Free movement in the EU vs. rising socio-economic immobility on national peripheries: The case of the Czech borderlands

August 23, 2021
Hana Formánková

The citizens’ rights resulting from the European Union membership are above all connected to the hegemonic market related discourse of freedom of movement and labour mobility in the EU (Decoville and Durand 2019). But there is a stark contrast between these core rights of the EU citizenship and the rising socio-economic immobility of people living in the peripheral areas of Czechia. These are regions fraught with a socio-economic decline since the system change in 1989, low quality of education, high proportions of anti-system/anti-EU voters and a large share of people living just above or below the poverty line in the within-nation comparison. Benefits of the EU citizenship seem to be out of reach for many people in the Czech border regions, especially in the Ústí and Karlovy Vary regions neighboring Germany which I will look at. But what arguments underpin this statement? To give an answer, I will overview a recent survey on the class structure of the Czech society and infer consequences for the exercise of the EU citizenship rights.  

On the occasion of 30years since the system change in 1989, a so far unique survey looking into the social structure of the Czech society “Divided by Freedom – Czech Society 30 years after the Velvet Revolution“  was carried out in cooperation with the Czech public radio broadcaster Český rozhlas (see Prokop et al 2019). The study covered 4 039 survey respondents in more than 13 localities in Czechia. It identified six social classes according to their cumulated economic, social, cultural and human resources (capital) and mapped their geographical distribution across the country. It complicated the simplistic image of Czech society, present in Czech politics, that would be divided into a better-off liberal elite in large cities and the remaining non-liberals in the rest of the country. As this theme, intensively used in the political campaign ahead of the first direct presidential election in 2013, remains present in the Czech public debate and is regularly successfully mobilized by populist politicians during elections, it is a relevant research subject. The significant support for populist candidates in Czechia since 2013 is an evidence that the topic resonates in certain parts of society and has a rationale that should be explained.

The Czech survey was inspired by a similar British study  mapping the British society in the 21st century dividing it into seven social classes according to their possession of different sorts of capital – economic, social and cultural – according to the classification of P. Bourdieu (see Savage et al 2013). With reference to the Czech survey, economic capital means the income of a household and its property. Social capital is the amount of immaterial social contacts that can be mobilized to gain access to services (financial or legal consulting, childcare etc.) or various profits in everyday life while cultural capital signifies a culture that is prevailing in distinct social milieus. One manifestation of the cultural capital are the educational aspirations that are transmitted from parents to children. The Czech study added a human capital into the analysis containing language skills as well as information and communications technology competences (ICT), which are crucial at the labour market in the 21st century economy (Prokop 2020).   

Uneven geography and rising socio-economic immobility

With respect to the EU citizens’ rights that make the EU wide mobility an everyday reality and people that don’t seem to be in the position to even hypothetically profit from it, there are two distinct social classes within the Czech society concentrated in the former industrial regions facing unresolved structural problems since the system change. There is a distinct proportion of people from these classes (59% in total) sharing a negative perception of the development of Czechia after 1989, including the EU accession in 2004, supporting populist candidates (ANO – Action of Dissatisfied Citizens, M. Zeman) or the Czech Communist party and concentrated in the Ústí and Karlovy Vary regions as the peripheral areas along the border with Germany. These are the lower middle class with a threatened social position (22% countrywide) and the suffering class (18% countrywide), which qualifies as the poor within Czech society. The highest share of people belonging to the suffering class (25%) and the threatened class (34%) live in the Ústí region and large proportions of both are in the Karlovy Vary region. Looking at income poverty in EU wide comparison, the income of 30% of Czech citizens lies below 60% of EU median and exceeds the average rate of income poverty in the EU which lies at 24% (ibid.).  

People from both classes characterize lower levels of education (secondary or elementary), unemployment or a high risk of it, weak economic capital and minimal or no benefits from the economic growth of the country and its participation in the global economy. While people from the suffering class mostly live in middle and small sized cities and often work in construction as unqualified manual workers, in components assembly in foreign companies etc., the threatened lower middle class tends to live in larger cities and work in the low-paying service sector or administration. People from the threatened class are often overqualified for their jobs, but lack sufficient ICT competences and language skills to find a better paid job. They possess more social and human capital than the suffering class, but lack economic capital which makes their position vulnerable in case of divorce or loss of employment. Neither of these social classes has the ability to mobilize resources and improve their position. With respect to the cultural capital, they differ in the prevailing educational aspirations – around 50% of the members from the lower middle class wish for their children a university education, while it is only around 30% of the members from the struggling class (ibid.). 

The geographical concentration of people belonging to these social classes is an evidence for the existence of significant regional imbalances in Czechia. As education was identified by previous research to be one of the most significant drivers of anti-system vote and as poverty in Czechia depends more than in other countries on the achieved education, it is particularly worrying that the quality of schooling in Czechia is geographically determined. According to data, the quality of schools in the Ústí and Karlovy Vary regions is dramatically lower than in the rest of the country – in the PISA testing e.g., results of both regions are at the level of Bulgaria or Malaysia while wealthier regions score above the EU average.

Thus, geography is a significant factor at play in Czechia. People from the threatened lower middle class with a potential to get a better paid job and to improve their socio-economic position are paying for their geographical origin in the national peripheries. The low quality of schooling in the Ústí and Karlovy Vary regions does not equip them with skills and competences that would be sufficient for a better paid job. Together with a negative economic and employment growth of these regions since 1990 (Rodríguez-Pose 2018, p. 194, 195) and coupled with other related social problems, people from these social classes living in these areas are significantly disadvantaged.     

Hurdles to EU citizens’ rights

Taken together, there are around two thirds of Czechs with a limited social mobility and a notable anti-system political orientation. They are mostly insufficiently qualified (language, expertise, ICT competences) to make use of their right to labour mobility in the EU and to compete on the EU common market. The biggest hurdle to their profit from the EU citizenship rights seems to be the combination of insufficient qualification and education which is co-determined by the socio-economic family status and the regions they live in. Apart from the low chances, living on the periphery with concentrated structural problems gives further little incentives to aspire for a higher level of education. And those who achieve it have little reason to stay in these regions as they find a better paid job elsewhere. A vicious circle of poverty emerges.  

The last 30 years in Czechia solidified a development, when structural characteristics of regions together with the socio-economic status increasingly determine peoples’ social mobility, the chances of meeting one’s life aspirations and finally voting preferences. But if the attained education seems to significantly depend on the region and the family which one was born into, serious consequences follow not only for the exercise of the EU citizens’ rights but also for the plurality principle of liberal democracy as such. This postulates that citizens in pluralist democracy can independently and free of structural attributes such as family background or geographical origin form and join associations to promote their interests in the political system. Once the societal structure becomes impermeable populists easily aggregate support of these voters.   


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