PRAGUE – For the first time in almost a decade, the blue-and-gold European Union flag is flying above Prague Castle. But there's already a movement to take it down.
The new president, Milos Zeman, says the flag is a long overdue sign that the country is moving toward the European mainstream, following the staunchly anti-EU tenure of his predecessor Vaclav Klaus — who banned the banner from the castle that houses the presidential offices. Euro-skepticism remains rife, however, and one prominent member of the anti-EU camp even likened Zeman to a puppet leader installed by the Nazis.
The Czech Republic was one of eight eastern, ex-communist nations to join the EU in 2004. Funds from Brussels have transformed life here in many ways, helping lay highways, build bridges and sewage systems. And visa-free travel has eased passage for the millions of tourists who keep the capital's economy alive.
But many Czechs have been deeply influenced by Klaus' diatribes against Brussels-based European institutions, and the sense that the EU is eroding sovereign powers has remained strong since his departure on March 7.
In his blog, Petr Hajek, a key Klaus deputy, branded Zeman a "collaborator" similar to Emil Hacha, who was made Czech leader by the Nazis during World War II.
Hostility to the EU is strong in Britain and other EU nations, too. But this nation's traumatic memories of occupation by the Nazis, followed by decades of subjugation by the Soviets, make it particularly sensitive to feelings of being bullied by outside powers. And for many Czechs, that outside power these days is Brussels.
Bohumil Dolezal, a political analyst, says Klaus purposely fed off memories of the Nazi occupation and communism and built "his political success by exploiting them."
But he said it was unlikely the country would ever decide to withdraw from the bloc, suggesting that much of the anti-EU feeling is fueled by the economic crisis battering the continent.
"Chances are that when the global financial crisis is over," he said, "the view of the EU will become less dramatic."
A small but noisy demonstration on Wednesday tried to drown out the ceremony at Prague Castle, where Zeman stood alongside European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
With a smattering of tourists watching as the flag was raised alongside the Czech one, several hundred opponents booed and whistled. One sign demanded a referendum to vote on whether to quit the EU.
The Free Citizens Party, which organized the rally and is aligned to Klaus, launched a petition campaign Wednesday to hold a referendum on terminating EU membership.
"We're looking forward to taking the flag down one day," said party chairman Petr Mach, whose group is not represented in Parliament.
In another pro-EU step Wednesday, Zeman signed the eurozone's new bailout fund, something Klaus refused to do despite Parliament's approval. The former president boasted that under his watch, the Czech Republic was not "an EU province."
The Czech Republic was the last EU country to ratify the fund, the 17-nation eurozone's key tool in fighting the current debt crisis. The country is officially committed to joining the euro but no date has been set. And it takes on no financial obligations by approving the fund until it joins the euro.
While 77 percent Czechs endorsed EU membership in a 2003 nationwide referendum, that figure has been cut significantly according to recent polls. Today, a majority of the Czechs do not believe the EU has a future, mainly due to its inability to effectively deal with the debt crisis.