A post-crisis interview with Prime Minister Petr Nečas

Petr Nečas, photo: CTK

The Czech government has been through a great deal in the nine months since the three-party coalition was formed. While struggling with wide-ranging systemic reforms, the ministries have been hit by one scandal after another, culminating in a major government crisis this month, in which it was unclear whether the coalition would survive. In a special feature today we talk with the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic and chairman of the Civic Democratic Party, Petr Nečas, about the issues that the government has faced and where it stands now.

Petr Nečas,  photo: CTK
We are just coming out of the first - hopefully the last - stage of a major government crisis. There has been a lot of bad blood and harsh accusations on all sides, and in spite of that the three parties have agreed to stay together for the sake of reforms. Is that goodwill really enough, in the middle of what must be a very difficult climate in your cabinet?

“I do hope that it was the last stage of the government crisis. It was not our objective to go through a crisis; I hope that all three coalition parties have been, are and will be responsible political parties and that we will be able to achieve fundamental agreement, especially vis-à-vis reform efforts, because it’s necessary to face many challenges. I would like to mention especially demographic development in Czech society and economic globalisation, that means we will need to go through deep structural reform concerning health care, the pension system, education the system of research and scientific, etc.”

Do you feel the coalition parties and cabinet members are behind you enough to make the reforms happen without unfriendly relations getting in the way?

“I hope we are going to be political professionals. That means we have a task and it’s necessary to try to fulfil this task. Our task is not to combat one another but to implement deep structural reforms, and I’m sure that the government will be able to achieve a fundamental agreement vis-à-vis these reforms.”

Anti-corruption was one of the main issues in your election platform, what is the next step – the number one priority now - in anti-corruption reform following the crisis?

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
“We have already passed a special anti-corruption strategy. One of my government’s duties is to fulfil this strategy – it consists of 55 fundamental tasks and we have already fulfilled 18 of them in the first four or five months. Our fundamental task over the next several weeks is to pass a new draft concerning public tenders; we hope that this bill will create the framework for more transparent public tenders and that we will be able to achieve true, greater transparency and economic efficiency of public tenders.”

The latest public opinion poll puts confidence in the government at 21%. What would have been the harm in holding early elections, as opposed to continuing with Public Affairs?

“Frankly speaking, I am not surprised by this public opinion poll. There are two fundamental reasons, the first one of course is that many of our reforms are simply unpopular. The second, and I would say more important, is that we have given the public something that is not nice [in the form of the crisis]. It was a political strike, it was something that ordinary citizens hate when they see it in politics. So we can’t be surprised, to be fully honest. Of course there is the hypothetical possibility of going through elections, but I do think that it is our duty to try to improve our reform effort and try to implement deep structural reforms.”

You have said that there will be more changes in the cabinet in coming months, does that not risk blowing the crisis open again?

“Yeah, of course, it’s a risky business, like anything in politics. But the only way to improve the work of some members of the cabinet is to create some kind of threat, that the work has to be improved, so that we can attain more effective work from certain members of the cabinet. It was, let’s say, a political incentive to improve the work of some members of the cabinet.”

Would you like to tell me which members you have in mind specifically?

Václav Klaus
“No, no ,no [laughs]. It’s not possible to say publically.”

This is an unconventional situation whereby junior coalition partners are making demands on the structure of the cabinet, at the same time you have members of your own party dealing with them on their own, and on top of that President Klaus has put you into what many say is a difficult situation as well. Do you feel isolated?

“Absolutely not. I’ve got the full support of my political party. I’ve got the support of the executive committee of my party, the leadership of my party, and I have even attained the full support of my coalition partners as prime minister. So it’s impossible to talk about some kind of political isolation, absolutely not.”

Yet another reform has been shot down by the Constitutional Court, in the form of the tax on building savings. Do you agree with President Klaus that the court’s decisions are politicised? Does it not show that some of these reforms may have been poorly prepared?

“I can’t agree with the decision of the Constitutional Court, but I must respect it. That’s all; I have no other comment. I can’t agree with this decision but I must respect it.”

But do you think the court has become politicised?

“It’s not the first time that the Constitutional Court has tried to make a political decision. There were already specific decisions of the Constitutional Court concerning sickness insurance or even the pension system, which we can take as political rather than legal decision.”

You have said that the government has not done its best in explaining the reforms. In practical terms how is that going to change?

Social Democrats' leader Bohuslav Sobotka,  Constitutional Court judge Pavel Rychetský,  photo: CTK
“In particular, we must continue with our effort to persuade public opinion that steps that are necessary for this country simply have to be done. When we look around Europe, many countries are trying to go through structural reforms and it’s necessary to take these steps, especially vis-à-vis consolidation of our public finance.”

But practically speaking, how can the public be made more aware?

“The first step has to be that there is no kind of political struggle within the government. We must present these reforms unanimously, with one voice, and to have of course good explanations for the necessity of these steps.”

Turning to the rest of the world, The Czech Republic has long been a champion of human rights and democracy, which has been a point of Czech foreign policy since the revolution. Right now there are huge opportunities to put actions to words in the Middle East and North Africa – Why isn’t the country playing a larger role?

“I wouldn’t say it’s our position now to become one of the European leaders in this region, but of course we have some specific experiences from our political transformation and we are ready to offer that to our partners in the Middle East and Northern Africa.”

Is that happening and will it happen to some more public degree?

“Of course it’s a question of whether we are asked to offer our experience, and we are ready to do so.”

Regarding the Pact for the Euro, you said that the Czech Republic was not properly consulted and that that was one of the reasons that you didn’t want to be involved. Do you feel this is a recurring theme in Czech-EU relations, that the Czech Republic is treated as a lesser partner?

“Absolutely not. Our position was fully accepted by our European partners. We are not alone on this, we are together with the United Kingdom, Sweden, Hungary and of course it is possible that the Czech Republic will join the pact in the future. We will discuss it, we will observe the practical results of the pact and after some kind of analysis it will be possible to join the Euro-Plus Pact in the future.”

Are you concerned by the Czech Republic being labelled as a eurosceptic country, largely due to the views of President Klaus? Do you think it’s fair?

“I wouldn’t say we have been a eurosceptic country. We can talk about a, let’s say, European realistic approach; we are Euro-realists. And I do think that we have been, we are and be will remain a respected political partner within the EU with this Euro-realistic approach.”

Regarding relations between the Czech Republic and the European Union, are there certain things that you would like to see completely different in 10 or 15 years’ time?

“I would say that we have to be political realists, and of course I would like to see less regulation. Because the best regulation is no regulation (although that’s a slight exaggeration of course). I’m afraid of a situation whereby we create an environment with too much – especially economic – regulation and high taxation. That could undermine European and also Czech competitiveness vis-à-vis global economy.”

How would you want the Czech Republic to be seen by the rest of the world, I mean in terms of things that you can influence?

“As a modern and open country with a high level of industry, with a high level of education… as a typical open society.”

Petr Nečas
You studied as a plasma physicist I understand; especially in light of the last three weeks, do you ever wish you were back focusing on something as easy as plasma physics?

“You are right [laughs], before I came to Parliament I worked as a research and development engineer in the semiconductor industry, dealing with plasma processes. But of course that was almost 20 years ago and now my job is politics. Of course it’s like a romantic dream to deal with plasma physics.”

Then do you think it might happen someday, that you’ll get involved in plasma physics again?

“We will see, never say never, not only in politics but also in plasma physics.”