What are Prague’s priorities during its six months of EU Presidency?
When the Czech Republic last held the rotating EU presidency, in early 2009, the continent was still reeling from the global financial crisis and the harbingers of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis were beginning to emerge.
On Friday July 1, he resumes the presidency of the Council of the EU in a new period of emergency.
In a crisis management exercise, the Czech Republic aims to strengthen regional cooperation in support of Ukraine and to find common solutions to soaring inflation and the current energy crisis.
Yet, according to the pessimists, when his presidency ends on December 31, these crises will appear much worse.
For the country’s coalition government that took office late last year, it’s time to prove that it is more pro-EU and west-looking than previous Czech administrations.
“The prime interest of our government is to ensure the presidency in a way that is adequate to the contemporary needs and challenges ahead of us,” government spokesman Vaclav Smolka told Euronews.
Preparations, however, were not helped by the previous Czech administration which drastically reduced the presidential budget available for the new coalition government.
He had to pay around 56 million euros for presidential expenses, compared to more than 150 million euros in 2009.
Prime Minister Petr Fiala recently announced that his government had found additional funds to raise it to 93 million euros, but the presidential team’s financial difficulties have caused problems with hiring and planning.
A Foreign Office official who asked not to be named said the preparation “could have been better” and things had been “rushed”.
Prague wants to bring more EU money and weapons into Ukraine
The Czech government announced its five-point action plan on June 15. “It will be a war presidency, or hopefully a post-war presidency,” Edita Hrdá, the country’s permanent representative to the EU, told local media.
Ivana Karaskova of the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based think tank, believes the war in Ukraine will dominate the agenda.
“As a country that strongly supports Ukraine on the military and political front, the Czech Republic will represent an important voice in the debate on Russian aggression,” she said.
Prague said it wanted to do everything possible to get more bloc money and weapons into Ukraine, “using all instruments and programs offered by the EU”, according to the official list of presidency goals.
Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský pledged last week that his country “will continue to support Ukraine militarily and with material assistance and we will continue to firmly support the integrity of the country.”
The Czech Republic’s task was made somewhat easier after Ukraine gained EU candidate status last week, one of the stated goals of its presidency. His job will now be to move this process forward.
However, the task became more difficult as the European unity witnessed in the first months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began to unravel.
There are fiercer debates over whether some countries, like Germany, are doing enough to support Kyiv militarily. The issue of accepting Russian gas imports has also become hotter.
Helping Ukrainians now and in the future
Analysts say the Czech Republic will prioritize less polarizing issues.
“The government understands the need to build coalitions and work as a facilitator of European consensus,” Karaskova said.
One will cement a fairer and more sustainable policy for Ukrainian refugees within the EU.
“The EU must take all measures to help deal with the unprecedented wave of refugees in the best possible way,” reads the mission statement of the Czech EU Presidency. “This will require the mobilization of all available resources and expertise and their coordinated use.”
The second task is to advance talks on the reconstruction of Ukraine after the war is over.
That could be difficult, analysts say. Discussions will focus on how much EU countries will contribute and how the money is likely to be spent. The EU could once again split between its frugal and spendthrift members.
A Czech Foreign Ministry official also said he expected a fight over who should be allowed to help with the reconstruction.
The Czech presidency’s mission statement explicitly states that financial resources will be needed “throughout the free world”, which some analysts have interpreted as a reference to China, one of the world’s largest contributors to foreign investment.
The Czech Republic’s relations with Beijing have deteriorated in recent years as its ties with Taiwan have improved. Now there are accusations that Prague will want to ensure that Beijing does not try to gain leverage within Europe by becoming a key financier of post-war reconstruction in Ukraine.
A Czech government spokesman declined to comment on the matter.
Climate change and energy independence
As a corollary to the war in Ukraine, the Czech Republic’s second priority as EU president will be the energy transition, said Filip Kostelka, a professor at the European University Institute.
“It’s about finding common ground to become energy independent of Russia and limit CO² emissions,” he noted.
Anna Hubáčková, the Czech Minister of the Environment, set out her goals in a speech on June 20 under the title: “Energy independence, climate neutrality, resilient landscapes”.
Again, the Czech Republic’s burden was eased slightly after the European Council on June 28 agreed on two of the main general guidelines of the Fit for 55 policy, the EU’s environmental centerpiece.
It agreed an EU-level target of 40% energy from renewable sources in the overall energy mix by 2030, as well as a commitment to increase the integration of renewables in certain sectors of the European economy.
“Fit for 55 creates the basis for decarbonisation,” says the statement from the Presidency of the Czech Government. “However, the Czech Presidency will focus particularly on the thorough implementation of the main short-term objective.”
Although some of the policies in the program were accepted by the European Council a few days before the start of the Czech Presidency, an urgent task will be to obtain the approval of the European Parliament to label nuclear and natural gas as green investments.
This will probably be debated in July. The Czech Republic has been a leading proponent of nuclear energy for years.
Will the EU Presidency help Prague domestically?
Given these two difficult tasks, other policies are likely to fall through the cracks.
According to the Czech government, the other three priorities will be “strengthening Europe’s defense capabilities and cyberspace security; the strategic resilience of the European economy; and the resilience of democratic institutions.
For the Czech Republic itself, its second term as EU President is deeply symbolic.
“Full membership and a united European Union are a strategic interest for the Czech Republic,” said Smolka, government spokesman.
“Thanks to EU membership, the Czech Republic has strengthened its international position and increased its security,” he added.
“Nor should we forget that our foreign policy is defined by the democratic values on which the European Union was founded. European policy is therefore an integral part of domestic policy and we attach great importance to it.
On the home front, this could benefit the coalition government which only took office in December and whose five parties hold a slim majority of eight seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
However, the aforementioned money problems are not the only obstacle.
Earlier this year, the coalition government came under fire after local media questioned the English proficiency of several of its top diplomats, a key prerequisite for negotiations within the EU.
The five-party coalition is as divergent on domestic issues as it is on the EU. Its parties sit in different camps in the European Parliament, from the Greens to the European Conservatives and Reformists.
Prime Minister Fiala hails from the center-right Civic Democrats (ODS), many of whom maintain the party’s traditional Eurosceptic stance.
It also didn’t help that a corruption scandal this month rocked the coalition government, which came into office claiming to be cleaner than clean after past administrations were marred by corruption.
Corruption allegations had been a major source of contention between the EU and the Czech Republic during the tenure of former Prime Minister Andrej Babis, accused by Brussels of illegally accepting EU subsidies for his conglomerate Agrofert.
The EU has threatened to withhold essential European funds for the country in the case and Babis was charged with fraud by a local court in March. His trial he was expecting later this year.
“During the first Czech presidency in 2009, high media visibility and interactions with key European politicians significantly improved the former president’s ratings,” analyst Kostelka said.
“If the presidency is not a blunder, it will benefit the popularity of the coalition.”