, he will try to come up with new lines of communication and the coordination of world markets – and we will not only be involved, they will come to us!

Third of all – and this is meant without any irony – we have the freshest experience with socialism in banking, and we can offer this experience to the world. Rather than foolishly saying that the crisis has nothing to do with us, it would be much wiser to offer our help and experience.

Fourth of all, Prague is the destination of millions of tourists and as a traditional crossroads of different nations, it can contribute to the quality of the debate with its ancient genius loci.

Good politician, bad politician

We have no reason to behave like an insignificant, wronged, oppressed nation. That time ended nearly 20 years ago. It all depends on what we choose for ourselves.

Among other things, you can tell a good politician by how well he is able to show a country its greatness and not emphasize its small size or insignificance. That he is able to elevate and represent the nation, not knock it down.

Because bad politicians thrive in nations that are obedient and wronged, and that’s why they try to enforce these attitudes.

The author is the chief macroeconomic strategist at ČSOB.

Translated with permission by the Prague Daily Monitor.

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